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The Best Fabric Paint for Your Interior Design Project

Whether you’re upcycling a yard sale find or updating custom drapes, discover the right fabric paint for your project (without fear of ruining it).

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If you’re reading this, chances are it’s because you’ve finally decided to give the painted fabric chair trend a go (or you want to learn more about it). Or maybe you’re here because your interiors need a vibrant color palette change, but you want to reduce furniture waste and upcycle the upholstery you have.

Whatever your reason for considering fabric paints for your interior design project, these tips are guaranteed to save you time, hassle, and a DIY fail. 

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Get To Know Your Different Fabrics

Not all of us have had the opportunity to choose the fabric in our home furnishings (we’re looking at you, vintage lovers!). If your furniture was inherited or bought so long ago you don’t remember the details, a good first step is to figure out whether you have a fabric made of plant, animal, or synthetic fibers. 

You may be able to tell if it is a densely-woven cotton or nubby wool blend by touch, but if you can’t, see if you can claim a small swatch of it for a few simple tests. Samples will help you discover its fiber content safely and choose the right paint. 

How Has the Fabric Aged?

If you’re trying to determine your fabric type and aren’t sure, get some clues by how it has handled aging. 

For example, synthetic fibers, like vinyl, often become oily or sticky over time. They also might lose their elasticity. “Oily” and “sticky” might not sound pleasant, but they do hold up better against insect infestations than cashmere tends to.

Fabrics like wool, furs, silk, or cashmere, are prone to fabric pest infestations over time. Insects like furniture carpet beetles can damage upholstered pieces in mere weeks; imagine how much havoc they would wreck over a few years. 

Wash and Dry It

Before you get started on painting, you’ll have to clean your fabric. Give your swatch a good machine washing and drying, noting how it handles the process — you might uncover the missing piece of the above puzzle.

  • Fibers like cotton, polyester, nylon, and Spandex can usually be machine washed and dried with minimal damage, while rayon and linen tend to shrink when laundered.
  • Silk can pucker as individual fibers respond differently to washing and can rarely withstand drying.
  • Fabric with high wool or cashmere content both shrink when exposed to agitation or heat. 

If you still can’t pinpoint what type of fabric you have, you should at least be getting a clearer picture of what type of fabric it is not. Every bit of information helps in choosing the right paint and whether or not it can be heat set once painted.

Do a Burn Test … Very, Very Carefully

Another quick technique to see if you are dealing with natural or synthetic fibers is to perform a burn test. Very slowly, expose a small clipping of your fabric to the flame of a lighter and pay attention to the color of the flame, the way it burns, its ashes, and any smell it gives off. At risk of sounding like a broken record here: be very careful during this step!

  • Plant-based fibers like cotton, bamboo, rayon, and linen burn quickly with a bright yellow flame. They will smell of burning paper or leaves — a very natural scent.
  • Animal fibers don’t ignite as easily but have a natural smell, like burning hair. Plant-based and animal fibers leave ash that will flake apart in your hands.
  • Synthetics, on the other hand, give off a sweet, chemical odor and melt into hard plastic lumps. 

Pick Your Fabric Paint

Once you’ve determined your fabric type, it’s time to move onto selecting your paint. You may find that a little fabric paint goes a long way. If your project is not very big, try using a couple of sample bottles before investing in a large container. (You can always return unopened bottles.)

Another tip to ensure you won’t need as much for many coats of paint is to go darker with your paint than the color of your fabric. 

Densely woven, smooth cotton fibers are extremely easy to paint over. You can paint over other textured fabrics, but be aware that it may require more care and more coats of paint. 

Another consideration for larger projects or pieces with uneven surfaces, like a tufted piece of furniture, is to use a paint sprayer for even application rather than a brush. Any type of fabric paint can be mixed up in a sprayer for this application process.

Go All-Natural With Chalk Pain

Chalk paint is a favorite due to its all-natural ingredients, and it’s often used to give a rustic or shabby chic look to furniture. You can do this paint project indoors without fear of chemical fumes. Since it’s water-based, you can use water as a medium to thin it to the consistency indicated on the bottle for slowly building color onto your fabric.

Keep a spray bottle of water on hand to wet your fabric right before you apply the paint for easy spreading with a brush. If you get your water-to-paint ratio right, you may need fewer coats than you think. Let your chalk paint dry for an hour or two between coats. Once dried and sealed with a topcoat (like wax or lacquer), it should be very durable.

Use Acrylic Paint for Durability

Acrylic paint is composed of acrylic polymers that bond to the paint pigments. Once it dries, it forms a long-lasting bond with the fabric. It’s also a common choice because it is resistant to wear and tear and fading from sunlight.

You can buy your color premixed or choose classic base colors to blend and build for your own custom shade. Create a mood board to find your perfect palette in Spoak’s design suite.

Let Fabric Medium Make It Easy

If you’re looking for a gentle nudge of help, fabric medium will be your best friend. Fabric medium is an additive you mix with your paint to make it spread more easily. The easiest way to thin out your paint with this is to keep some in a spray bottle to spray your fabric as you brush on your paint. 

Fabric medium takes a non-fabric acrylic paint that you might already have on hand and turns it into a fabric paint without altering the original color pigments. Another plus: fabric mediums are heat resistant and can be machine washed.

Make Fine Details With Fabric Pens

When you want to paint fine details and patterns on fabric, it makes sense to use a fabric pen or marker rather than trying to work with a small brush.

Fabric markers don’t require any mixing and are ready to paint as soon as you open them. They are also formulated to be washable and heat resistant. Fabric-specific pens are the perfect way to add dots and dashes to an ottoman or hand-painted striping to refresh some old curtains

Seal It Up

There are several ways to seal or set your painted fabric. This will vary depending on the paint you chose, so make sure to check your paint instructions for the most accurate method. 

Generally, if you’re painting fabric that can be machine dried, and if your paint is machine-dryer-ready, the drying process should seal it. 

However, this isn’t as useful when painting upholstery still attached to the furniture. In that case, you can heat set an acrylic paint by setting it out in the sun for several hours or run a blow dryer over it for a few minutes. Many finishes, like chalk paint on fabric, perform best with a top coat of wax that softens the material while creating a protective bond. 

Go Totally DIY

Still intrigued by the TikTok painted chair tutorials? Go for it! It is a low-risk DIY project that will only set you back a few dollars for cheap paint while it could rescue an old chair that you might have discarded anyway. 

Try Latex Wall Paint

For this trend, you won’t be too worried about your fabric type; just look for densely woven smooth material, but otherwise, use what you’ve got. 

Try using leftover latex wall paint from another home improvement project. If you don’t have a color you like, get a sample bottle from the hardware store. While you’re there, pick up some fabric softener and a paintbrush.

Add a Little Fabric Softener

Experiment with the best ratio of paint to fabric softener for your material. Yes, that’s right, plain old fabric softener from the grocery store is a good fabric medium when using latex paint. Many find that a mix of ⅔ paint with ⅓ fabric softener is easy to brush on but still gives good coverage. If you are trying for a faux leather look, add an extra coat as shading in the areas where a leather chair would normally be darker (edges and creases).

Keep extra fabric softener in a spray bottle on hand to pre-moisten your fabric and make application easier. The softener is taking the place of the fabric medium we discussed earlier, with the added benefit of making the fabric feel soft and not stiff or scratchy.

Have Sandpaper or Wax On Hand

As with any other fabric paint, you need to decide if you want to wax your painted chair for a sealant or expose it to heat. Now is where setting your chair out on a very sunny day, or giving it a blowout with your hairdryer, comes in. 

Release Your Creativity 

Painting fabric, especially fabric you are breathing new life into with a furniture rehab project, is extremely satisfying. You get the joy of artistic experimentation and expression and are possibly saving your decor from the landfill. Not to mention, fabric painting is also a fun way to spend a weekend with friends.

Photo Credit: (Left) Apartment Therapy


How Cheap ‘Fast Furniture’ Could Soon Clog Landfills | The New York Times

FIBER WORLD: Sustainable Alternative Plant Fibers for Textiles | Textile World

How to Do a Fabric Burn Test to Identify Fibers | The Spruce Crafts

8 TikTok Trends That Will Shape DIY and Home Decor in 2023 | Architectural Digest

Fabric Pest Control | Clemson University Cooperative Extension

Carpet Beetle Management Guidelines | UC IPM

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Date Posted
April 23, 2023



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