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How to Use Permanent Marker on Fabric for Colorful Creations

We have explored adding color to line embroidery with crayons and pencils, so why not use permanent marker on fabric? Markers are easy to find, inexpensive, and, with the right combination, add a watercolor effect to embroidery. This is a project for artists of all ages!  

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How to use permanent marker on fabric

sunflowerPhotos via Debbie Henry

Step 1: Start with an open linework design

Designs that stitch as outlines, like redwork, or those with large, open areas are ideal for coloring. Stitch on a medium- to heavy-weight cotton, linen or muslin. 

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Step 2: Gather supplies

Make sure permanent markers have fine points. Other supplies include rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs.

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Step 3: Draw highlight areas

Put protective covering on your work surface. Draw highlight areas with a marker. For this design, I placed small loops well inside the petals. Whatever highlights you draw, make them small and well away from the stitch lines because the color will spread. 

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Step 4: Paint the highlights

Start by dipping cotton swabs in alcohol and run them along the highlight areas. As you do, the marker ink will bleed into the fabric. As it does, it takes on a watercolor appearance.

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Step 5: Add color if desired

Continue adding rubbing alcohol until you are happy with how it looks. Adding alcohol ahead of the highlight pulls the color in that direction. If you want more color, carefully touch the area with the tip of a marker and continue adding rubbing alcohol until the color is right. Be careful, though. Colors will appear darker when wet, so let it dry overnight. You can always add more color later if you like.

Step 6: Heat set with an iron

This technique works especially well with decorative embroidery but can also be used on clothing. Washing on the gentle cycle and line drying will add longevity to wash and wear embroidery.

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Rose Paul

Is the ink permanent on clothing? I want to make personalized shirts for myself and my son for when we meet my husband who is returning from overseas. But I don’t want the colors or the inks to run or get on our skin.
Thank you for the information that you provided us here.

Debbie Henry

Rose, it should be permanent when heat set with an iron. Also turn shirts inside-out when washing and treat as you would a delicate item. I would use a permanent marker name brand, like Sharpie or one exclusively for fabrics.

May Beasley

This is a really great tip and one I wouldn’t have otherwise thought possible!

Just a quick question: I have an item of clothing for a 1/6 scale doll/figure that I am trying to customize without having to remake entirely. It’s not a very big piece of fabric, so I was wondering if it would be possible to use the sharpie (and rubbing alcohol) technique to ‘dye’ the entire piece of doll clothing? Even if it left a slight watercolour effect, I feel it would still be preferable to having to purchase actual dyes just for this one small piece of fabric.

And finally, if I were to heat-set it with an iron afterward, would it prevent the colours from running and staining the actual doll?

Thank you so much in advance for your time!

Debbie Henry

I would bet it would work, May, but I would test it on some fabric like you intend to use. Heat set it and then wet it or wash to see if colored fabric bleeds onto the doll fabric.


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