Brenda’s fabric (silk painting)

My internet friend Brenda asked me to create a special piece of silk. She intends to make herself a fit and flare type of dress. At the moment, while she is having treatment for breast cancer, she can only sew in short bursts (same for many of us without such a good excuse). So when I said it might take me some time she said not to worry.

I showed you the inspiration pictures she sent me.

Lots of nice stuff going on there but I was anxious, and daunted. I had trouble with all the elements of her specification

  • deep colours
  • including coppery brown
  • medium scale
  • flowing
  • leaf and elliptical shapes

Deep colours

Brenda sent some taupe brown cuttings, alongside the other deep strong shades – purple, teal and forest green. so I felt that was my main colour scheme. However my piece started with a central motif in pinks and purples, which are rather light. As I explained in my post on how to do this, after dividing the fabric into sections I like to start with light colours. Maybe this one is a little bit like a roundel in a stained glass window. The window is framed in dark green, like old-fashioned paint, with a view of a garden through them. I then used hot wax to outline these light colours and protect them from the darker colours I was planning to add next.

I planned to create a garden (botanical instruction) because I love painting flowers. They are my natural motif (Ruth of Ruthie Sews has a leaf as hers) and I love the colours and shapes of flowers (and the smell!) and enjoy flowers in art and on fabric. But Brenda hadn’t asked for flowers!

As I filled in the background I knew that I should be doing deeper colours. One of the problems I had was that I don’t have brown, and only a small pot of black. I have lots of blue, turquoise, pink, red and yellow (my colours!). So I struggled to implement this aspect of the spec. I did lots of mixing and testing.

Leaf and elliptical shapes and flowing, medium scale design

Once the pink/mauve flower was in I felt the need to put some strong deep green lines to divide up the space. I was thinking leaves and elliptical shapes. I spent some time looking at images of teardrops and paisley too. Also Brenda had mentioned “medium scale, botanical, flowing,” which worried me a bit.

I put leaf shapes diagonally in lots of shades of mainly cooler greens. These are my ellipses. They may look a bit like mussels. I think I used about 10 shades of green to make them look fairly natural and botanical. I wasn’t sure if this was flowing enough – probably not. And I think I messed up the medium scale – this might count as a large scale design?

Coppery brown

Brenda specifically mentioned she liked wearing brown and you can see the copper verdigris, and there is a gingery brown in the peacock feathers. I knew I had to make this shade and I used orange with black and blue to make it. We used to call this “poo brown” (and not after the bear) when I was young. Sorry Brenda – this is my least favourite shade. I mixed in some turquoise which I thought set it off nicely and was true to the verdigris inspiration.

Unfortunately once the brown was on I was appalled. The photograph captures the work in progress at that point. My husband asked why I had put brown in. I was pretty crestfallen and I left it to simmer overnight.

Silk painting for Brenda Marks
The brown paint is added

I knew that Brenda had asked for deep shades but I felt the only way I could retrieve the work was by contrasting the brown with some strong, bright colours. I wanted red and pink in there. She hadn’t asked for it (although one of the cuttings has a purply red in it, just). I was worried but on instinct I introduced turquoise, strong bright pink, bright blue, bright light blue and bright purple. These are my colours (cool bright), whereas Brenda is deep-cool I think. And I felt it was a huge improvement. I am not sure this is what Brenda wanted me to do, but I had to do it.

Adding pink, red and other bright colours

The artistic process

When people ask for certain specifics I can get a bit fixated on them, and I start to worry if I can include elements I like and are “me” too. But of course this is acceptable – the whole point of a commission or a collaboration is that the creator (me) is being asked to put themselves into it. I don’t think I exactly answered the brief, but I felt Brenda wanted me to be myself and make this my own way.

I held her and her wishes close throughout the process. I knew, in my heart, that she would accept that I am going to communicate something of my own nature. Yet this was bothering me all the way through. I still don’t really like the brown in this piece myself. But overall I think it works well and I am happy with my work. I probably wouldn’t buy this in a shop as the greens and browns are a bit dark/warm/muted for me. But I think they will suit Brenda well and I love the pattern. To me it looks like bunches of grapes, malachite, delphiniums and peonies. It’s got a 1930s vibe, maybe more like a furnishing fabric than a dress fabric. But I could see it as a rather grand 1950s evening dress with a full skirt. Overall I love it, and so does Brenda. And I got 346 likes on Instagram!

“I  can’t say enough how much I love the colors and the design” she kindly wrote to me. I fear she may just be saying this to make me feel good, but she is sincere as well as kind, so (riddled as I am with doubt that I may have disappointed her or failed to please her) I am going to believe she means it.


Once the painting is finished it is necessary to iron out all the wax, then iron actively and hotly all over the cloth until we are sure the colours are fixed. I have never had any trouble with this but as this is going to someone else I thought I had better do it properly. The whole de-wax and fixing process took a few hours. Next I washed the fabric in a fairly hot wash with detergent (as the wax leaves an oily residue). Then a final press before packing it up for its return journey to the USA.


This was a fun project, despite the angst. I like it the finished product very much. I think it is one of the best silk painting projects I have done. Now I know Brenda has received it I feel alot better. Brenda still has a couple of chemo sessions to get through, then her operation. Once all that is behind her I expect she will make something really nice with it. I really enjoyed doing something creative for Brenda,  and I hope wearing it will make her happy too.




20 Responses

  1. Kerry

    I can fully appreciate the anxiety in producing something that will not only please the recipient, but also allow you your artistic freedom/compliment your natural inclination for bright colours. You’re going to have to believe Brenda loves the design and the colours, and she will, because it has been commissioned with thought and care. I too am not a fan of muddy brown but I think the bright colours kind of compliment the brown and make it a bit more edgy. It’s going to look fab when it’s made up!

  2. Jenny

    The fabric is stunning. I’m not good at imagining draped clothing based on a flat piece of fabric but your draped skirt looks amazing! I like the brown, to my mind it makes the other fabrics sing and the paler waxed out sections are inspired. Such a gift imbued with love and care can’t fail to be loved by the recipient and Brenda will now have the fun of dreaming up suitable design’s for when she is well enough to cut into. Now at that point it will be daunting….

  3. eimear

    I love how you showed the build up of layers to the final pattern (scrolling down I was like a mystery tour) fantastic balance of colours – really well done

  4. Demented Fairy

    What a project, and lucky Brenda! I cannot imagine having the patience to not only design and paint the silk, but to control and reproduce a consistent pattern over such yardage. Wonderful!

  5. Mary Funt

    This will look wonderful as a full skirted dress. The brown balances the brighter colors and Brenda looks thrilled with your work. Best wishes to her for a speedy recovery.

  6. Jenny Lark

    I love it and like Elaine can only marvel at the way you painted that large piece so consistently. The colours and scale are just right for Brenda and it looks wonderful draped as a skirt.

  7. Jules

    I’ve found myself in a similar quandary a time or two, trying to work creatively to someone else’s specifications/taste, and if I can manage to force myself to do it, I’m always utterly dissatisfied, both creatively, and from a quality-control standpoint (if it doesn’t appeal to me at all, how can I critique it?). I’ve found it a much healthier approach to do as you’ve done, and include elements that they’ve requested, and then allow myself free rein to add in things that are particular to my own taste/style. That, after all, is the whole point of having something made by an artist/artisan: to have glimpses of their creative spirit peeking through. All in all, I do think it’s a stunning piece of silk, and the rich, clear hues make the darker tones sing!

  8. Brenda Marks

    I am thrilled with this fabric and hope you can see it in my face in the picture! And I completely agree with you and Jules – I sent colors and ideas for inspiration and assumed that you’d “do your thing” with them. And you did and I love the fabric! Thank you, thank you!

  9. Alli

    Your work and process are beautiful! I really love the abstract shapes from your initial flowers. And I think it’s wonderful that you added your own touches in — you’re right that that’s the whole point of a collaboration. You did a fantastic job! 🙂

  10. ceci

    Its interesting how much easier it is to contemplate non-success and enjoy the process in a project for myself than one for someone else, I totally get the anxiety!

    HOWEVER the end product is so lovely, and so distinct from your other silk painting (the benefit of collaboration perhaps?). I especially like seeing each stage – its giving me hope for a currently rather blah embroidery project of my own….maybe it just needs MORE.


  11. Maria Crowe

    Wow, what a process. I love how you saved the print by adding your own colours. You were right to do so. You ended up with a beautiful design on the fabric in the end. Very beautiful indeed.

  12. Catherine

    Just – congratulations. I think it’s wonderful. Very much enjoyed your post, tracing how you approached it and built up the design. The finished fabric is beautiful. My warm wishes for Brenda’s speedy recovery.


    Absolutely stunning! The design/pattern/fabric flows so easily, one would never guess you had any difficulty or angst during the creation. Thank you for sharing the real story. Brenda’s smile shows how much she loves her beautiful silk, and I’m sending very best wishes for a speedy recovery for her.

  14. Christine

    This has been a wonderful project, not least because of the human connections and support. The end result in terms of fabric is gorgeous. The end result in terms of human connexion is inspiring

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