Steaming Silk Paintings on the Cheap

When dyes are used to paint silk, the silks must then be steam-set in order for the dye to bond permanently to the fabric.  The most fool-proof and inexpensive way I’ve found to steam-set silk paintings is to use a bamboo steamer set on top of a pot of simmering water.  This process is explained with audio, video, images and text–along with everything you need to know about how to paint silk–in my new ebook– MySilkArt ebook 1:  Silk Painting Basics for Beginners ($5.99, ibooks).  However:

If you don’t have a bamboo steamer or don’t want to buy one, there is an alternate, even cheaper (although slightly less foolproof) way to steam your silk paintings using the following supplies:
Large stock pot with lid (it can be an inexpensive one; dedicate it for steaming silk and don’t use it for cooking)

Three clean aluminum cans, all the same size, with both ends removed from each OR you can use a small metal (not plastic) colander, turned upside down, that will fit inside your stock pot.


Four sheets of clean, blank newsprint (NOT printed newspaper) at least an inch larger than your silk painting on all sides (you can also use smaller sheets placed together and overlapped to equal that size, but you still need four layers)

Light-colored string or twine, one yard (dark-colored string could possibly transfer dye in the steamer)

Heavy duty aluminum foil


Two old, light-colored cotton washcloths

Stovetop or single burner


PART 1:  Wrap your silk for steaming. (short video)

Stack two sheets of newsprint on your work surface, or two layers of smaller newsprint sheets placed together with edges overlapped.

Lay your silk on top of the stack; the paper should extend at least an inch beyond each side of the silk.  Smooth out the silk so it’s directly in the center of the paper and there are no wrinkles.

Stack two more sheets of newsprint on top of the silk; so now the silk is sandwiched between four sheets of newsprint, two underneath and two on top of the silk.

Make a one-inch fold along one side of the stack and begin to roll up tightly in to a tube shape.  Keep the roll tight and try not to have any space in the middle.  Your goal is to keep the finished silk bundle as tiny as possible so the pot lid will close and also to minimize water damage while steaming.

Finish rolling up the tube and tape it in the middle with masking tape.

Starting at one end of the roll with the seam side up, begin to tightly roll up the tube into a coil.  Try not to have any space in the middle of the coil.

Finish coiling up the tube and tie it with the string.  Make an “X” with the string around the bundle so it doesn’t spring open.  (If you don’t have someone to hold the bundle for you while you tie it, you can sit down and hold it between your knees.)

PART 2:  Place your silk bundle in the pot

Place your pot on the stove burner but don’t turn on the stove yet.  It’s much easier to assemble the steamer in place than to have to move it after assembly, when the contents could shift.

Pour one inch of water into your steamer pot.

cansinpotPut the three cans as close together as possible, standing on end, in the center of the pot.  If you’re using a metal colander, place it upside down in the center of the pot so it acts as a rack for your silk bundle, holding it up and well away from the surface of the water.



Place your silk/paper bundle on top of the cans (or colander).




bundlepot3Place a folded cotton washcloth on top of the silk bundle.




foilcutCut the corners from a 12-inch square of aluminum foil to make it into a circular shape.  This minimizes the chances that the excess of the corners could curl in and drip condensation on your silk bundle.


foilinpotMake the foil into a dome shape, without letting the edges curl in and touch the bundle, and lay the foil dome over the silk bundle.




bundlepot4Fold the second cotton washcloth and place it on top of the foil dome.




stacksanspotHere’s what the stack would look like sitting outside the pot.





potonstovePlace the lid on the pot.  If the lid won’t fit, try using an upside-down metal bowl for a lid or make one from aluminum foil.  The makeshift lid needs to fit the pot well so it traps as much steam as possible.



PART 3:  Steam your silk.

Turn the burner on medium-low heat and watch it carefully.  When it begins to simmer, turn the heat to low (simmer).  The idea is to create steam with as little heat as possible.  If the water comes to a hard boil, it could splash up onto the bundle and mar your painting.

TIP:  Use a flashlight to see down past the edge of the foil to the water in the pot.

IMPORTANT:  Make sure the water does not boil dry.  This creates a fire hazard and will not set your silk properly.  Replace water (carefully and slowly) as needed.

Let your silk steam for about two hours, checking it now and then to make sure the water is not boiling (it should be simmering) and that it has not boiled dry.

After two hours, remove the lid.  Using tongs, remove the washcloths, foil, and the silk bundle.  Set the bundle on a rack to cool.

When the bundle is cool, unwrap it and discard the used newsprint.  Let the silk “rest” overnight before rinsing it out and washing it with a little baby shampoo.  Let it hang flat to dry and iron it on the “silk” setting of your iron.


  • Gerry

    Very clever use of common household items to accomplish silk steaming. You just saved me $800 for the steamer I was thinking of getting.

  • Lots of information on your site! I have a question about steaming. I use Dupont dyes and I made a vertical steamer as shown on Dharma trading. Using 100% Habotai silk, after steaming about 3 hours, sometimes quite a bit of dye washes out afterwards when I wash the silk. I used Dharma’s version of synthrapol. It says to wash in warm water. Is this wash out normal? Sometimes it shades the lighter areas on the silk.

    • pglose

      Hi Elaine! Yes washout is normal. You can avoid dye transfer by using this method: Don’t wash your silk right away; let it rest at least overnight after steaming. Fill two clean sinks (or buckets) with plain, room temperature water. Rinse your silk in one sink; as soon as your water turns color from the dye, switch your silk to the other sink. Gently agitate your silk constantly to avoid dye transfer as you drain and fill the other sink again. Transfer the silk from sink to sink until you don’t get anymore dye washout. Then fill a sink with clean water and use a tiny bit of Synthropol (1/4 teaspoon or less; you should not have a lot of suds) and hand wash your silk in that. For the final rinse, fill a sink with clean water and about a tablespoon of plain white vinegar; this will restore the pH of the silk and wash out any traces of soap. Don’t worry, it will not make your silk smell like vinegar. Then hang flat to dry… you know the rest. Let me know how it goes!

  • Thanks! It worked. Elaine

    • pglose

      Wow! You are a fast worker. Very glad to help!

  • Hi Pamela

    This worked great!

    However, the scarves came out slightly creased in ridged rows all over because of the rolling to put in the pot – how do I get rid of these? I have tried a 50/50 vinegar water mixture and iron, and it worked a bit but did not totally remove them! Would drycleaning help?


    • pglose

      Hello Arati, This method of steaming does create wrinkles in the silk, but you can remove them with the following method: Lay an old towel or cloth on your ironing board to protect it. Lay your silk (gutta side down) on the towel and mist it with water. Turn up the heat on your iron and use the steam setting. Don’t turn your iron up all the way, just maybe 3/4 of the way. Iron your silk painting on the back. The higher heat may cause the gutta to smear, so do a test corner before you iron the whole piece. The towel will protect your ironing board from melted gutta. If the iron smears the gutta on your silk, you’ll have to turn the heat down some and try again. If gutta gets on your iron, wipe the hot iron on an old towel that then throw the towel away. You want the iron as hot as you can get it without doing damage to the silk painting, so you may have to experiment with it to get it perfect. Let me know how it goes!

      • Thanks, Pamela. I will try this. One of the scarves was with gutta, but only a little, the green one was wax which has already been removed.

        • Guest

          Here is the image

          • pglose

            Wow, these are gorgeous, Arati! It looks like you may have used black gutta on the blue one, so don’t ever dry clean that one. The colored guttas always stay in as part of the design and should not be dry-cleaned out. You will be able to do wonders with that extra-hot iron, especially over areas with no gutta. Good luck!

  • Tetiana

    Thank you, Pamela
    for informative article! I also had a hard time to remove wrinkles. Even trying steaming iron and all directions in previous comment didn’t remove it…. Did I steam it too long maybe? I used 19 mm Charmeuse and steamed for 3hr