‘Just Right’ Surface Design Tips with Everyday Objects

DIY surface design fabric
A sampling of prints made with
DIY mark-making tools.

pokey boltonI'm going to ask you a question and I want you to give me an honest answer. When choosing among items at a grocery store, have you ever selected one over the other based solely on how you could use the packaging to create surface design?

You know: One brand of cherry tomatoes looks a little more ripe, but the other one comes in a container with a fluted edge, perfect for soy batik.

Or you can buy the cold medicine you like in a liquid, but the gel caps come in a blister pack that makes a nice grid for stamping.

I bet we've all done it at least once. And some of us (ahem) have done it many times.

Perhaps the queen of using everyday objects for surface design is Leslie Tucker Jenison. Leslie has been known to choose a bathmatyes, a bathmatfor its printing potential.

Leslie uses all kinds of post-consumer objects to print on fabric and paper with thickened dyes and fabric paint. She also uses them to make impressions on a gelatin plate to make a monoprint or to make marks on fabric with soy wax for resist dyeing. Lately, Leslie has been using disposable facial cloths as a resist.

facial cloth resist fabric
Leslie uses disposable facial cloths
as a resist for surface design.

Having tried many of these processes myself with all kinds of found objects (I'm very partial to my potato masher), whenever I meet up with Leslie I hit her up for DIY surface design tips.

One thing I often have trouble with when printing with soy wax as a resist is making sure the wax penetrates the fabric as I print. I had an "Aha!" moment as I watched Leslie's new Quilting Arts WorkshopTM "DIY Surface Design: Printmaking Made Easy with Everyday Objects," when she explained how to be sure you're make a good impression with the wax.

Regulate the heat. Soy wax melts at a very low temperature, which is one of its virtues. But it can be like Goldilocks's porriage: the heat needs to be 'just right.' If the wax isn't hot enough, it won't penetrate the fabric, which is essential for the resist to work. If the wax is too hot, it will smoke. Leslie recommends purchasing a new electric skillet dedicated for soy wax melting only, to keep the wax hot enough without burning. (A new skillet helps ensure proper temperature regulation as well as safety.)

Warm up the tool. When you dip your tool into the wax, keep it there for a moment before removing it to stamp the fabric or paper. When the tool you are using is warm, it helps keep the wax warm as it makes the trip from the skillet to the substrate. (If your tool is plastic, don't leave it in the wax too long or it might melt. You have to experiment a bit.)

Keep it clear. If the mark on the fabric looks clear or wet, the wax has penetrated the fabric or paper. If it's opaque, it's not hot enough. You can double check by lifting the substrate and turning it over. If you can see the wax mark on the bottom, all is well.

surface design printed quilt
One of Leslie's quilts made from DIY prints.

I love how Leslie shows how to create interest in your design by varying the size of the objects used to print and printing in such a way that the marks travel down and across the surface. I also like her trick of using a dental syringe for drawing and writing on fabric, a silk screen, or a gelatin plate.

Leslie has a warm, nurturing way of demonstrating her techniques and showing how to make adjustments when things don't go according to plan (i.e. she doesn't panic like Goldilocks).

Those of you who are relatively new to surface design techniques or are looking for a way to become more spontaneous with your mark making will want to get "DIY Surface Design: Printmaking Made Easy with Everyday Objects," now available as a download and on DVD.

P.S. Have you ever bought anything just to use the packaging for surface design? Was it something outrageous? Tell me in the comments section below!

Other topics you may enjoy:


Fabric Painting & Dyeing, Monoprinting & Screenprinting, Quilting Daily Blog

12 thoughts on “‘Just Right’ Surface Design Tips with Everyday Objects

  1. I have done things like purchase cherry tomatoes in a mesh bag because I wanted to use the mesh bag for surface design and purchased artichoke hearts in a jar instead of the can because I loved the size of the jars and knew I could use them for something. But perhaps the funniest surface design “buy” wasn’t really a buy but a find. My family and I were volunteering at our church to clean the bathrooms. As I was changing the toilet paper rolls I noticed how sturdy the cardboard tubes were that we were to toss. I knew they would be perfect for batiking and painting on fabric so I started making a pile and brought them ALL home. My husband thought I was insane but I love them!

  2. I am always looking for items to use for surface design. My husband has even learned to ask before throwing out any item that has a design. He will even dumpster dive for items, i.e. a roll of Tyvek! The funniest was at the grocery store. I had just read Leslie’s article about using Olay facial tissues for surface design. I was swabbing down my cart with the disinfectant towel the store provides and I looked at the towel. Great weaving design! And there was a whole trash bin full of them! I knew then I had gone over the edge.

  3. I often buy items and keep the packaging for surface design, mesh bags from produce, etc. BUT the oddest choice I’ve made was trying on rubber sandals. I was deciding between two pairs and made my final selection after turning one pair over and finding sunflowers on the rubber soles. They are comfy flip flops and make great sunflower stamps, too.

  4. I’m fascinated with cardboard egg cartons, especially turned upside down. I’ve made photos of them to use in making visual patterns for computer, but they also make very interesting stamps, especially used in groups of four “cups.” They have a lot of texture, and can read as crosses or square patterns, depending on how they’re positioned. Haven’t tried batik with them, but I think they’d work.

  5. Something Lisa,
    I, too, have used those empty tp rolls for wax batik application. My husband no longer comments on things like that, but I notice I get the odd, sideways glance on occasion. If you like circles, the end of a pool “noodle” is pretty fabulous. There are some really weirdly shaped pieces of styrofoam that come as packaging that can serve as nice stamps for wax, and on gelatin plates.

  6. Shoe soles! Who else has cool ones? I have some really great patterning on the bottom of a pair of NAOTs. I don’t think they are going to end up in the soy wax pot (yet), but why not use them for gelatin plate printing and stamping? Tires……..

  7. I work in a molecular biology lab … and between what gets tossed (though we clean and reuse as much as we can) and the packaging, I find lots of fun tools for surface design (like empty pipet tip boxes…I use the lids to apply sticky-backed foam stamps.) I haven’t yet started dumpster diving but I’ll be looking at them in a new light now! Thanks for the tip! *grins*

  8. I once bought two ornate rubber door mats that I did not need just to satisfy my need to print with them. I have also moved house several times with boxes full of polystyrene packaging that I use for prints. My friends all think I am batty and have urged me to throw all my “garbage” away. All I see is potential and I hang on to the stuff vehemently.

  9. A friend has taught me to make Ukrainian Easter eggs (pysanka), and in reading about re-purposing various objects to make surface designs, I thought about how the stylus used for the Easter eggs could be used to apply the wax for delicate or detailed additions to a wax resist technique. I’ve never dyed fabric to create an original design, but I’m inspired to try!

  10. So much fun to see comments from like-minded crafters. I laughed out loud when reading the question. I have purposely bought items at the store just for the container. And the comment about egg cartons reminded about the t-shirts we “printed” with a group of elementary-aged children at church. The bottom of one egg cup on the styrofoam cartons is just the shape (with one edge rather rounded) to stamp rows and rows to produce the look of chainmail. It was easy and fun for the kids to fill in the vest shape on the front of the T-shirt. We used fabric paint.

  11. I purchased a embossed letter holder from a charity shop because the pattern is beautiful and would make lovely surface designs. When my daughter commented how unusual it was she gave me a disgusted look when I said why I bought it!!!