Fabric Paint or Pens? The Surprising How and Why

Guys, I’ve got another installment on paint and clothing for you…Fabric paint or pens – which work better? How do each of these work and what does each one work best at?

I’ll answer these questions right now! Are you looking for a fun activity for you and the kids involving decorating tshirts, or do you want to get super fancy with advanced techniques?

Remember a time back in the day when if you wanted to decorate a tshirt, you had to use something like iron-on transfers or wax crayons? (wow that’s going waaay back!) but when fabric paint that you can simply squeeze out from a bottle was invented, it was a major breakthrough!

Now whether you use paint or pens can affect the outcome level of detail and depth that can result. So let’s take a look at that one now.

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fabric paints or pens

Fabric Paints Explained

Fabric paints are literally that, if you got a chance to explore my previous post. They are designed to be vibrant in color, permanent, washable and also be able to work their way into the material fibers easily.

Like most acrylics, they’ll dry “to the touch” within a half-hour, and fully set within a day. No ironing needed!

They are highly versatile and able to be brushed on, sprayed, or with applications like stenciling, or with simple tools like sponges or stamps. You can practically draw on your tshirts or other clothing articles with just the squeeze of a bottle.


Fabric Paints vs Pens

Fabric markers and pens are a more condensed version. Similar to the kind of coloring markers gradeschool youngsters enjoy using, with vibrant colors and felt – tip applicators, however designed to be permanent when applied.

Some types of permanent fabric markers are alcohol – based, which may give them a pertinent odor; and may disqualify them from being labeled non-toxic.

Sharpie Fabric PensSharpie Fabric PensShop NowPen Set-Different Tip SizesPen Set-Different Tip SizesShop NowDual Tip Pen AssortmentDual Tip Pen AssortmentShop Now

Fabric markers and pens have some distinct advantages. You can use them to create thinner lines, add fine details, and enhance your art and design skills with regard to clothing. With paintbrushes out of the question, they make for a simple all in one process and fun too 🙂

I personally loved drawing on clothing...sometimes I drew on other items too, like tote bags, pillowcases, canvas sneakers, heck anything with enough space to be able to produce something!

Well, it looks like Sputnik the cat approves….

fabric paints or pens

What about “permanent markers”? Are they all fabric compatible?

Those pens we all know as “Sharpies” (the brand name) – yes, I have used these to draw on clothing. This famous company also carries a similar oil-based line of pens that you can draw on ceramics with. You may have to shake them up to get the paint to flow -There’s a metal ball in them that you can hear , not too different from these.

Generally, you can use them for this purpose as they do live up to their name; the one limitation may be the color selection (but it has definitely expanded and surpassed just black, red, or blue)

fabric pen art on tshirt

Check out this dress I attempted artwork on …Would you believe I actually did this design back in 1999 (with Sharpie pens) and the design is still intact? I couldn’t tell you how often it has been washed and worn since then (as I honestly don’t know) but that’s a pretty long time.

It may have faded a little bit, in which case I went over it more recently (about two years ago) with a new set of markers I was trying out.


Yes….a few to mention. One, markers and pens are best for crisp outlines, fine details, and outlining, but if you have larger spaces of detail to fill in, they may be time consuming, unless you also choose more broad – tip markers, or employ coloring techniques like hatching or crossing, as opposed to just blocking in color.

Also, you will need to have a firm method of securing your item as marker tips can “drag” across fabric if it isn’t secured well. You may also need to keep a cardboard insert segued in between each side of the fabric item – although fabric markers are designed very well nowadays to not bleed much, they may do so slightly (especially the darker colors…OR if you keep the marker tip in one place for too long.)

fabric paint or pensThe above image is of a pillow I decorated way back when …it was on polyester believe it or not….Polyester is notoriously slick which meant that the markers I used at the time would not have done much “skipping” while I worked.

I also embellished that pillow with a little bling too  but you get the idea – you can pretty much draw on anything as long as you understand how it works! Here are some examples of paints that are perfect for this, very close to what I used – they have lots of pretty special effects, too:

Fabric paints CrystalFabric paints CrystalShop NowFabric paint -GlitterFabric paint -GlitterShop NowMetallic paint for fabricMetallic paint for fabricShop Now

Fabric Paint or Markers?

Now as for which of these – fabric paint or markers? For me, it doesn’t have to be an “either or” scenario. I combine them and use both! Hey, why not? Bring out the best in your wearable art by using paint AND pens!

fabric paint or pens

This tshirt above is an example of combining paint and pens 🙂 Sorry I don’t remember what the “Fresh Baked Buns” is all about, but as you can see the “Daytona Beach, Fl” at the bottom? Yep, I used a fabric marker for that part 🙂

So I hope this post will be helpful for you, if you have any thoughts or comments, please share regarding markers or pens 🙂

4 thoughts on “Fabric Paint or Pens? The Surprising How and Why”

  1. Thank you! Was running short on time for my wedding gift to a cousin! Honoring our great grams ( she embroidered, me not… looking for my medium…. Fabric paint not working out for fine details… hoping perm markers do with a cold wash salt bath?

  2. Not sure I’ve ever done a salt bath with any of the items I’ve painted on…I have heard that Rit Dye works best with a little salt added to the bath, although I realize that is neither here nor there. Or it could be as dyes made to set permanently do have similar chemical makeups. I never embroidered either. I’m sure your gift will be a success, though!Good luck to you.

  3. Both fabric paint and fabric markers work well for adding decoration to fabrics. Each, however, has unique benefits and drawbacks. The type of your project and the desired outcome will determine whether to use fabric markers or fabric paint.

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