The Secret Photo

A few days ago, a friend emailed to ask me how she could print her photos onto fabric – what kind of fabric I used and what processes I followed.

As I wrote the long reply email, I realised what a complicated process it was and one I would like to share.

We crafters are a savvy and often financially-challenged bunch and usually like to tackle things in the most cost effective way possible – even if it does mean a lot of hard, time-consuming work. So it is with printing photos on fabric.

A Photo of my Mum in the 50s Printed onto Fabric

I particularly like old black and white photos printed onto fabric. The texture of the fabric emphasises the graininess of the photo and adds a wonderful sense of antiquity.

A Photo Quilt made by one of my Students

So here’s how to do it.

For a good image you need a good tight weave fabric. I use a pre-shrunk mercerised cotton that has been prepared for dyeing and printing – that means any sizing or dressing has been washed out.

I then cut out however many pieces I need a little larger than A4 (8 1/4″ x 11 3/4″), to allow for any further shrinkage and to allow you to trim the pieces cleanly before printing. I find 9″ x 12 1/2″ is adequate.

Cutting the Fabric

The next stage is to soak your fabric to prevent the photo from fading. Now I used to use Bubble-jet Set for this, but it is rather expensive for a bit of formaldehyde and water and doesn’t go very far. So a short trawl on the internet revealed a marvellous recipe for home-made photo set.

You will need:

  • 2 1/2 cups of hot water (not boiling but quite hot)
  • 2 1/2 oz of Alum (potash) – available from chemists in the UK and, I’ve been told, drugstores in the US.
  • 2 x tablespoons Soda ash or washing soda – available from supermarkets or hardware stores
  • 1 x teaspoon of fabric conditioner

Dry Ingredients for Home Made Photo Set

Add the dry ingredients to the water in a large jug or bowl (at least twice the size of the amount of water) and stir until the alum crystals dissolve. It will bubble up but fear not, the bubbles will subside after a few minutes.

Photo Set Bubbles

For the next part, ideally, you will need a large flat tray, about 3-4″ deep, but if you’re only doing a few pieces, a washing-up bowl will do.

Pour the photo set into the tray and check there are no undissolved alum crystals (if there are just pour back into the jug and stir a bit longer).

Lay your fabrics in the tray and press to submerge – you should wear rubber gloves for this.

Soaking the Photo Fabric

Leave the fabric for 5 minutes. then place the tray under a clothes line or clothes horse and lift each piece out one at a time and hang at an angle to drain for a minute or so.

Then hang all pieces up to dry overnight – leaving the tray in place to catch any drips of your carefully prepared photo set!

The next day, decant the photo set into a sealable bottle and store in a cool place to re-use for the next project.

Cut some sheets of freezer paper (this, I’m told is readily available in retail outlets in the US but is not so easy to find in the UK being deemed more a craft than a kitchen item – I, of course get in on the internet…), the same size as your soaked fabric and iron them onto the back of the fabric.

Now lay these pieces face down either under a large cutting mat or between the pages of a large book until completely flat. If you try and put them through the printer curled up, you are asking for a smeary paper jam.

When flat, usually the next day, place a piece of A4 paper (or whatever size you want to print) on top of each fabric/freezer paper combo and trim carefully to the exact size. Ensure there are no loose threads or frayed edges.

The next bit depends on your printer. I use an HP and it gives me the option to choose ‘other speciality papers’ in the paper option menu which works fine. I always print on ‘Normal’ quality rather than ‘Best’ as it gives the best image.

Only place one piece of fabric in the printer feed tray at a time.

While printing, keep a very close eye on the passage of the fabric as the corners do tend to flip up and get caught in the roller resulting in a smeared image.

Of course, the alternative is to go out and spend good money on  a pack of those ready soaked and backed printer fabric sheets – but where’s the fun in that?


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