English Paper Piecing With Coloured Pencils

Hydrangea serrata ‘Grayswood’ – my favourite, from last year’s cuttings.

In this post I am looking at how using both regular and water soluble coloured pencils can enhance your English paper piecing or appliqué . In spite of the length of this post, this is just an overview and if you want to learn more there are plenty of Youtube videos that go into more detail.

Why use Coloured Pencils on fabric?

If you want to add colour detail on an EPP block or piece of appliqué, or you don’t have the right colour fabric for a small piece you want to insert, or the fabric you do have is lacking a highlight, shadow or outline, you might find a solution in the use of coloured pencils. However, these are best used to accentuate small areas of your work rather than anything large scale and can, of course, be further embellished with embroidery.

Coloured Pencils

The Tools you Need:

Regular Coloured Pencils : You need only regular coloured pencils (though a big selection is worth having). Crayola works fine at the cheaper end or Prismacolour at the more expensive end. Prismacolour and Artesa have a softer lead which works well, as opposed to the harder leads in the Caran D’Ache and Rexel Cumberland that I have in the house. Rexel Cumberland are made by Derwent Studio (who also make Inktense Pencils). Regular coloured pencils allow you to control colour and intensity in a way that is more difficult with Intense pencils, which are ink rather than wax based. However colour pencils give a softer, less dramatic effect.

A Design on Fabric: It could be a black and white fabric with line drawings, or you could transfer a design onto fabric, or draw your own. To experiment I have made some white cotton English Paper Pieced fabric squares with a series of embroidery designs transferred onto them. I have used fabric that is slightly textured to show you that this is not necessarily an ideal choice because, as you will see, the texture shows through the colour. The colour goes on better is your fabric is smooth.

Cotton buds: to blend your pencil shading to a smooth finish.

A very small paintbrush: Size 0 to apply your Textile Medium.

Textile Medium: (also often called fabric medium or colourless extender). It will look white in the bottle and while you use it but it dries clear. Jacquard is one of the best brands. The Tulip brand gives a slight sheen, apparently, and you can also buy some that are iridescent, leaving a glittery sheen(which is nice if you want to paint a dragon-fly wing). Use very little and let it dry before adding more because it’s hard to get rid of the glitter if you add too much at first. There are a variety of textile mediums that create different effects so check out a few to make sure they suit your purpose. Below is the one I use:

A hot iron: No steam!

How to Use Them:

The key to using coloured pencils well, is to use the duller side of the pencil. You want to shade not create harsh lines that do not blend. This is easier with a softer lead and if the pencil is not overly sharpened. Layer your colour, adding a light, almost transparent amount of colour, blend the colour gently with a cotton bud, and then add another light layer, until you get the depth of colour you are looking for.


Coloured pencils on an iron-on transfer added to a 2 1/2 inch English Paper Pieced square

Making it Last:

Although using coloured pencils can easily be used to enhance your quilts or drawings on fabric, the reason many people avoid using them is that in the colour is prone to fade with use, or wash out when laundered.

However, there is a way to make them permanent!

The secret is to brush on a colourless extender like the one pictured above. You only need a little on the tip of your paintbrush. Barely touching the fabric, spread a very fine layer of the extender over your colour pencilled area. As long as you add only a fine layer, the hand of your fabric will remain the same. It won’t stiffen the fabric so you will easily be able to easily stitch in more detail afterwards, if you want. Now let your work air dry. Once it has dried, heat set it with a DRY iron for about 5 seconds. Don’t forget to protect your iron with a piece a backing parchment between the iron and your work.

If you love colouring with pencils, I have come across this wonderful book that covers a myriad of techniques I have not seen before in a book. It is not intended for use on fabric but there is no reason why many of the techniques wouldn’t work on fabric as well.

Other Types of Coloured Pencil that work on Fabric:

Regular coloured pencils aren’t the only coloured pencils you can use on fabric but the ones that give the most dramatic colour are probably the water soluble Inktense pencils.

Inktense Pencils

Intense pencils are watercolour pencils with ink pigments which become lightfast as soon as water is added. The water intensifies the colour to something much more vibrant. They are useful for adding shadows, (for example under rocks in landscapes), for soft background washes, for adding more contrast to a solid colour in a single area, or as a filler between areas of embroidery. They allow an opportunity to add depth and texture that your fabric may not give you, to add more definition to appliqué, or for filling in black and white line illustrations on fabric.

These pencils come as single pencils (I bought mine a few years ago in a small blister pack of six) or in tins of 12, 24, 36 and 72. The bigger the tin, the greater the choice of fabulous colours but the larger tins are eye-wateringly expensive!

What Not to Do:

The picture above left shows Inktense pencils used as they are, without water. Here I have not used a blending pencil or Q tip to blend the colour and it shows. The rough texture of the cotton makes it easy to throw the pencil off balance around the edges.

The picture above right shows the same pencils used with added water. Here you can see how much more vibrant the colour is but the same picture also shows how hard it is to fill tiny areas adequately in a small design like this, or to stop the added water from causing the colour to travel outside your lines. Of course these small mistakes can be covered with outline stitches, if necessary but there is an easier way to control the colour.

Inktense Pencils

The Tools You Need:

Some Inktense pencils: These are available in a blister pack of 6 colours or in tins of 24, 36 and 72 that are eye wateringly expensive!

A sheet of freezer paper: to put under you work because moisture can work into the surface below.

A small paintbrush: A water brush can also be used

A small cup of water and/or Textile medium: to control the spread the colour.

A saucer or small palette: for creating puddles of colour and for mixing your colours

A white cotton scrap of cloth: to test colour and wipe up spills:

A sheet of freezer paper, or watercolour paper below your work: to stabilise the work and prevent colour seeping through.

How to Use Them:

Start with the lightest areas of colour because, once it is dry, you can darken it or add more details. Place a little colour on your work and then add a little water and guide the colour to where you want it. Or wet the fabric first and then add the colour. Another way is to wet your brush and take the colour directly off your pencil lead. You will get quite a bit of colour from a small amount on your brush.

Adding fabric medium is useful for small details or narrow areas, like plant stems, when it’s important that colour does not bleed into other areas, because it gives you much more control. The fabric medium thickens the colour and stays where you place it. Added water, on the other hand, causes the colour to travel and it is less easy to control where it goes. For fine, detailed work, you can even dip your pencil into the textile medium. I have read that using Aloe Vera as a textile medium, mixed in with the paint first, gives a more seamless blend of colour, though I have not tried this. Aloe vera can be thinned down with water, 50 50 water and gel, which gives you enough moisture to activate and control the colour without any bleed. The aloe vera doesn’t have to be anything fancy, not pure or organic, just clean.

You can Inktense colours when they are wet, or, if you leave a first layer to dry, you can then add more detail or shading on top, without fear of affecting the layer you put down previously. You can use a hairdryer to dry the layers more quickly.

Dewent studio also make Outliner pencils which are not designed to blend. They will hold their line but the effect is quite a soft line. If you want a harder line to define petals on flowers for example, a permanent micron pen would be the better choice.

The Inktense blocks pictured above (on the left) can be used in much the same way as the pencils. You will see in the photo above that I have lifted the colour directly from the Inktense pencils (on the right) using a brush and then applied it to my fabric.

Making it Last:

Heat set your work with a scrap piece of cotton over the area and use the cotton temperature on your iron to press it. Heat set 1—15 secs.  If you need to use an eraser to remove any details do this before heat setting. It is also possible to heat set your work between each layer if creating multiple layers of colour. None of the colour will spread by applying heat.

Alternatively use textile medium to set the colour. The medium allows colour staining to bond with the fibres of the fabric and make it permanent. Spread it on after your work is dry.

Testing on scraps of fabric is always a good idea to try out any of these suggestions.

Adding Inktense Colour around Completed embroidery:

You can coax colour toward the the raised line of your embroidery. Add a little colour up to the line and then draw your colour in towards the centre of the area. This will prevent colour staining the embroider while creating shadow at the edges and a lighter tint towards the centre where the light falls.

Aquarelle Pencils:

Another way you might colour fabric are with water soluble pencils, which behave very much like regular coloured pencils but create a painterly look once water is added. They are useful for pastel shaded embroideries, for wall decorations for a baby’s room, indeedPP for anything requiring a soft, romantic colour palette.

The Tools You Need:

Water Soluble Pencils: There are various brands like the one above.

A fine paintbrush and small jar of water: to intensify the colour

A sheet of freezer paper: or something similar, to protect the surface under your work.

A blender stump : to soften your colour and pull it across tiny areas of fabric. If the tip collects too much colour, this can be filed off with an emery board.

How to Use them:

The use of these pencils share many of the same techniques as regular coloured pencils. The effect they create, though brighter than coloured pencils, is much less intense than with ink based pencils. You can lighten a colour by adding water and deepen and mix colours by layering more colour on top or next to the first colour and adding water to blend them.

What Not to Do:

The above pictures show the Aquarelle pencils used, on the left, without water and on the right, with water. I have not tried to blend the colours and the textured fabric did resist my colouring, tending to snag and ruck up as I coloured. It might be worth putting fabric in a hoop to keep it taut or pinning it down at the edges to minimise movement.

Making it Last:

Once the area is dry, heat set it with a dry iron for approximately 5 seconds and it will be permanent. Don’t forget to protect your iron and your work by putting something like baking parchment between them!

It is my hope to write further posts on the use of crayons, paints and inks on fabric but with a house move on the horizon, it might not be for a while. In the meantime I will aim for shorter posts on simpler things. I hope you will try(or have tried) some of the pencils I have mentioned above. Please let me know what you think or have discovered.

Bye for now…

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