Fabric marbling is the art of floating paints on top of a thick solution called size, manipulating the paints into patterns, then transferring the pattern to an object by gently placing the object on top of the solution. Marbling lets you make your one-of-a-kind quilting or other fabric item.
Marbling can be achieved in many ways, and by using water or other mediums, even shaving foam, as a base for transferring paints onto objects. This tutorial focuses on marbling fabrics with acrylic paints. Read the entire tutorial before you buy supplies or begin marbling. Don't be discouraged by the number of supplies needed for marbling. You can probably repurpose many tools and supplies from items you already own.
Carrageenan and Methocel are two different products used to make marbling size. They are non-toxic and often used as thickening agents in the food and pharmaceutical industries.
Carrageenan is a seaweed extract and is the traditional marbling size. Some people who practice marbling prefer carrageenan over Methocel, especially those who work with watercolor paints on paper. They feel it offers better control and results in more precise patterning.
Methocel is less expensive and has a longer storage life than carrageenan, which spoils quickly in hot or humid conditions. Carrageenan also tends to become contaminated by acrylic paints after several prints of fabric. Try both types of sizes to see which you prefer.
The fabrics must be treated with a mordant, a substance that helps the paints adhere to fibers. Without a mordant, most paint would wash off. You'll use alum as a marbling mordant.
There are many types of acrylic fabric paints. Golden Fluid Acrylics are one good choice; the colors float effortlessly and produce vivid colors without leaving a heavy film on the fabric. The paints are available from many retailers, local and online.
You can construct simple marbling combs and rakes by inserting nails or heavy T-pins through strips of wood. Professional marbling combs are also available.
The tray must be long and wide enough to hold a stretched piece of fabric. A plastic storage box, available at most discount stores, makes a handy inexpensive starter tray. Find one that holds at least a fat quarter of fabric, which measures about 18 x 22 inches.
You might prefer to construct a wooden tray and seal it with polyurethane to make it waterproof. Dick Blick offers an inexpensive 2-inch deep professional marbling tray. Talas also sells a professional marbling tray.
Marbling Rakes and Combs
Marbling combs and rakes serve the same purpose—you drag them through the floating paints to create patterns. A rake generally has widely spaced teeth. A comb has teeth spaced closer together. Try Talas for professional rakes and marbling trays in sizes to match. For freehand marbling, knitting needles and similar sticks make excellent freehand tools. But if you want to make a rake and starter comb, instructions are included in this tutorial.
If you are using Methocel as your sizing, you will need non-sudsy ammonia. Shake the bottle. If you see suds, don't buy it. Check the label to be sure the ammonia does not contain a surfactant.
Equipment / Tools
- Marbling tray long enough to hold stretched fabric
- 1/2-inch round wooden dowels for helping hands toolstools
- T-pins or sturdy straight pins for helping hands tool
- Long nails for making marbling rakes and combs
- Drill or glue gun
- Wire whisk for mixing sizing
- Plastic squeeze bottles like the ones used for hair dye; wide opening is best
- 3 to 4 buckets like those used at grocery deli department or from cat litter
- Iron and temporary board with washable or disposable cover
- Cotton fabric to be marbled
- Alum (mordant)
- Acrylic paints
- Sizing (carrageenan or Methocel)
- Ammonia (non-sudsy), if using Methocel
- Paper towels
- Electrical tape
- Distilled water
- Old newspapers
- Scraps of wood the width and length of your marbling tray for marbling rakes and combs
- Disposable gloves
Make Marbling Combs and Rakes
Rakes are used to make initial patterns with the paints.
- Cut a 1/2 x 2-inch wood strip slightly shorter than the longest side of your tray.
- Draw a lengthwise line down the center of the strip.
- Drill or punch small holes at 2-inch intervals down the line.
- Insert a long, thin nail through each hole.
- If nails are loose, secure them with a glue gun or waterproof glue.
Combs are used to make more advanced patterns with paints. Paints can be combed in both directions, but start with a comb that fits the short width of your tray.
- Cut wood to match the length of the tray's short side and draw a lengthwise line.
- Starting inward about 1/2 inch, mark 1/4-inch intervals along the line, and drill or punch holes.
- Insert sturdy T-head straight pins into the wood at each mark.
Teeth should fit fairly snugly into the width of your tray. Paints and size can distort patterns when they flow around the edges of too-short combs.
If you prefer, use a glue gun to glue T-pins along the marked lines of a yardstick. Glue on a second strip to cover the pin tops.
Make a Helping Hands Tool
To marble, the fabric is held on four corners and dropped onto the paint's center first—a step that's difficult to accomplish without four hands. If you're working alone, construct a set of helping hands to lower the fabric onto the size.
- Cut two dowel pins slightly shorter than the width of the fabric you plan to marble. Use electrical tape to secure a sturdy straight pin at the end of each dowel.
- Position pins with sharp tips extending just past the end of each dowel so that you can easily pierce them and attach the corners of the fabric.
Once the fabric is attached, you can hold on to the dowels instead of the fabric edges, and lower the fabric onto the size in one fluid motion.
Make Marbling Size
This recipe makes 1 gallon of size. Increase ingredients proportionally to make larger quantities. The example uses Methocel for the size, but you can follow the same instructions for carrageenan size:
- Place a gallon of water in a bucket and use a wire whisk to stir in 3 tablespoons of Methocel.
- The mixture becomes cloudy but does not thicken. The cloudiness is caused by tiny particles of Methocel suspended in the water. If you stop stirring and allow the size to sit, the Methocel will eventually drift to the bottom of your container.
- You must now make the mixture alkaline to dissolve the Methocel. While stirring, add 1 teaspoon of clear, non-sudsy ammonia. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens. If it doesn't thicken after a few minutes, add 1/2 teaspoon of ammonia and stir again.
- Cover the bucket with newspapers and allow the size to sit for approximately 10 minutes. Stir.
- Neutralize the alkalinity created by the ammonia by adding white vinegar to the size—add the same amount of vinegar as ammonia. Stir.
- Pour size into a tray, cover and allow to cure for 12 to 24 hours. Air bubbles will disappear.
If you stir Methocel into alkaline water, it will begin to clump together. If that happens, you must make a slight change to the standard directions. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of white vinegar to each gallon of water before you add the Methocel, then proceed as instructed.
Treat Fabric with Mordant
Alum is corrosive and will destroy cloth if not washed out soon. Plan to marble fabric as quickly as possible after treatment. Wear disposable gloves while treating and marbling the fabric.
- Mix 3 tablespoons of alum per quart of hot water in one of the buckets. Make enough solution to cover your fabrics.
- Stir thoroughly to dissolve the crystals. Allow the solution to cool.
- Add the fabric to the bucket. Swish fabric to make sure the material is saturated. Soak for up to 20 minutes.
- Still wearing gloves, wring fabric to remove as much alum as possible. Dry the fabric.
- Iron the fabric; cut it to the correct size for your marbling tray.
You'll rinse fabrics and heat-set paints as you work, but the fabric will still contain traces of alum until washed. If you heat-set the paints on your ironing board, some of the alum will transfer to the cover and eventually destroy it. And traces of alum could be transferred to other fabrics ironed on the same board.
Set up a temporary ironing board or protect the regular board cover. Washable hospital pads with absorbent tops and waterproof bottoms work nicely—no moisture passes through, and you can throw the pad into the washing machine after each session.
Add the Paint
Place a trash bucket and few buckets of water under your work area.
- Clean the size. Drag a piece of newspaper across the size to remove dust and "skin" that's formed on its surface. Crush bubbles with crumpled newspaper, or touch them with a small dry object, such as the head of a pin.
- Pour a little paint in a squeeze bottle and add distilled water to thin it to the consistency of light cream. Place a drop of the paint onto the surface of the size. It should spread into a circle. If paint sinks, add a little more water and re-test. Prepare each color in the same way. Opaque paints can be a bit temperamental, sometimes not spreading as readily as other paints. Some paints need more dilution than others, but adding too much water weakens the color. Dharma carries a dispersant that helps you float problem paints.
- Skim the size again after testing paints.
- If you're working alone, attach dowels to both ends of a piece of fabric and set it aside in a dry spot, away from water droplets that will dilute the alum.
- Begin dropping paint on the size, applying colors randomly or in rows across your tray. Colors placed on the size first will intensify as new colors are placed on top of them. The last color applied will be the most predominant in your print.
Place contrasting colors next to each other, as you do when making a quilt. Unless they are combed excessively, paints will not blend to form new colors.
Create a Pattern
Following the diagram, use the rake to make a Gitgel pattern.
- Place the rake in the size at the top of the tray and pull it toward you. Some of the teeth will extend past one side of the tray.
- Push the rake in the opposite direction, from bottom to top, placing the teeth midway between the patterns created on its first pass through the size.
- Place the rake in the size along the right side of the tray and move it to the left side of the tray.
- Make a left to right pass, positioning teeth midway between the patterns created by the right to left pass.
Gitgel can be used as-is or as the starting point for many traditional marbling designs.
Print the Fabric
Print your fabric with the Gitgel pattern, or go to the next step to use the nonpareil pattern instead. Have two buckets filled with water ready for rinsing your fabric.
- Grab the material attached to the dowels and center it over the tray. Let the center of the fabric droop downwards. Gently drop the center first, then continue dropping the sides. Don't hesitate—make the drop in a single fluid motion. It takes a little practice.
- Leave the fabric in the size, but go ahead and remove the dowels. Rinse them off, dry them, and set aside to dry a little more so they'll be ready for the next print.
- Remove the fabric by dragging it over the edge of the tray to scrape off excess size. Take a quick look and drop it into a bucket of clean water.
- Swish the fabric around in the water and remove it from the bucket. It's okay to wring the cloth gently to remove excess water.
- Take a look at your print. Is the contrast good? Do you like the color combinations? Every print you make helps you see ways to improve the next.
- Put the fabric in a second water bath and hang it to dry while you print another. To blot excess paint from the size, place a sheet of newspaper on top or skim it as before.
Don't worry about paint that sinks below the surface of your size. Even though the buildup eventually makes it difficult to see new colors, it will not interfere with the next color scheme or design. Eliminate air bubbles as needed.
Make the Nonpareil Pattern
Drop your paints on the size and use the rake to create the Gitgel pattern.
- Place the 1/4-inch comb at the top of the tray and pull it down through the size.
Rinse as before and dry.
Set the Paints
Let the fabric air dry.
- Heat set the paints by ironing the back of each piece of fabric.
- Swish the fabrics in a soapy solution and rinse to make sure all alum is removed.
- Air-dry again.
The marbled fabric can now be treated as you would other quilting fabrics, but avoid heavy detergents that could fade the paints.
Common Problems and Fixes
Contamination is a typical result of floating paints on the marbling size; a portion of the paint from each print sinks and becomes mixed in the solution, eventually creating problems with your patterning:
- Patterns won't comb smoothly
- Paints "tear," creating open circles
Minimize contamination by cleaning the size after each print, and making sure your paints are mixed to the proper consistency so they won't sink.
Other common problems and causes:
- Paint didn't stick to the fabric Not enough or too much alum.
- Marbled fabric has a large, colorless blotch An air bubble was trapped between the paint and fabric when it was lowered.
- Marbled fabric has a thin colorless line A string was probably stuck to the fabric, preventing paint contact.
- Marbled fabric has a subtle break in the pattern A hesitation line caused by a lack of fluidity in lowering fabric.
- Marbled patterns have ragged edges Size wasn't cured long enough or is too old.
- Specks on marbled fabric where the paint didn't stick Dust on top of the size.
Marbling is a very individual art. The thickness of size, types of paint, patterns, tools, and colors are all variable ingredients. The only way to discover what works best for you is to experiment.
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