At John C Campbell Folk School, and Thank You

 

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Once I start talking about my time at John C Campbell Folk School, I usually can’t stop. So much happened in the three weeks I was there that one story just leads to another … in case that happens in writing too, I want to begin with a heart-felt thank you to all of you reading this. This blog may not have thousands of followers or get major media attention, but it stands out here on the big ol’ web as a picture of who I am, what I’m doing and sharing, and where I’d like to go. The fact that it exists has helped make several opportunities possible lately, including this one. The ties between this space and the real world are many and interwoven. So, thank you all for being part of this piece of my life, which has contributed much to the person I’m becoming.

 

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A heart-felt paragraph is actually a good introduction to this story, since one of the biggest things that stands out about JCCFS is just how many people I met there who were speaking and acting from the heart. My wonderful new friend Becky (who got recruited to be my assistant in the second felting class) told me about another student who had said, “I always knew I marched to the beat of a different drummer, but at the Folk School I met the rest of the band.” I feel more than a little of that myself. Somewhere towards the end of the first week I started to realize that whoever I was standing next to while waiting to go into the dining hall, though they may look like a mild-mannered Southerner somewhere around retirement age, was in fact very likely to be a member of my own quirky maker tribe! And that if I started talking to them, it was also likely that I would learn something really interesting and/or get a new idea. It was amazing. It also made me wonder if part of the reason I’m usually shy with strangers is that I’m convinced they won’t understand me, and if I’m not giving the strangers in other places enough credit. In other places though, it is harder to start conversations with, “Oh, you’re taking blacksmithing, very cool! What are you making this week?”

 

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Part of the view walking from my temporary home to breakfast. The garden is in the left background, hay right background.

 

The physical Folk School is a collection of a couple dozen buildings for classes, housing, and community areas. Some are new, and some are gently worn with the passing of many feet and hands. The campus is out of the way enough to feel like its own little world, surrounded by various hills (which people from lower elevations might call mountains), fields complete with picturesque rolled hay, and lots of greenery and flowers towards the end of summer. There was fog most mornings (which being from a dry place I find exotic and beautiful). The chorus of night insects and frogs stood out to me enough that I made a little recording to remember it. On a few weekend nights you can also hear the distinctly incongruous sounds of a nearby car racing track.

Each day is scheduled with class time, meals, and optional extra activities in the afternoons and evenings. Music and dance are a big part of things; there are songs before breakfast (optional of course), contra dances every Tuesday night (so much fun) and concerts on many weekends. And a dozen or more classes in different craft subjects going on all at once! It really is a lot like my family craft retreat every single week—that much energy, that much community, that much learning, that much working intensely—except that during mealtimes and free times you also see a bunch of other people who are having a similar experience in another studio nearby.

 

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The door through the gazebo on the left goes to the Wet Room, home of felting, dyeing, and other great classes, one of my new favorite places. The door on the right goes to the cooking studio.

 

I taught three classes; two on felting (one was a week long and one was a quick weekend format), and a week on screen printing with natural dye. Anyone who has seen me in person (or even on my Instagram) in the last two years or so knows that I’ve been fairly obsessed with natural dye and printing in particular. So much prep work went into that class especially, because it’s the one that’s the newest to me, and also because of the nature of the subject. What makes working with natural dyes so compelling is the infinite possibilities, the way that every single variable seems to affect the color you get … but that also makes it nearly impossible to feel prepared for class! Nevertheless, we all learned a lot and my hope was that the students would all leave with a solid foundation for their own experimenting. I had had some really lovely students in all three classes, people who were gracious, and helpful to each other, and full of new ideas. I was really impressed with the curiosity and creativity of the students who are drawn to JCCFS. You would not believe how many unique felted objects can materialize (and how much wool can disappear) even in a weekend class. In the week-long felting class we formed such a little community that some of us (including me) cried when it was time to say goodbye.

 

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Felting in the Wet Room.

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Printing in the Quilting Studio.

 

After the classes I taught were finished, I stayed a third week as a student (one of the benefits of teaching at the Folk School is that you get instructor credits which allow you to take a class more or less for free). I’m so glad I did, it was wonderful to experience the place from a more relaxed perspective, to have a week with more time for walking, extra activities, and hanging out with Julie, one of the student hosts who took my first felting class and became a fast friend. I took a class called Sheep to Shawl with Martha Owen, who is the resident artist in charge of felting, spinning, dyeing, etc. (and the person who hired me to come teach felting). We washed and dyed fleece in some gorgeous natural colors (without felting it, which I always found intimidating before), we learned to hand card, and we practiced spinning different styles and preparations. I also got to try out a great wheel, and even spinning the fuzz right off of an angora bunny! Martha is a generous teacher who shared a lot of her life with us, taking us to visit her sheep and her home. She knows/knew many people in the fiber world who are legends to me (like Norman Kennedy and Jim Liles), and her class is full of stories. The whole school actually is full of stories, and connections being made.

 

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Photo of me at great wheel via the JCCFS Facebook page.

 

When I got home I knew I still had some internal processing to do, continuing to turn over everything from a very full three weeks until it started to make sense with the rest of my life. Still, I kept thinking that it was taking me quite a while to get back to feeling “normal” … until I realized that is what it feels like when you’ve left a part of your heart behind. I grew a lot at the Folk School. I left as a better teacher, and as a person more able to be calm and trust that things will work out. I met and bonded with so many wonderful people. I’m surrounded by little reminders of them now; handmade things people generously gave me, and other beautiful things that I bought to bring home, and lovely wool from Martha’s class which I am trying to comb a little bit of each day. At least once a week, and usually more, I get a postcard or an email from one of my new buddies. Even if I wanted to pretend to be the same person I was before I left it would be impossible. Whether or not this turns out to be a “big break” that leads to other things for me, I’m profoundly grateful to have been able to go, to have learned all that I did and made all of these connections, to have been somewhere where I felt so at home that I understand what it’s like to fall in love with a community. As my excellent assistant for the printing class, Sally, says, “The Folk School is the easiest place in the world to practice gratitude.” I will endeavor to practice at home too.

 

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Natural Dye Printed Fabric

 

This is the fabric I made for my one Year, one Outfit project.  Well, I didn’t make it as in weave it, it was manufactured in Texas (from US grown organic cotton, as per my pledge for the project) and I bought it through Organic Cotton Plus online (it’s this one).  But I printed it myself, using natural dyes.

 

natural dye print fabric

 

Here’s what happened: I knew that coloring/printing fabric would be a major component of this project for me.  I do love the native colors that come from color-grown cottons and the fleece of colored sheep, but that’s not all I want to wear.  Most people feel the same, and have for thousands of years.  So I thought that getting color & design onto ethical, locally-sourced fabrics (which are often available in very limited colors) would be a good thing to tackle.

I had already promised to teach screen printing with dye (rather than with fabric paints designed for printing, which are fun too, but leave a bit of stiffness on the fabric) at our annual family craft retreat.  The time for the retreat was getting closer as I decided to join up with #1year1outfit.  At first I thought I would just take this fabric and print on it with the fiber reactive dyes that most crafters use for cotton.  These dyes may not be the best thing for the environment, but I would apply them myself, in extremely limited quantities, and do the cleanup responsibly.  I was sort of wrestling with these ideas, and reading Printing on Fabric by Jen Swearington.  This is an excellent book, I learned a lot from it.  And I appreciate, among other things, that she’s realistic about safety.  I was reading the part about steam-setting fabric you’ve printed with dye, in which she recommends wearing a respirator and/or having good ventilation … for whatever reason that was my “I’m done” moment.  I don’t need to be using toxic stuff, and I don’t want to be exposing myself, or my family (some of whom are small kiddos) to it.

 

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So what next?  I tried looking for less-toxic dyes, and I found some cotton clothing and fabrics dyed with metal-free or low-impact dyes, but I couldn’t find any of the dyes themselves available to the average person.  (Unlike if you want to dye protein fibers like wool, then you can buy Greener Shades dyes.)

That pretty much left natural dyes.  I love their colors, but they have a reputation of being less easy to use on cellulose fibers like cotton.  From the bits and pieces I read (and the fact that there were printed fabrics long before there were synthetic dyes) I knew it could be done, I just didn’t yet know how to put it all together.

As much as I value balance in life, sometimes it just feels so good to throw my whole self and all the energy I can muster at a single project.  With the retreat coming up fast, that’s what I did; reading everything I could find about using natural dyes on cotton, printing with dye, and the very little out there about putting the two together, and experimenting all the time on my own.  By the time the retreat came, I felt confident enough to share what I’d learned so far, and continue learning along with everybody else.  At the end of it, I took over an entire now-vacant worktable, and printed my fabric in two sections (before collapsing from whatever virus got a bunch of us that week).

A few details:

  • The dyes were: cochineal, osage orange, madder, and black tea (and combinations of those).
  • We thickened them into a paste using sodium alginate.
  • We scoured the fabric (using soda ash and textile detergent), then mordanted it with aluminum acetate to bond with the dye.
  • We applied the dye using small printing screens made from embroidery hoops.  For my designs, each motif had its own hoop for each color (not the most efficient way to do it, but very flexible design-wise).
  • I wanted a hand-printed look, so I came up with a vague plan, then eyeballed the placement of the first motifs, and made little registration marks to line up the hoops for subsequent colors.
  • After drying/curing, we steamed the fabric to heat-set the colors, then washed to remove the thickener.  The dye remains, and the fabric has the same hand it did before printing.

If you want to get more technical than that, email me! I have so many notes …

 

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Somewhat needless to say, I’m pretty stoked with how this came out.  And I’m looking forward to seeing how the colors wear, and doing more experiments with natural dyes!

A few more resources if you’d like to experiment too:

  • The Modern Natural Dyer came out after I made this project, but it has good basic natural dye info (and totally gorgeous photography).
  • This PDF from Maiwa is also a good overview, I used it heavily as a reference while I was figuring out what to do.
  • This online article is pretty technical, but it gave me a lot of confidence that natural dyes and cotton can play well together.  It also helped that I think I’d be happy to use only the color palette in that first photo forever …
  • The book Printing on Fabric, which I mentioned above, is not about natural dye but covers a bunch of other useful stuff, like how to make designs for screen printing, registering multi-colored and repeating patterns, and steam-setting fabric.

Stay tuned to see what I made from the fabric!

 

Just Photos—Spring in Texas

 

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My dad’s mom and her sisters grew up in Texas.  I remember a few bluebonnet-themed items decorating her house in Abuquerque, but when I was a kid I’d never been to Texas in spring, and I didn’t really get it (although I totally love the lupines that grow around Flagstaff.  Coincidence?).   Many of my second cousins and cousins once-removed still live here, and most, if not all of them, are willing to host us when we come through, which is truly a blessing of Texas-sized proportions (I’m joking about it, but I’m also truly and eternally grateful).

This year, we are here a few weeks earlier than in the past, and maybe it’s the time and exact place, or this may a good year for them, but the bluebonnets are out of control, and the paintbrushes seem epic.  Driving between Houston and Austin, the roadsides were positively covered with rolling blankets of flowers.  I mean, in profusion, like heaping mounds of cream-topped blueberries in the median and on the hills.  The only problem was finding a place to stop where we wouldn’t be flattened by oncoming traffic.  Finally I spotted a road that dead-ended beside the highway.  We got off and parked there.  Bluebonnets smell really good, too.  And there were a LOT more of them at McKinney Falls State Park outside Austin, where we spent the night.

I didn’t realize until last year in the Smokies how much we kind of miss out on spring in Flagstaff.  I’m not saying anything against my home town, and usually, I’ll take a few daffodils and some warmer weather and be perfectly happy.  No need to do so in central Texas though, these guys have the bustin’-out-all-over, leafing trees in all shades of green, aforementioned brimming-over wildflowers kind of spring, which is exotic enough to me to make me want to pull over and take photos.

Happy spring ya’ll!

 

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wildflowers texas spring 2014 9Bryan took this one

 

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A Peak into Our Creative Retreat of 2013

 

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As most of you probably already know, every year a group of my family (and friends who are like family) get together for a week of creating and sharing.  Different people teach different skills and projects.  Pretty much anything that could fall under the category “fine craft” is fair game, and there’s usually something more “art” thrown in as well.  My grandmother started this idea, and at this point it’s a huge group effort.  My job is to make up the schedule, using the topics everyone votes on as favorites, communicate with the participants before the workshop week, and to try and keep things running smoothly throughout the week.  (Participants, if you are reading this, I’ll get that survey for next years’ classes done, um, soon . . . )

Every year, I leave wishing that I could live in that atmosphere of communal creative energy forever . . . and then I go home and sleep like I have rarely slept before!

 

miette sideThis year, there was actually quite a lot of sewing.  I kind of shoehorned in some garment/project sewing time, I was really excited about sharing sewing with some real-life students again after spending months working on Hello Sewing Machine.  One of my students went to town making drawstring bags, and three made Miette skirts!  I was SO impressed with how hard they worked and how beautifully the finished projects came out.  This is my skirt, which I made as a (definitely wearable) test, to try the pattern and see how the alterations I was thinking of would come out.

 

We also sewed books!  My aunt, who has been making variations of these book binding techniques for quite a while, walked us through the whole process—from cutting board and tearing paper to sewing the whole thing together.  It was horizon-opening for me to take needle and thread to paper—actually, I’m trying to keep that on the back burner of my brain, otherwise I could easily be swamped by more ideas for new things to make than I can handle.

 

sewing wave book

 

If you are interested in trying bookmaking for yourself, our teacher’s favorite resource is the book Books Without Paste or Glue by Keith A Smith.  Quite coincidentally, I came home to find there’s also an article in the latest Threads magazine (September 2013) with a rundown of very similar process to the one we used.

 

wave book two views

 

Probably my favorite thing I made all week (ok, tied with a mosaic sea turtle that I helped to make) is this travel book.  I’m soo excited about having this!  I’ve been thinking about it ever since my aunt showed me the ones she made in a workshop with Gail Rieke (check out her site to see some crazy-cool collage and amazing variations on journals).  I totally love it when “real artists” make practical things as well.

 

travel book

 

Sewing meets books, fabric meets glue, my ideas/techniques/background/expertise meet yours—that’s what really makes the magic of this week.  If you have the chance to get together with other creative types, even for just an afternoon some time, I totally encourage you to go for it!

 

Just a Wreath

 

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I spent this morning making wreaths with my crafting buddies at my friend Elena’s house.  She’s been making them for 20 years, so she gave us expert advice, and it was super fun.  Her whole living room floor was covered with a big blue tarp, and on top of it, buckets and boxes stuffed full of all kinds of wonderful greenery, dried pods, and beautiful berries, chiles . . . with that much natural beauty it would be tough to make anything that didn’t look good.  I made this one with lots of stuff from right around here.  I wish you could smell it!  Piñon cones and juniper are two of my favorite smells in the whole wild world.  I guess we all like smells that remind us of home.

 

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I hope you’re enjoying the season!

 

Heat Setting Fabric Ink, and “Green” Printing

Heat setting is the last step for a lot of fabric inks, including the ones I used for stamping (Speedball Fabric Screen Printing Ink).  The heat bonds the ink permanently to the fabric, so you can wash it and your design won’t come off.

So, how to do it.  The most foolproof method is what the manufacturer recommends: ironing.

After the fabric ink dries on the fabric, set a household iron at the highest dry heat (no steam) that will not scorch the fabric and with a cloth or paper between the iron and printed material, iron on each side for 3 – 5 minutes. This will make the ink withstand repeated washings.

from speedballart.com

 

The first time that I did screen printing and stamping, I decided to look for alternatives, since I wasn’t too excited about ironing each part of the skirt I had stamped as directed above.  I emailed the company to ask about other methods, and just how hot the ink needs to get.  I got a helpful answer back, including the answer, 350-375° F, and the suggestion that I could try heating my items in the oven.

 

My oven set method: Preheat your oven to 400 with an extra metal pan inside to pour water into.  Boil some water.  Fold your printed piece and wrap in scrap cloth or place inside an old T-shirt, so that any scorching or oven gunk goes on that and not your creation.  You can also put old fabric or paper between items if you are worried about transfer of ink.  Don’t make your fabric bundle so dense that it will take too long for heat to reach all of it.  Place your bundle on a cookie sheet.  When the oven gets up to temperature, turn it off.  Open the door and pour a cup or two of boiling water into the extra pan.  Quickly pop in your cookie sheet and shut the door again. Leave everything inside with the door shut for 10 minutes.  If you have an oven thermometer and a window in your oven, you should be able to check that the temperature stays above 350° for at least a few minutes.  Common sense note, this method will not work for synthetics (although I did a partly polyester apron and it seems fine) or anything that will melt at those temps. If you have a piece with meltable parts, like nylon bag handles, you will need to iron the design/printed part only.

 

I have had good success with this oven method, I did the skirt below this way, without a steam pan, and it has survived years of washing and wearing without any noticeable fading in the design whatsoever.  In fact, I remember that I washed it before reading the manufacturer recommendation that you wait a week before washing the first time, and as I said it still looks great!  Some other folks that I shared the oven method with (and even myself once, when I didn’t turn off the oven – not a good experiment) have had some problems with fabric scorching around the edges.  I came up with adding the steam pan, since fabric can usually take practically any heat without scorching as long as the heat is wet.  I heat set a big batch of dish towels this way with my friend Megan a couple years ago, I checked in with her and she said that those designs have held up to lots of use and washing as well.

 

 

A couple of things that didn’t work: as extra insurance against scorching I tried wetting the old towel that I wrapped my last piece in before putting it in the oven.  Everything smelled like warm steamy fabric, but I don’t think it got hot enough inside.  I have also heard that some people use a commercial dryer, so I snuck into the laundromat with a couple of samples from my latest stamping day with friends.  I put all these test pieces though the wash 6 times, as I was doing laundry between then and now, and hung them on the line to dry.  They all show significant fading and some of the motifs are totally gone.  So for now my best suggestions are the ironing and oven methods above, I will of course post an update if I come up with a new and better way!

 

 

One more thing I’d like to talk about, and this seems as good a place as any, eco-friendly printing!  Part of what I love about DIY is the ability to turn something you wouldn’t use into something you will, and save resources and cash.  I hate it when I realize that I’m wasting supplies, or sending lots of extra stuff to the landfill when I’m crafting.

My tips for “green” fabric stamping are: for clean up, you only need a cup’s worth of water and an old toothbrush, and a rag.  When your hands or tools get messy, rinse them in the water, then wipe them on the rag.  Heat set the rag when you’re done to use again (it looks cool).  Reuse paint mixing cups by pouring out excess paint (into the trash, or onto something else?) and letting them dry before putting them away.  I use one plastic spoon to scoop paint for each primary color, and one to mix each new color.  I let all the spoons dry at the end and save them for next time.  The foam brushes I rinse in the clean-up cup, then a final time in the sink, and again let dry.  If you use something that’s still useful with paint on it, like a mailing box, under your paint jars to protect the table, the total waste is down to a little unused paint!

Well, that’s about it for this project, please feel free to add comments if you try printing, how does it work for you?  I’d love to hear more ideas for heat setting as well!  Stay tuned for more DIY . . .

 

Stamping on Fabric – With Hand Carved Stamps and Household Objects

 

Ok, so now you have a hand carved stamp.  Or, maybe you don’t yet.  How about stamping with something you already have around your house?  And, what gets me excited about either of these options: being able to use them on fabric and clothing.

 

 

Before we discuss fabric ink and stamping, let me talk briefly about how I set up these buttons as stamps.  I got this idea from a really creative slideshow (on Martha Stewart of all places) which illustrates using all kinds of things you might find around your house to make some interesting designs.  My favorite was the buttons.  Some things already have an easy point to grab them by without getting your fingers covered in ink (like long pieces of wood, which you can see printed in the top photo), but buttons, not so much.  I cut some pieces from a leftover dowel and a small wood block, just using a clamp and a handsaw, they don’t have to be perfect in any way.  I did some quick online research and a couple of sources suggested using some kind of foam to back your stamps, to give them a little more give for even printing.  This seemed like a good idea since buttons are pretty much hard to begin with.  I used tiny pieces of dish packing type foam (we get it as packing material with some supplies) glued to the back of each button and its piece of wood with ATG, which once again I borrowed from the photo studio.  You can use any type of glue as long as it will hold the object and be water-resistant enough to be rinsed after you stamp.  And, you could use just about anything squishy for the foam, just cut the pieces smaller than your object, otherwise the edges of the foam may print.

 

 

Ok, time to stamp!  For ink, I used Speedball Water-Based Textile Screen Printing Ink.  I have gotten it from Blick, local art stores, and chain stores.  On the jar, it just says FABRIC Screen Printing Ink, but if you look on the side it also says water based and non-toxic.  I really like that you can thin this ink as much as you want with water, and you don’t have to worry about it if you get it on your hands, which is pretty much inevitable.  Plus it is permanent on fabric with heat setting.  It comes in lots of colors.  I like to mix my own using the three primary colors; the “process” cyan, magenta, and yellow will give truer mixing results than the regular red blue and yellow.  You’ll also need white and black.  A tip I learned from Lena Corwin’s book Printing by Hand (I highly recommend this book if you are interested in more about printing!) is that mixing in a little of both white and black will give you a more subtle color (less screaming bright) and I love subtle colors.

To set up for printing, you’ll need ink, a little water for mixing, and more for washing things off (a big cup full with an old toothbrush for scrubbing is perfect) and a wet rag to wipe your hands and tools on after you rinse.  It’s easier to print on thin fabrics if you put down an old towel underneath to give the surface a little more give, which can allow more details of the stamp to print.  Putting all this on a big table you can wipe off is ideal, and it’s nice to have something under the messy ink part to catch drips.  I used a box since I figured it would still be good for shipping with ink on it.  I used one spoon to get out each color, one to mix my color with, and a small foam brush to hold the ink for stamping.  I let the spoons dry when I’m done, and wash the foam brushes to save for the next time.

 

 

When mixing ink colors, start with as little ink as you can, you’ll add more as you decide what to add to get the color you’re looking for (a color wheel can help here), plus you’ll be adding water, and stamping doesn’t take very much ink in any case.  Keep in mind that the ink will dry slightly darker in color than it looks wet.

Having scrap fabric to test on is essential!  The closer the fabric is in type, weight and color to your intended project, the better you’ll be able to see how the stamps are coming out.  For this project, I just used a small section on the edge of my fabric for testing, changing the color or the dilution of the ink a little bit at a time and waiting a couple of minutes to see how the results looked as they dried.

I like the ink to be absorbed into the fabric so that it doesn’t leave a hard or crunchy surface, but looks more like a dye.  To get this effect, I add water until the ink slowly drips from the foam brush when I lift it up.  The consistency you want may vary with your fabric, again, testing is key!

 

 

Here is my best fabric stamping tip: squeeze the ink out of the foam brush until it’s not dripping, and only releases ink when you press on it, like a stamp pad.  Then, gently press your stamp or object against the sponge to get a coat of paint.  You can see which parts are going to print by where the ink is on the stamp or object.

 

 

Keep the foam brush in one hand, and bring your stamp back to it for a fresh coat each time you print it.  The sponge will hold enough ink for a bunch of stamps before it needs more from the cup.

I found that a light coating of ink, and a soft rolling motion against the fabric with each stamping helped the full possible detail of the buttons to print.

 

 

That’s about it!  I place my stamps pretty much randomly, alternating whichever ones I am working with until I get a design density that I like.  It helps to step back and take a look, especially if you are printing something big that you can’t work on all at once.

For troubleshooting, take a look at the very top photo (click to enlarge it).  If you have too much ink on the stamp or the ink is too watery, it will spread out all around your stamp and the detail of the design will be lost.  Clean the stamp off, squeeze more ink out of your sponge, press it gently on just the surface of the stamp and try again.  If it’s still too flowy, add more ink to your color to reduce the water content.  If you don’t have enough ink on the stamp, you’ll get a pale ghost of an image.  If the ink is thick, like it comes out of the jar, it will dry harder and raised on the surface of your fabric, which you may want, depending on your design. If your fabric is wrinkled, iron it before you start.  Soft wrinkles won’t get in the way too much, but if you stamp over a crease, you can see it when the crease opens up.

One last troubleshooting thing: some objects print better than others.  Some of the buttons I tried had details too fine to print, but this will depend a lot on what fabric and how much ink you use, so test it out!

 

 

Here’s my finished button printed fabric.  I think it may become a skirt.

 

 

Stamping is also awesome for reviving finished clothes or linens that are a little too plain.  I used some of my aunt Barb’s hand made stamps to decorate this previously just beige thrift store skirt.

 

 

While your stamped fabric is drying, it’s worthwhile to clean off your tools, since this ink can eventually clog your stamps if left to dry.  Using the old toothbrush and a little water from your clean-up cup works great.

Next time, I’ll post about heat setting the ink, lots of options for this important step that makes the finished product washable!  Plus, a little bit about “green” crafting and less waste from what we make.

In the meantime, have you tried something similar?  I’d love to know what you did and how it came out!