If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to block print fabric, bookmark this post! It’s easier than you think.
Block printing was one of my favorite techniques to experiment with in my printmaking classes in college. But it took some getting used to before I felt really comfortable and confident in what I could create with this new skill.
This printmaking technique is super fun for printing on fabric, once you know the basics. And it’s easy too. So, today I’m sharing the complete guide to block printing fabric for beginners.
If you’re just starting out, this guide will show you everything you need to know to get started with block printing. From the tools you’ll need to the steps for going from a blank linoleum block to a finished, block printed piece of fabric.
And one more thing… The steps for block printing fabric vs block printing paper are really similar. In fact, they’re identical. The only difference is in the type of ink you’ll use and in some cases the ink drying times. That’s pretty much it!
So, if you learn how to block print fabric, you’ll also know learn how to print on paper. Which opens up a lot more possibilities for printing, right?! Click through to get started.
What is block printing?
Block printing is the relief process of printing onto fabric or paper using a hand-cut block, made of wood or linoleum. After the block has been carved, ink is applied, and then it is printed. Hence, the name block printing.
It’s a technique that has been around for more than two thousand years. Originating in China, where it remained the most common printing method in East Asia for books and images until the 1800s.
Interesting fact: Initially, block printing fabric was the norm – most often being printed onto silk cloths. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later when it was eventually adapted to paper, which is now probably the most widely used material for block printing.
Personally though, I love printing on fabric, so today’s tutorial is all about block printing fabric. Let’s jump in…
Basic Materials for Block Printing Fabric
- block printing carving block
- fabric block printing ink OR water soluble printing ink for paper
- linoleum cutter carving tool
- soft rubber brayer
- acrylic sheet, glass (or similar)
- permanent marker
How to Block Print Fabric
Step 1: Create a design and draw it onto your linoleum block.
The first step for block printing is coming up with a design. Use a permanent marker to draw the design directly onto the carving block. That way, you know exactly what to cut and what you don’t want to cut. It really helps to have a visual guide.
You want to use a permanent marker, as opposed to any other kind of marker or pen. This will ensure the ink from the marker doesn’t come off onto your fabric or paper while printing.
Step 2: Get familiar with your tools and know when to use what attachments, etc.
Next, using your carving tools, choose the size lino cutter attachment you want to use.
I often use the largest size to carve out larger areas, so it goes a little faster. In the carving tool I have linked the largest size it comes with is a #5 and the smallest size is a #1. But for highly detailed areas, you’ll probably want to use the smallest size (#1).
Additionally, you can use the knife blade tool (labeled #6 for the tool I linked) to carefully cut around the edges of a design. This would be especially helpful if you’re concerned about messing up and carving too closely into something. Great thing to do for beginners.
It creates more of a guide to follow and a stopping point for the other attachments to help with those fine lines, etc. And it can also be used to cut away excess material from the side of the block to make it easier to handle while stamping.
Side note: These blades and cutting attachments are very sharp! So use caution with the carving tools and always be aware of how close your fingers and hands are to the blade. Also be aware of fingers that are holding the linoleum block in place opposite the tool. It is always possible to loose control of your carving tool. Basically, just be careful.
Step 3: Start carving the linoleum block.
Based on what you learned in step two, select the best attachment. Then, begin cutting out the excess area away from the design. Leaving the design raised, as shown in the photo. Use as many of the different size options as you find necessary, depending on your design.
Step 4: Ink your linoleum block.
If you’re block printing on fabric, you’ll want to use a block printing ink that is safe to use on fabrics. It will say it’s for fabric use right on the tube, like this one for example.
Another option for block printing fabric is using an ink pad that can be used on fabrics, like this one. Using ink pads for block printing are best for small lino blocks (2-3 inches in size).
If you’re using larger blocks, you’ll probably want to go the traditional route of inking, which I’ll explain below.
*Also, this method of using an ink pad isn’t really a true form of block printing. BUT it is a nice option when you’re in a hurry, or want to save money with the purchase of a few less tools.
If you’re using a fabric ink pad and small linoleum block, open up the ink pad and continuing dabbing ink onto the lino block until the design is fully (and evenly) covered.
If you’re using a more traditional method for inking, squeeze out a thin line of ink (whether its fabric ink or regular printing ink for paper) toward the top of the acrylic sheet (or glass) palette.
Then use the soft rubber brayer (the roller), to bring the ink down. Rolling the ink out a bit on the surface of your palette before rolling it over your stamp in thin layers until the raised design is fully covered. Make sure the linoleum block isn’t over inked or you could lose some of the fine details of your design when printing.
You’ll notice when you roll the ink out that it has a much different viscosity than regular paint. It’s much more tacky.
Step 5: Print block design onto fabric (or paper).
Next, no matter how you’ve inked your lino block, flip the block over. Then press the inked design face down firmly and evenly onto fabric or paper. Then, pull the stamp away from the fabric, straight up if you can.
Repeat steps 4 and 5 as desired. If you’re using traditional block printing ink, let the surface air dry for 24 hours before using (this will set the ink). Or according to instructions on the ink tube. As some inks require more time to cure.
OR if you’re using a fabric ink pad, wait for the pattern to air dry, then heat set the ink (with an iron) to ensure the ink is permanent.
Linoleum Block vs Wood Block
Generally, linoleum block (or lino block) is much easier to carve than wood block because it’s a softer material. It’s also a more affordable option for beginners and intermediate printmakers.
To carve into wood blocks, you need a whole different set of tools. Wood carving tools are much more expensive than linoleum carving tools. Why? It’s mostly because they have to be able to cut through wood, which means they have two be stronger, sharper, etc. As you might be able to guess, wood blocks are a harder material to carve.
The results are a longer lasting block that can be printed again and again though, which is why so many people go that route. But if you’re not creating a huge edition of prints, linoleum block is the way to go – especially when it comes to smaller crafting projects.
Mixing Block Printing Inks for Custom Colors
Just like regular paint, you can easily mix inks to create custom colors. So, if you’re decent at color mixing, you’ll only need a basic set of primary colors (red, yellow, blue) plus black and white to create any color you can imagine.
You can mix the colors right on the acrylic sheet you use to ink up your block and then push it all back into a line for your brayer (like the traditional inking method in step four) when you’re ready to ink.
Water Based Blockprinting Inks vs Oil Based Inks
The cool thing about oil based inks are: they can be used on both fabric AND paper. But they have their drawbacks too.
Water based inks can be removed from skin and clothing with soap and water. So, they clean up very easily, and again, are great for hobbyists.
Oil based inks typically need to cleaned up with mineral spirits or turpentine. Although, this set of oil based inks says that it can be cleaned with just soap and water.
Oil based inks also take longer to dry than water based inks. For example, when printing on fabric, oil based inks can take up to three weeks to fully dry. While water based fabric printing ink can be dry in just 24 hours (or even just overnight) and is permanent for fabrics, just like oil based inks. Sometimes water based inks can run though, so it’s something to keep in mind.
Let me know if you have any specific questions about block printing that I didn’t cover in this post and I’ll be sure to answer.