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Writing on Quilts with Confidence and Flair

Updated on June 11, 2013

Documentation and decoration

In the 19th century, women used indelible ink to label linen and sign much of their handwork, including their quilts. Those who participated in the fad of autograph and friendship quilts also inked their signatures onto the quilt blocks they made. Penmanship was taught and esteemed, and the signatures we see on quilts of that era are frequently written in a flowing script and encased in delicate medallions or banners.

When I began writing on my quilts, whether for documentation or decoration, I wanted to imitate the ornate writing on antique quilts. The methods I developed for embellishing my own signature are easy to duplicate once you learn some basic techniques and have the right tools. I hope you will enjoy trying them and seeing for yourself.

Fabric and pens

Choose any fabric that is light-colored enough so the ink will show. Fabric of 100% cotton works best because ink bleeds less on it than on polyester blends. Always prewash the fabric before writing on it to eliminate the sizing, which may act as a barrier to ink absorption.

A permanent pen is the first important piece of equipment you need. Although many pens are on the market, there are found two to be particularly useful: the Pigma XSDK and the Niji Stylist II Permanent. They come in various point sizes. The lower the number, the finer the point. I use the very fine 01 for most of my quilt writing. The 05 point size is quite thick.

The Pigma XSDK is wonderful for writing on fabric. The 01 makes a line as fine as any we see on antique quilts. The Pigma doesn't bleed, even if held in place. Write lightly (so the pen doesn't catch on the fabric) and slowly (in order to let the ink absorb). The pen comes in a variety of colors. For quilt signing, I use the brown or the black. The brown is a rusty color, perfect for imitating the sepia of the faded ink on old quilts. The Niji Stylist II Permanent has a faster ink flow than the Pigma, and I use it when I want a darker color but still need a fine line. This pen bleeds, especially if left in place, so you must write lightly and quickly. It comes in several colors, and the brown is a rich chocolate color that complements the Pigma rusty brown beautifully.

Always test your particular fabric with the pen you want to use. Pens react differently to different fabrics and may bleed more or wash out more easily on one fabric than another.

Washing fabric you have written on

In my washing experiments, I have used 100% cotton with the Pigma and the Niji. I have given the samples harsher treatment than I would ever give a real quilt. I have agitated them on a regular cycle in the washing machine, used name brand detergents with whatever additives they contain, used warm water, and I have even soaked them for long periods of time. I have had no fading. But before you commit the time and energy to writing on quilts, test the pens on your fabric.

The Pigma seems to need a day or so to set before washing, perhaps because the point is so very fine that the ink barely penetrates the fabric. As I have already mentioned, prewashing the fabric to eliminate the sizing seems to be useful.

Always wash quilts with writing on them just as you do any fine quilt: infrequently and only when absolutely necessary. Use a delicate detergent made especially for quilts. Wash by hand in the bathtub (never in a machine), keeping the quilt flat. Follow the detergent directions, which usually tell you to soak briefly without agitation, rinse, and lay flat to dry. Using these guidelines, I have had no problems with the ink washing out.

Flannel board helps anchor fabric
Flannel board helps anchor fabric

Anchoring the fabric

Ironing the fabric onto freezer paper stiffens it nicely for writing, and it is easily peeled off later. This method is particularly advantageous when you are mailing fabric to others to be signed and can't control how they will anchor it.

I prefer to use a flannel board (flannel wrapped around foam core or mat board). This provides a firm yet portable writing surface, and when I lay my fabric over the flannel board, it prevents slipping while I write.

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      Teri 22 months ago

      Excellent advice particularly regarding pens and freezer paper.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Admire people with this type of patience!