Inspired Art and Living with Fiona Stolze

How to Steam Fix Silk Dyes for Best Results

I was very recently asked a question about steam fixing silk dyes and this prompted me to write the present article. We’re not talking here about iron fixing as that is quite a straight forward process and needs no further explanation. It’s the French dyes which need to be steam fixed and that’s what we’re going to be looking at here.

One thing that is important to remember when you are painting with silk dyes is that both your gutta (if you have used any) and your dyes themselves will need to settle into the silk fabric, so it’s really recommendable to leave your work on the frame until the next day before attempting to fix it. This will ensure your work is completely dry. As the fixing process takes around 3 hours, it’s best left until the next day. That is the main reason why I offer to steam fix any work done by my workshop participants and to send it on to them a few days later.

But what about the actual steaming itself? How is that done? Well, I have always used a professional steaming device to do this. Mine is a horizontal one and has a roof-shaped lid as you can see in the photo here. The advantage of this is that any condensation can easily drop down to the sides and past the silk without harming it. I find it fantastic and haven’t had a piece of ruined silk in all the years I have been painting. It is electric and has a thermostat, ensuring a constant temperature all the way through. You may well have seen vertical models which are basically the same but most of them have to be used on top of your cooker on or electric plates.

These professional steamers are quite costly and the average hobby person will not be wanting to make such an investment. You can, of course, look on the internet to see where the nearest steaming service is. Many artists offer to do this for a reasonable fee per metre of silk plus postage. But there are ways of reaching similar results by making up your own steaming device at home. It is tricky to do it with constant good results and there is always the risk of drops of water getting onto your silk and spoiling it.

If you are attempting to do this at home, you will need a vegetable steamer of a decent size. You can wrap your silk artwork up by laying it flat on a piece of muslin and then on blank newspaper (or similar quality) and carefully rolling it up, taking care to seal the ends. You will have to fold in the ends to make a little parcel so that it will fit inside your steamer. This is where the difficulties start because ideally the parcel should not touch the sides. Your package really needs to be suspended freely in the steam for best results. Also, be careful not to package too much because then the steam won’t penetrate the wrapping in order to effectively fix the dyes. There are many artists who have developed their own methods for doing this so you might want to use your search engine to have a closer look. I have read time and again of disappointments when, despite this, condensation ruins the final effect of the silk.

One thing to bear in mind is that creases and marks tend to get fixed into the silk. So if you are not very careful in wrapping it up, it can come out with some permanent creases in it, depending on the silk quality. Satin silk is particularly sensitive so take a bit of time to ensure a smooth rolling up.

When you have steamed pongee or habotai (often used for wafty, translucent scarves), it is quite easy to rinse them in lukewarm water until the bleeding stops. Satin silk loses part of its sheen when you do this, so be warned. Also, make sure that you only swirl it about in the water and then lay it flat on a tea towel or the like to dry, as any squeezing or wringing will result in creases which will often not come out again. Ironing creases in satin silk often just irons them in. I paint my mandalas on satin silk and since they mostly get framed behind glass, I do not wash them afterwards. They just get ironed carefully and pat in a safe, dry place. Anything that is intended for wearing gets thoroughly rinsed.

When I prepare my work for steaming in my electrical device, I use a length cut off from a huge roll of blank newspaper which I have specifically for this purpose. One end of the paper is taped to a metal pole. I then begin to roll up my silks, taking care that both the paper and the fabric are completely flat and straight. I also allow for a good few inches space at both ends of the tube as well as at the start of the roll and the end. A few pieces of masking tape hold the roll closed. I then suspend it in the steam bath, close the lid, set the thermostat and leave it for 3 hours. When the time is up, being careful to use oven gloves or tea towels, I open the lid, lift out the pole and package and lay it down on the floor on plastic sheeting to cool. After a few minutes I unroll it and let the pieces of silk cool at room temperature. They look gorgeous, really glossy and translucent. Mmmmm…..the best part.

If the paper is not too messy, I recycle it in the next steaming. Any bleeding on the paper depends on how concentrated the dyes were when you painted and how liberal you were in your application of them.

And you don’t ever have to worry about overdoing things. When you are steaming your artwork, the process completes and if you forget about it and go off to do something else, leaving your silk in the steamer for even double the time you intended to, this doesn’t have any adverse effects. It’s not like overcooking veggies in the steamer. πŸ™‚

You might find it worthwhile searching for sites that sell steaming devices because there’s nothing to beat them in simplicity and magnificence in results. I never have to worry about whether or not my work will turn out good . I paid more for mine because it is electric however you can get the version that you can warm up on your cooker for quite a bit less. You could also watch out on Ebay to see if you can pick one up at a good price.

One last word on this topic. There is also the “microwave” method. This is how it works – If you have painted a silk scarf in the wet in wet technique, you place it on a plate and put it in the microwave for a few minutes to fix the colours. You can only do this if it is very wet and there is no gutta. Since I originally posted this article, I have delved into this area and found it to be quite enjoyable. What you can make with it is very limited as the silk needs to be very wet before you pop it in for ‘cooking’. If it’s too dry, it’s just going to singe and burn…not very nice. I’ll be exploring this more and hope to have something in writing quite soon. πŸ™‚

So, good luck with your work. I hope this article helps. Let me know how you get on.


December 12, 2009 - Posted by | SILK PAINTING TECHNIQUES | , , ,


  1. […] listed a few pros and cons of the homemade version in my article called “How to Steam Fix Silk Dyes for Best Results”. Please have a look and let me know if you have any questions we can look […]

    Pingback by Silk & Art News | December 14, 2009 | Reply

  2. Hi Fiona

    I am looking to buy a silk steamer. I would like to make one regarding the cost factor but dont wont to risk the condensation factor which I have had happen when experimenting in the past. Would you mind telling me where you bought yours.

    Comment by Pearl | January 13, 2010 | Reply

    • I have taught college art and art history.. I have been reading a lot of your writing and enjoy reading and editing. Your knowledge is wonderful and thanks for sharing.
      When I started silk painting, Fiona, there were so many secrets.
      I tried to find out about it in the 70s and was “road blocked” so I kept painting and did a lot of printmaking. I have only had 2 days of a 3 day course but have been doing art for a long time.
      I am just amazed how the silkpainters and SPIN share, answer questions etc. It is so amazing to me since I had trouble finding assistance and help in those days.
      When I visited my daughter in Switzerland, on my way back we went to London to go to some shows. She had new twin sons and left them with her husband and we went to London for a little fun and rest for her.
      I poked around in some book stores looking for a book of Jane Venables, an English silk painter. I got the no. of the out of print book and came home and had my bookstore to do a search. They found me a copy of her book in Arkansas State.
      I took that book and taught myself.
      The workshops that are available now and blogs like yours is absolutely fabulous that someone can make contact with you, read your writings and go from there. I want to meet you if I come back to England. Two other people that i know I would like a lot, Angel Ray and Mia Johns.
      Mia lives in N.Carolina near my brother in law.
      Thanks, Fiona and wish you the best. Ruth Conner, Edina MN. USA.

      Comment by Ruth | September 4, 2010 | Reply

      • Ruth,

        I deeply appreciate the comments you have made here. It’s very sweet of you. It’s always lovely when people get in touch and express their appreciation. It makes it all worthwhile. Thank you. πŸ™‚ x

        Comment by Fiona | September 4, 2010 | Reply

    • I replied to you by PM, Pearl.

      Comment by Fiona | September 4, 2010 | Reply

  3. Thank you so much for your fantastic website. It manages to fill in the gaps in the knowledge which I just can’t find in reading books on silk painting, however well done. Your help gives me the courage to keep trying to produce work of which I am proud. Your site just makes all the difference. Thank you again.

    Comment by Jaent Walker | July 2, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Jaent
      What a lovely comment. I’m so pleased that you find this blog useful and that it inspires you so much. That’s what it’s all about and it makes it worthwhile when lovely feedback like this comes through. Many thanks. πŸ™‚ x

      Comment by Fiona | July 2, 2010 | Reply

  4. Hi Fiona,
    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us. I am a brand new silk painter and am still on a steep learning curve. I bought myself a length of ducting to make my own steaming device. It sits over a tea urn and I cut out sections at the bottom of the ducting so I could see the water level and also have access to the temperature dial.

    I have just steamed my first length of silk (which was an abstract design). Until I read your informative article on How to Steam Fix Silk for Best Results, I thought I must have over-steamed the silk because all the fine watermark lines aren’t fine lines any more, as if I had added more water to them and they had spread, so that what was a fine line is now about a 1/8″ wide line … it is still an interesting design, but not what I wanted. Is it normal for things to change like this? I am hesitant to steam my next length of silk until I find out whether I have done something wrong with the first length.

    I will be very grateful for any advice you can give me please Fiona.


    Comment by Lynne Taylor | September 21, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Lynne

      Thanks so much for asking about this topic. Believe me, you are not alone with this problem, as the steaming seems to be the area of most difficulties with both budding silk painters and those who have more experience.

      Firstly, there are several questions which need to be clarified before we can see what is causing this.

      What type of silk are you using and how thick is it?
      What type of dyes are you using?
      Are you using some type of thickening agent so that you can paint the fine lines?

      Then we need to look at the steaming process itself. Vital to the process is that the temperature is high enough for sufficient steam to be produced and for this to be sustained during the 2 – 3 hours you are steaming for. If the water is not hot enough for any reason, the chemical bonding of the dye with the silk fabric will not happen and the dye can start to wander and get washed out.

      There is always a good reason for any of the mishaps we have, so if you could be so sweet as to give some more details as above, we can then look at this more closely and eliminate what is causing this problem, making it a thing of the past for you. πŸ™‚

      Comment by Fiona | September 22, 2010 | Reply

      • Hi Fiona,
        Thanks for answering my query so quickly πŸ™‚

        I am using 10mm Habotai. The dyes are Silksational steamfix dyes which I buy already made up (ie not in powder form) I don’t use a thickening agent.

        I used the dyes full strength … but to get a more interesting ‘look’, after the dyes dried I dipped my brush in water and applied the water to some areas of the silk … as the water spread on the silk, it ended up with a fine line of darker colour at the edge of this water wash … it was this edge that thickened up in the steaming process.

        I insert a meat thermometer at the top of my steam pipe, and try to maintain a temp of 180-190 Farenheit … when the temperature reaches 180/190, the thermostat on the tea urn switches off and the temp falls to about 160, then the thermostat kicks in and up goes the temperature again … so, throughout the 3-hour steaming process the temperature goes up and down between 160 and 190 constantly.

        In the steaming process I lose almost 1 litre of water per hour in condensation .. some of this (not a lot) drips out the bottom of the steampipe, some is collected by the towel at the top of the pipe.

        That’s about it Fiona.
        thanks again for your help with this πŸ™‚
        cheers, Lynne

        Comment by Lynne Taylor | September 23, 2010 | Reply

  5. Hi Lynne

    Thanks for giving me all that information. I get a much clearer picture of what you are doing now. πŸ™‚ Okay, so let’s look at what you are using. A fairly light-weight habotai. The lighter the weight, the less dye we need before the fabric reaches saturation point. All surplus dye flows out either onto the paper during steaming or during the wash after fixing.

    You are the first person using Silksational dyes who has contacted me. I had never heard of them before but looked up the website. I see they are not acid based dyes like Pebeo or Dupont. They are water-based. I will ask around on the forums what experience other people have of them.

    However, I don’t think the actual dyes have anything to do with this.

    What exact instructions for steaming come with these dyes? I noticed you said you set the steamer to around 180 – 190 degrees Fahrenheit. That is about 82 – 87 degrees celcius. My steamer is always much hotter than that, 95 approx. So I’m guessing that maybe has something to do with it. Mine is electric so I have precision and don’t need to keep watching that the temperature is right. I don’t lose anywhere near 1 litre per steaming hour in condensation, so it sounds like quite a lot of liquid is escaping.

    You say this is the first steaming session you have done. That means you have no other steamings to compare this one with.

    As to the thicker lines. Based on my experience, this is what I would say. Your dyes air dryed on the silk. You then applied some water which caused what we call a hard edge. There was a build-up of dye in that area since the dye wasn’t flowing so freely. There was resistence from the first layer of dye. You had been using the dyes neat from the bottle (undiluted) so they were already strong and now had a further layer.

    Now if you are steaming the silk and the device doesn’t heat up quickly and get to the right temperature to start producing steam to begin the bonding process, the dye can ‘move’. Many painters experience fuzzy edges or smearing of the dyes. This seems to happen more with the darker dyes and where there is a build up of excess dye. Blacks and purples are prime candidates for this happening but the more pastelly the shades, the less the likelihood of it happening.

    My gut instinct is telling me the steamer isn’t hot enough and so the steam isn’t being formed quickly enough.

    I have been painting and steaming for over 10 years and my dyes don’t fade, wash out or get fuzzy because the temperature is well-regulated. I maintain that this is key in the process.

    So I would suggest raising the temperature slightly and make a small sample piece adding water just the same way you did before and then you have a control. This will give you good insight.

    And here’s a tip for the painting: when you have applied dyes and want special effect, don’t wait until the dyes dry. Apply some water or alcohol onto the still wet first layer and then you will get the effects you want. When the dyes have dried, you are unlikely to get lighter areas and hard edges can form easily (which is fine if that is what you want). πŸ™‚

    Do let me know how you get on. Good luck.

    Comment by Fiona | September 23, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi again Fiona,
      I have since steamed a top which was made from Charmeuse 16.5 mm and it turned out well, no enlarging of the hard edge. Interestingly, after unwrapping this top, or the previous fabric length, there was hardly any dye that had bled out onto the paper.

      With the Silksational dyes, the steaming instructions only say: “Steam dye paintings for 1-3 hours. Full strength colour and larger paintings need longer time than pastels or small paintings. Also, the amount of silk wrapped on a roll for steaming will determine the length of time required in the steamer so that the steam has sufficient time to penetrate all the layers. Rinse the painting in plenty of lukewarm soapy water to remove unfixed dye”. (I use Synthrapol in pre-washing silk, and rinsing afterwards.)

      With the steampipe, I could turn the temperature dial up to the maximum level, which means the water in the urn would be at a constant boil. With my thermometer inserted at the top of the steampipe, the heat level pointer stops at 87C (190F) so when the pointer reaches that level, and stays there, it will then be in the lap of the gods as to how high my temperature is .. I’ll just have to keep the faith πŸ™‚ … but at least I will know it will certainly be hotter than 87C.

      What you said about the steam not building up quickly enough, and fuzzy edges/smearing, makes so much sense to me … sounds as tho this is the most probable reason for my widening edges … my silk has become slowly damp as the steam temperature builds up, so the silk hasn’t had the sudden impact of high steam temperature, and the water washes were impacted because they were a lighter density than the dyes.

      Thank you for your tip about the alcohol or water to the still wet silk. I’ll try that on my next painted piece.

      I’m going to put all your info into a ‘Fiona File’ for brilliant reference πŸ™‚

      With your steamer, your condensation runs off the roof and back into your steamer … with my pipe, it runs down the insides of the pipe into a tray, and also gets absorbed by the towel at the top of the pipe. But, because I lose so much water over the 3 hours (about 2.5 litres), it’s a mystery to me where it goes … when I unwrap my paper parcel, it’s never soggy, quite dryish really. I feel I’m wrapping my silk OK (3 paper layers on top of the silk before rolling, and then this parcel rolled up again in paper and taped, ends sealed … so I end up with about 3 or 4 layers of paper in the outer wrapping. Perhaps I’m not using enough paper, and the water/condensation is soaking into my silk, also adding to the problem with the hard edge. Next time I could try adding more paper to the outer layer of the parcel .. unless wrapping in too much paper causes a problem?

      I belong to a textile group here in Sydney … I think a good topic for one of our workshops could be “How to Successfully Wrap Silk for Steaming” πŸ™‚

      Fiona, I am SO grateful for your help, thank you so very much.

      cheers, Lynne

      Comment by Lynne Taylor | September 24, 2010 | Reply

      • You’re so very welcome. I’m always happy when things get solved. πŸ™‚

        Oh, and don’t worry too much about extra layers of paper. I use a minimum. I think this is more about the temperature. Keep in touch and report on your progress.

        Comment by Fiona | September 24, 2010 | Reply

  6. Hi Fiona,

    I had used the same water wash on this one (same as I did with the first piece) but the hard lines on this second piece stayed put, didn’t move at all!

    THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!!!!!!!!! I am so very grateful for your help!!!

    Comment by Lynne Taylor | September 24, 2010 | Reply

    • Woohoo!! Success. Well done. Now you can move on without worrying about the steaming. πŸ™‚

      Comment by Fiona | September 24, 2010 | Reply

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