Solar Printing - An Exploration Tutorial

For the recent Midwest Meetup, I wanted to do a few fun group crafts. I spent a long time brainstorming just what to do. It had to be simple enough that everyone would be able to jump in with ease, regardless of their preferred medium. It had to be something that everyone could make their own, that they could infuse with their own creativity. That people could do alone or in small groups, without much direction, in between snacking and visiting. But I also really wanted it to be something that people hadn’t tried before. So what did I settle on? Solar Printing!

We had a blast doing it, and the results were all unique. Want to try it? Let me share with you some of my experience exploring the medium over the last few weeks.

Start by gathering your materials. You’ll need:
-Jacquard SolarFast Dye (there are other brands available in Europe and Australia). I picked mine up from Dharma Trading Co, but it’s carried by lots of vendors and art supply stores like Dick Blick. It comes in 4oz & 8oz bottles. I bought 4 8-oz and 4 4-oz bottles.

-SolarFast Wash, a concentrated detergent which sets the solar dye. Your print isn’t complete until you use this wash, so it’s not optional! Also available in 4 or 8 oz bottles. I bought an 8 oz, and worried it wouldn’t be enough. Thankfully it was, and I even have a little left.

-Disposable cups

-Foam brushes

-Something to print on! A natural fiber fabric or sturdy paper like printmaking paper. I used Robert Kaufman Kona Quilting Cotton, that was prepared for dyeing from Joann’s. That means that the fabric is already ready to be dyed, and you don’t have to spend time washing out the sizing and other substances usually found in commercially available fabric. Because I’m always a bit of a skeptic, I still washed the fabric with some Synthrapol*, to be certain it would take the dye well.

-Synthrapol (Optional, but amazing stuff that I highly recommend. A small 16 oz bottle costs $5, and will last you through many projects, costumes, etc. You can use it to remove sizing in cloth, remove excess dye after dyeing, and to wash dyed items for an even color distribution. Goodbye dark spots on your dye projects! Learn more about it here.)

-Trays to lay your fabric or paper out on. I used baking sheets I keep around specifically for crafting that I got at Dollar Tree. They don’t seem to carry them anymore, but you can find similar inexpensive ones at Walmart. You can try using cardboard, though I don’t recommend it.

-Solid objects to create your print negatives. Whatever shapes you would like to see on your prints. We used laser cut chipboard shapes from Dollar Tree, puzzle pieces, flattened marbles, ferns and leaves, safety pins, lace, ric-rac, etc. If it casts a shadow, it will create a print.

-Wash tub to wash your prints.

-Dishwashing gloves. You need to wash your prints with the hottest water possible, so don’t skip the dish gloves, or you could seriously scald your hands.

Directions
-Start by really thinking about where you’d like to set up the staging area for your project, and where you’ll lay your trays in the sun. Remember that the dye for this is UV light sensitive, so as soon as you start applying the dye to the cloth or paper, it will begin developing if you are near a source of natural light. I started off my first few prints in my craft room (taking them out through a front door & storm door to the yard), but the huge window that is such a blessing most of the time, became a big problem on this project. The prints that were made in my studio were very soft, because the dye had already started exposing by the time I brought the prepped trays outside. Therefore there wasn’t as much contrast in my prints. Also the trays got jostled as I tried to open the front door and storm door one handed, resulting in “doubled” prints, where the object is blurred after having started to expose in one area, before settling in another area.

I quickly moved to my laundry room, which has no windows, but does have a long countertop to work on. Once I moved, I immediately had better results because I could take more time setting up my trays, without the dye developing at all. I could also take the trays straight from the laundry room, out through my garage to my driveway to develop. The trays didn’t get as jostled, and even if they did move a bit, it was before they were exposed to UV light.

-Now that you’ve figured out your work space, gather all your materials. You’ll want to cut or rip your cloth into pieces that will fit on your trays. I also recommend deciding what you would like to print, on what colors, ahead of time, especially if you are going to do more than one tray at a time. Just placing your objects, dye, cup, and brush out, beside each tray, will keep you from rushing as you set up several in a row, and will allow you to visualize what objects you’ve already used, and what you have left to work with.

-Shake your dye well, and pour some into a disposable cup. Using a foam brush, apply it to your first piece of fabric in a nice even coat. (For your first print, use just one color, till you get the hang of it.) If your only workspace has natural light, then work quickly, and try working from the center of your fabric, outwards, in an even manner.

Start placing your objects on top of the fabric or paper. I liked to do a dry run of this before using my dye, just to see how far apart my objects would need to be, and how they looked together. Often I would think I had plenty of an object, only to realize I was left with a lot of dead space, and needed more to get an even-feeling print. Again, if you have natural light, try placing your objects from the center, outwards. Here I started by placing the chipboard shells and animals.

Once I had them evenly distributed, I added in a mix of large and small flattened marbles, to create ‘bubbles’. Since the marbles are glass, they allow light through to develop the color print, but the edge where they were flattened leaves a semi-opaque ring.

Here I again started with chipboard shapes. Then a layer of larger buttons.

Once I was happy with it, I filled in the gaps with smaller buttons for a fuller print.

-Now it’s time to check your dye bottle. Each color has a specific amount of time it needs to go out into sunlight for. It will actually give you two times; one for full sun, and double that amount for partial sun.

-Bring your trays outside, and set a timer. If you watch for even a minute, you will see the color changes start right before your eyes. This is the tray as I placed it outside.

Here it is again, just a moment later, when I brought out the next tray. Look at the changes already happening!

-Keep an eye on your timer, and a few minutes before it goes off, set up your SolarFast wash. Pour a capful into a wash tub with the hottest water you can get from your tap. (If you need to do this in a washing machine, or even just a larger bucket, you will need more Wash per round. Check the Jacquard SolarFast Instructions for more details.)

Here’s the tray with the bugs and buttons from above, ready to come in.

-Go get your tray, and try to keep it steady as you bring it inside, so you don’t get blurred images. Remove your print objects and place your fabric, or paper, into the wash tub. (YES, if you print onto paper, you will need to wash your prints to set them! More on this below.) Don’t forget to use the dishwashing gloves here! You need to wash the prints in the hottest water you can, so don’t scald yourself! Now gently agitate the print in the water for a full 10 minutes.

Everyone seemed the most annoyed with this step, and wished it would go faster. Sorry! It takes 10 minutes, and sometimes a change in water & Wash to get the prints set, especially if you’re washing several colors together. I found that when I was washing 4 or 5 colors, that I’d often have to agitate for 3-4 minutes, dump that water, refill with new water and detergent and go again, to get all that excess dye out. Sometimes I’d run an extra rinse with plain water too.

-At this point you can squeeze out your fabrics and hang them to dry. But I chose to do a second quick wash with a capful of Synthrapol, because as I said before, the stuff is amazing. I feel more confident making things out of my new fabrics, knowing they’ve been washed well, and are unlikely to bleed color if they get wet unexpectedly. Just put a capful in your wash tub, and swirl around for 2-3 minutes, and rinse well. Squeeze, and hang to dry!

Here are the two prints we saw above, the sea creatures on Purple, and bugs & buttons on Blue. The Purple came out ‘more purple’ under the glass marbles, and more blue on the rest of the print!

Mixing Colors
-Once you’ve tried a few prints, you can try mixing colors. However, you don’t want to actually contaminate one dye cup or brush with another color, so be careful. I tried a few techniques as I was running out of various colors. In some I dripped the last few drops onto a tray, then blotted the second color around them. On others, I laid out a whole layer of one color, and used the last of a second color to blob some spots on top, knowing I wouldn’t use that brush again.

Here I dripped on Violet, then daubed in Red.

And here’s the print made with that fabric.

Here I did a solid layer of Green, then added daubs of Blue on top.

Here’s the finished print.

In this one, I thought I was adding the last of the Golden Yellow on top of Burnt Orange, but instead it was Green! (The yellow, green and teal all come out of the bottle bright yellow to start.)

Here I did an even coat of Golden Yellow, and daubbed on the last of the Burnt Orange. When I put the marbles on top, they left white-orange bubbles on a yellow background.

Depending on the mix of colors, this can also make your colors look muddy. In this one I did an even coat of Golden Yellow, then daubbed on the last of the Green. You don’t get actual green come through in the print, just muddy yellow sections.

Random Things to Know
-The colors listed and shown on the labels, are not really the exact same colors you get when making prints. In particular, I found that ‘Teal’ was a lie. To me teal is a blue-green, heavier on the blue. This teal was more like what I saw on the color label for Green. And Green came out more Avocado-Lime to me. If you can pick up your dyes in a real store, check the display. The art store in town here has a display with little fabric swatches of the colors, that are much more reflective of the true color than the labels. I also found Violet to be much more deep pink, than Red-Violet on the color wheel, and Purple to be more of an Indigo. In this pic you can see color swatches on the display; those are actual cloth!

-Different color dyes make vastly different prints, even of the same objects. Some colors show fine detail better than others. For one piece, I attempted to create a rainbow lace print, by painting the dye colors on in stripes, then laying my large piece of lace over the whole print. The Violet, Purple, Blue and Red dyes took a fantastic print of the lace, while the Teal, Golden Yellow, and Burnt Orange showed virtually none of it. (I wish I had grabbed a pic of that print before cutting it up!) Here you can see the lace printed beautifully on Purple (which absolutely looks blue).

Here you can see the Teal, Yellow and Burnt Orange failed print. You get just the darkest edges of the lace. Overall it came out muddy and pale.

I also tried with a printing with a piece of thick plastic mesh. The holes were about 1/4" apart, wider than plastic canvas used for needlepoint. You can see in this comparison that the Violet took the print beautifully, while the Teal again showed a faint blurry image despite being left out the right amount of time, and not being jostled. The Teal simply didn’t like fine detail.

-Different colors also have different ‘negative space’ colors. The red and cool tones mostly were pure white underneath, while the yellow/green colors had a yellow or cream negative space.

-Different materials also take the color differently. This was my first attempt at mixing colors. A silk scarf. I laid out a layer of Golden Yellow then randomly brushed in some Burnt Orange. I should note that while silk usually produces very vibrant colors with dye, I found these scarves to be more muted in color than the quilting cotton. (Thanks for the pic Em!)

-You can reuse chipboard lasercuts several times, however, over repeated use, they will get wet, and begin to warp in shape, leading to them being no longer truly flat. When that happens, and you have curved edges, you will get fainter, slightly blurry edges, where the object has curled. See in this print the antennae of the bug have warped, so that part of the print is blurrier. If you wish to reuse a shape over and over, try wood pieces instead of chipboard. I was able to use the puzzle pieces I got at the Idea Store several times, but by the time I was out of dye, they needed to be tossed, as they were too warped for other projects or prints.

-You should wash your trays between sessions, but if you don’t, you can end up with fun happy accidents where leftover dye adds color spots to new prints. Here I’ve got some splotches of red in one of the flowers. Also note that the flowers were made with die-cut paper scrapbooking supplies. The darker, thicker papers, gave more bright white prints, while the lighter paper gave semi-sheer prints.

-Rounded opaque objects will give semi sheer prints. Here you can see the safety pins, buttons, ric-rac, and lace gave good prints, but the handles of the scissors and the front tips of the blades don’t give clean lines. That’s because they don’t lay completely flat, so some sunlight is getting around them.

-If you don’t have trays, you might be tempted to use cardboard boxes. The benefit of cardboard is that you can pin your objects down to it using straight pins or T-pins. But it does absorb liquid, so you will end up using more dye to saturate your fabric, that the cardboard will try to steal. Some of my first pieces were done on silk scarves, which I pinned to cardboard boxes. They were definitely not my best prints. It was hard to see if every bit of the fabric was saturated, which led to some streaky white areas, where the fabric didn’t get any dye, but looked wet. Sadly, I didn’t get pics of them all. Here’s the one I still have though. I will say the Purple on silk looks the most like an old fashioned X-ray.

For some reason this print came out clearer on the back of the scarf. On the front you can barely see the bubbles, but you get them on the back. (Thanks for the pic Edel!)

This scarf probably came out the best of the silk pieces. This one was the Green dye. Here the streaks of unsaturated fabric kind of ‘work’ with the fern shapes, giving it a natural look. (Thanks for the pic Abbie!)

-Printing can be done on paper. Results may vary. You will still need to wash the prints to set the dye.
This is why it calls for sturdy paper like Printmaking Paper. I tried on some good quality watercolor paper, and wasn’t very pleased with the results. I found the dye looked like streaky paint, but I didn’t want to go buy printmaking paper, when I had so much good quality fabric around. Plus I’m more likely to create something with the printed fabric than I am with the paper. Here are my first attempts. The green is “Teal”, and I used blue painters tape to mask off the area I wanted to fill.

-If you want really crisp edges from natural objects, or lightweight objects that might blow away like paper, you can place a sheet of glass on top of your prints. This only works with real glass. Plexiglass sometimes has ingredients in it that block some UV light, which can change how your prints develop. Here you can see I just laid a branch of leaves on the paper, but because they weren’t truly flat, I didn’t get very crisp images.

-You can print photographs with this dye! To do so you need to print out the negative onto a clear transparency sheet from Jacquard, with an ink jet printer. They also produce special markers that allow you to draw directly on the transparency sheet, to create your own negative drawing. I didn’t try either of them, so I can’t offer any tips on them, but wanted folks to be aware of them as an option.

-You might be asking "How much fabric is covered by how many ounces of dye?’ All told we used about 3 yards of quilting cotton, and 48 ounces of dye. That works out to 8 oz of dye per 1/2 yard of fabric.

-For those who want to dip their toes in, Jacquard makes both a Starter Kit. And for those who either teach, or want to dive in with a group of friends, they make a Class Kit. The Starter Kit includes 3 mini (2-oz) bottles of dye, and a 2 oz bottle of Wash, along with some sponges, 3 transparency sheets, gloves, and a few pins, for about $28. The Class Kit says it works for a group up to 30 people, and includes 4 8-oz bottles of dye, 1 8-oz bottle of Wash, 30 5"x8" pieces of cotton for making test prints, 40 transparency sheets, 5 markers, gloves, t-shirt boards, pins, and sponges, for $105-130.

Neither of these seemed like a good deal for me personally, since I already owned so many craft supplies, and mainly wanted a large selection of dye colors. All told to buy 4 8-oz bottles of dye, 4 4-oz bottles of dye, 1 8-oz bottle of wash, and a 16-oz bottle of Synthrapol, I spent $126, (including $22 in shipping).

Finally, here are some of the prints that folks at the Meetup made!

@Abbeeroad’s prints:

@megwell’s

@Lynx’s


@GeekyBookworm


@Edel’s



If there are any prints I missed, please post below!

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This was so much fun to do!

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Wow, so cool!!!

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I really enjoyed learning about this and they turned put so pretty!

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Just FYI, Art Coop carries the SolarFast dyes and Wash, and I have a little Wash leftover, if you want to try it when you’re back in town. (Also I have some things for you from the Meetup.)

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I kept seeing pictures of everyone’s prints in the Meetup thread… thank you for sharing this thoughtful and detailed tutorial!

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She did a wonderful job putting the tutorial together!

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It looks like the get-together was a blast! Hope we do it again soon so I can attend. Will have to try this craft; it looks so cool.

I got back late Friday night after attending GenCon in Indy on my way home. I’m here for a week or so, and then off again to NJ and NY. Feeling travel-weary and enjoying sleeping in my own bed (for now).

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These are so awesome!

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For additional reference, the top print of mine used teal. In person, it’s just within the bounds of what I think could be considered teal, but definitely way on the green end of that spectrum.

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Thanks for an excellent overview and tutorial! I was quite curious about how you guys got these lovely prints and what supplies were used.

I actually like the more blurry prints because they remind me of batiks. All of them are lovely and would make beautiful projects.

Anyone making projects from your prints?

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Thanks for the amazing tutorial!
Your fabrics look wonderful.

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This looks like a really cool project that anyone can do & enjoy. I’m definitely going to mentally file this as a project I could maybe do with my friend’s kids some day.

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I’ve been adding some needle felting to my teal…err…green one. I have some other ideas, too.

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We were thinking of doing a Mini Challenge with those who attended the Meetup, to create something with their prints.

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What a thorough and comprehensive tutorial as only @MistressJennie could do!

This was a really fun and easy project fun or us because Jennie had already worked out all the kinks!

I haven’t decided what to do with my prints. I’m still hoarding them for now. :sweat_smile:

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I am just chomping at the bit to go to Dollar Tree… :laughing:

Just what I need…another crafting project…but it would help use up the yards and yards of plain cotton fabrics I have!

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This looks so cool!! It would definitely be a fun project to do with kids.

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These are so great! Thanks for sharing the steps and tips for them. I bought a bunch of Inkodye, a brand that was discontinued from the local craft distributor outlet store. I made one thing once, but never got around to making any others. You’ve inspired me to pick it back up and make some more.

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I actually have some of this. I have always wanted to play with it. Now I am more inspired to do so! Thanks for all the info. They turned out amazing.

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