Decorative Techniques Used in Textiles

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever worn a shirt with colorful designs sewn or printed on it? How were those designs put on the fabric? In this lesson, explore some decorative techniques used on textiles.

Many People Decorate Textiles

Have you ever worn a tie-dyed T-shirt or painted on a pair of jeans? These are both examples of decorated textiles.

We use textiles for many reasons, including for clothing and in our homes. They surround us and over time people have developed many ways to decorate them. Decorative techniques used in textiles can produce a wide variety of results and interesting appearances. Some methods are as simple as taking a paintbrush and painting on a textile. Other methods are more complicated. Let's look at some of them.

Decoration Methods: Printing and Dyeing

In addition to painting on textiles, you can decorate them by printing on them using dyes and inks. A dye is different than paint because, when used, it causes a chemical reaction that bonds it to the textile fibers. Ink is a dye with a substance like water or alcohol added to make it thinner. Dyes and inks soak into textiles. They're more permanent than paint, which tends to be a surface layer.

Block printing is an ancient technique that uses blocks with patterns carved on them. The blocks can be made of wood, gourds, or another material. The pattern side of the block is dipped in ink or dye and pressed onto the fabric, with each repeat of the design done by hand. As you can imagine, it takes a long time to block print a whole textile.

Woman block printing a textile
Woman block printing a textile

In resist printing, areas of a textile are treated with a resist, a substance like wax that repels dye. Fabrics can also be tied with substances like rubber bands that resist dye. Then the fabric is dyed. When the dyeing process is complete, the resist is removed. The finished textile has patterns on it where the resist was applied or tied. Technique like batik and tie-dyeing are examples of resist printing.

A much newer method of decorating textiles is digital printing. It uses a large printer with inkjet technology (yes, just like your home computer printer) to apply thousands of tiny drops according to a pattern. This method is very environmentally friendly because it tends to use less dye than traditional methods.

Decoration Methods: Sewing

Some textile decoration methods are done with needle and thread. Appliqué is a method where shapes are cut from fabric and sewn by hand or by machine onto a background to create an image. Patchwork (sometimes also called piecework) is when small pieces of fabric of many sizes and colors are sewn together to create a whole. Patchwork is different than appliqué because it doesn't involve sewing pieces onto a background. Both methods have been used for a long time and are good ways to use up excess scraps of fabric.

Example of patchwork used to make a quilt
Example of patchwork

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