Suminagashi Marbling on Fabric Tutorial

Suminagashi might be considered to be the simplest form of marbling – but on fabric, not so much! The process consists of floating inks on water. No size is required, in other words no thickening of the water – just water. The inks are separated either with another colour of ink or using a dispersant. In the Shimauma scarf below, only black India ink and dispersant are used.

Shimauma scarf

Requirements (more details in individual sections below)

A light touch is needed to float the inks on the water, but the process certainly isn’t hard. You can see a video here.

Water – soft

Brushes

Tray – small cat litter tray is a good start (clean obviously, not used by cats!)

Small glass jars to mix your inks in

Mordant Alum

 Inks (I use Boku-Undo and experiment with acrylic or India inks)

Fabric (Silk – see below for details)

dispersant – Photo-Flo or washing up liquid (dish soap) in water

Drying space – You will needs somewhere to drip-dry your pieces and they may drip some colour, so I’d suggest either doing this out of doors or rigging up a drying area with a drip-tray underneath.

I discovered recently, and to my horror, that hard water causes problems with this just as it does with ‘western’ marbling. So if you live in a hard-water area, as I do, I’m afraid you’ll need to buy distilled or deionised water.

Water

I discovered recently, and to my horror, that hard water causes problems with this just as it does with ‘western’ marbling. So if you live in a hard-water area, as I do, I’m afraid you’ll need to buy distilled or de-ionised water.

Brushes

Any round brush with a good tip will work, but a larger brush will release a larger amount of ink onto the water more quickly and vice versa. A good-quality (aka expensive) brush will generally lead to a more perfectly round dot of ink on the water. This may or may not matter to you!

Jars

I recommend glass because it’s much more washable. The ink will stain many plastic pots. You can use plastic pots – but just expect staining. You’ll want SMALL jars or pots because you don’t need much ink. A medicine measuring pot is fine if you’re going the plastic route. Otherwise small jars can be bought in sets reasonably cheaply – or the individual jam jars you get in restaurants with your scone are perfect!

Tray

Start small to see if you like the technique – you need a bit of depth so a baking tray is probably too shallow, but you could use a roasting tin. However, I’d recommend something light-coloured so you can see the inks more easily. For a scarf you would need a scarf-sized tray OR you can make multiple small prints on the same scarf, but you will have to keep re-mordanting.

Mordant

For fabric I always use alum. I’m not aware of any other successful marbling mordants, but if you know of one I’d love to hear from you!

There is much talk about how alum can rot the fabric over time, but I suspect this is because people use the same alum solution they would use with paper. This is not necessary with silk – the solution can be much weaker. Alum is available in powder form, easy to find and not expensive. Mix this up in advance as it needs to cool, and store it in a glass jar – it will, over time, react with metal containers. It might be fine with plastic but as there are lots of different types of plastic, I suggest you don’t risk storing it in one it turns out to react with!

The solution will last for months and you can use it again and again with fresh pieces of fabric.  Just make sure you give it a good stir.

2.5 tea-spoons of alum

1.5 litres of boiling water

Stir in the alum – it will dissolve quickly. Then allow the solution to cool. Make sure you mix the solution each time you use it.

For non-absorbent paper you will need a much stronger solution – I use 1.5 teaspoons of alum to 100 ml of boiling water. Untreated absorbent paper doesn’t need alum – which must be one of the best-kept secrets in marbling! ‘-) It’s not that easy to find though.

Suminagashi Ink

There are specialist suminagashi inks available, although I’ve only been able to import them directly from Japan. The make I have used with some success is Boku-Undo. The basic paint set comes with a bizarre set of instructions about how to put your inks on bits of paper and float these on the water – the paper, I think, sinks and the inks are left floating. To create traditional suminagashi, IGNORE THIS COMPLETELY. ‘-)

This is a link (not at the moment affiliated) to Boku-Undo inks on Amazon.co.uk. You can also find them on Ebay. I have also tried various acrylic inks and Dr Ph. Martin’s India inks in various colours. I have had limited success with these but some will work. The problem is that some colours work fantastically on fabric and others simply don’t work at all. I haven’t got the chemistry lab needed to work out why! For instance, a lot of blues and violets and some reds are fine – most of the yellows and browns, if you can get them to float at all on the water, simply don’t transfer to the fabric. I haven’t tried with paper so I can’t comment there.

Fabric for suminagashi marbling

I only use silk at the moment although I’ve experimented with a few other fabrics. With all fabric, the finer the weave of your fabric and the thicker the actual fabric, the sharper and more colourful your results will be. This is something that’ll need a post of its own as it applies to all marbling. Pongee is closely woven but very lightweight so you’ll get a passable print –  dupion (dupioni in the US) is thicker but too loosely woven to get a really good print – crepe de chine will give a lovely print … but has a tendency to stretch.

Dispersant

You can mix up some dispersant by putting a drop of dishwashing soap into a little soft water. This is a trial-and-error process as it’ll depend on your soap and, to some extent, your water! Mix some up, if it doesn’t disperse enough in the next step, add soap; if it disperses too much, add ink!

What I use is Kodak Photo-Flo. It’s hard to find in the UK – I had to get some shipped in from the US at outrageous expense, but one only uses tiny amounts so the same bottled has lasted me years.

The Kokeko scarf, available here and shown below, is on a pongee fabric. This is an example of a scarf coloured using ink on ink (green and black) and no dispersant rings.

silk scarf ultra-light 100% silk suminagashi marbled scarf image 0

Preparing your fabric

You will need to iron your fabric and then soak it in the alum solution for 25 minutes. It then needs to be dried (I suggest air drying rather than heat drying when possible as the alum may cause problems if it’s heated too long and too often – although with this very dilute solution it probably won’t). When the fabric is dry it needs to be ironed (yes, it’s heat but it’s essential!) It’s then ready for printing.

Floating and dispersing inks

Some inks are heavier than others and are therefore inclined to sink as soon as you touch the brush to the water. For these you can add a LITTLE bit of dispersant, a drop at a time, until the ink floats. If you add too much dispersant, you can bizarrely cause the ink to sink again and/or dilute it so much that you won’t get much colour. With the Boku-Undo inks, the one that will definitely need a little dispersant added is black. Green might do, and the other colours are pretty much OK I find, but it will be a question of experimentation.

Making a suminagashi print

Skim your water first. To do this, take a piece of newspaper about four inches deep and the width of your tray. Place one edge of this one side your tray and pull it across the tray. You can gradually lay the paper flatter as you pull it across. Then pull it out of the tray and throw it away. This clears any dust and ink from previous prints away from the surface of the water.

Put a little of your chosen colour on the tip of a paintbrush and ‘kiss’ the water with it – in other words, the very tip of the brush should just touch the surface of water. Rest the brush there until you have as much colour as you want floating on the surface.

Dip a separate brush into your dispersant and place it in the centre of the circle of ink you just created on the water. You should see the ink push out into a ring.

More ink will give you a wider ring, less ink will give you a narrower one. The same applies to dispersant.

Place another drop of ink in the centre of your circle of dispersant.

Keep doing this until you have a set of ink rings on the water, separated by dispersant.

You can use ink and ink rather than ink and dispersant, but you will get a crisper look by using dispersant in between the ink applications. Everywhere you place dispersant you will get nothing printed so the underlying colour of your fabric will show through.

The smaller your tray, the sooner you will have it full of ink! If you’re making a full-sized suminagashi scarf this can take quite some time. You need to be able to really see some saturated ink circles. At first the ink will spread so thin that it’ll be practically invisible but as you keep going, you’ll see the colour thickening up and becoming more saturated. If you’re going to have a visible print on your fabric, this is what you need.

You don’t have to limit yourself to one set of ripples. You can start a new set next to the one you’ve made or even within it. Play around and have fun.

Zig-zags

If you have a nice, still room with no drafts you should get smooth circles of ink and dispersant spreading out from your central points to give the traditional suminagashi ripple effect. If you’ve got drafts, you may find your smooth circles starting to form into zig-zag paths instead. This can be a very attractive look and you can also create this by blowing on your marbling bath either directly or through a straw.

This Midori scarf shows zig-zags to good effect.

One of a kind silk wearable art floaty ultra light-weight image 0

Pulling your suminagashi print

Take an ironed piece of mordanted fabric carefully centre it in the air above your marbling bath. Then let it hang in a U shape and allow the centre, the bottom of the U, to touch the water, holding it on both sides (upper parts of the U). Then gently lay it down from the centre out, both sides at once. This is to avoid air pockets. If you trap pockets of air under the fabric, those sections either won’t print or will print when you press them down but you will have a break in the pattern.  

I usually then allow my fabric to rest on the bath for about three minutes. With some inks you’ll find the print attaches to the fabric straight away – with others, not so much; so I don’t risk it. I leave everything for three minutes. This seems to be more important with acrylic inks and less so with India inks. I’m not sure about Boku-Undo.

If you’ve used Boku-Undo or India inks, you’ll probably find you can give your piece a quick rinse when it comes out of the bath and the colour will mostly not run. Depending on the thickness of your fabric and the amount of ink you used, there might be some running but you should still have some colour left in the fabric. Once it’s rinsed you shouldn’t have any colour dripping when you drip-dry. However, if you’re using acrylic ink, don’t do this. Drip-dry first, and then iron with a hot as possible iron. Then you can give the piece a gentle wash to remove the alum. The ironing process will help to fix the colour.

Completing the suminagashi piece

Once dried, give the piece a rinse to make sure it’s not still losing colour. If you’re planning to frame the piece this doesn’t really matter, but if it’s to be used in clothing or furnishings then obviously you don’t want it running!

Give the piece a final iron and you’re done!

Unique hand-marbled 100% silk scarf  black and white scarf  image 6
The Shimauma scarf shows the variety obtainable by using thicker or thinner bands and placing them differently

Trouble shooting

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But the best laid plans and all that … Here are some of the things that might go wrong and how to fix them.

The ink sinks

  1. Try getting your ink mixes right first by experimenting with adding dispersant and, if too thin, adding ink back in.
  2. Don’t overload your brush with ink – a big blob falling off the brush will sink. The same brush and the same ink mix applied carefully might not.
  3. Make sure you skim the water and use clean water every few prints. Dirty water can cause problems due to contamination and this can mean sinking occurs more.
  4. Did you remember to skim the surface?

The ink seems to be thinner than it was when I started

  1. Even being very careful to ‘kiss’ the brush on the water, the brush will eventually absorb some water from your bath, so you will need to sometimes dry the brush on an absorbent towel or something similar, and then apply more ink.
  2. Try stirring your ink or ink/dispersant mix. It might have separated a bit.
  3. Did you remember to skim the surface?

I’m getting through a lot of ink trying suminagashi

Don’t mix up very much at a time, especially when working on small pieces. The ink will go a long, long way. If, for instance, your ink comes in a bottle with a pipette, you probably only want to put less than one pipette’s worth into your jar to start off with. You can always add more.

If you’re getting through a lot of ink because it’s sinking then see ‘the ink sinks’ section above.

The suminagashi effect looks great on the water, but it’s not printing onto the fabric

Yeah … been there, done that! I don’t have the answer! Some inks work – some don’t. If you know what’s going on, please do let me know! 😊

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