Shopping: Fabric fans paint without brushes

There are so many ways to produce stunning effects on fabric and a course can show you how.
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THE STRAINS of chamber music filtered through the open windows that looked out on to a beautiful English garden filled with flowers. In this peaceful setting of an old Sussex rectory, a group of students sat down for the first day's tuition of a weekend course in fabric painting.

Tutor Mary Fortune surprised them all when she told them to put away the paint brushes. "Today," she said. "Is Blue Peter day. We are going to experiment by making designs on fabric with a whole range of implements to create some surprising effects. But we won't be using brushes."

Each student had a piece of fabric - usually calico - pinned to a wooden frame and was told to mix a good, dark colour on the paint palettes. Then Mary distributed each of them with a piece of card, a cotton wool bud, a cocktail stick, a cork, a small sponge, a knotted piece of fabric and some pieces of polystyrene and corrugated paper.

In turn each of these was dipped into the paint and used to make marks on the fabric. Eva McCartney, from London, has exhibited some of her work and she showed her experience with this technique by using the different marks to create a complete picture, showing how easy it is to paint designs on fabric without recourse to a brush.

Jean Brown, from Hampshire, had chosen to learn about fabric painting on this weekend residential course because she found it more challenging than silk painting. "You have total control over the texture and effects on the fabric and there is so much variety in what you can achieve."

Every half-an-hour, Mary demonstrated a different technique to create designs on the fabric, showing the students how to use wood blocks and stencilling and how to apply colour. First, she cut out several flower shapes from card with a craft knife to use as templates. Next came the application of paint using one of the spraying techniques.

This is done by loading an old toothbrush with paint and using the thumb to flick the paint to produce an evenly distributed layer of colour which gives a stippled effect. Too much paint causes blobs - the art of thumb- flicking is more complex than it looks.

The alternative to the toothbrush technique is using the mouth diffuser. For this demonstration, everyone trooped outside to watch Mary in action. It is important to blow the paint straight on to the fabric and not at an angle. Check the wind direction before you try this one at home.

Mary pinned a selection of geranium leaves to her fabric and positioned the frame against a tree. Then she knelt directly opposite the fabric and positioned the mouth diffuser about six inches from the screen, with one end in the paint pot and the other in her mouth. The idea is to blow paint evenly across the fabric, and Mary used first red, then blue, to produce a mottled purple background. When the leaves were unpinned they left a perfect imprint. To enhance the effect, the leaves were pinned back in slightly different places, overlapping here and there, and paint was applied again to give different depths of colour and texture to the leaf pattern. The paint needs to be slightly diluted for this exercise as it may otherwise clog - and the sprayer needs plenty of puff.

Most of the students on the course at the Old Rectory wanted to produce small pictures and wall hangings for home and for presents. Others liked to combine what they learned from fabric printing with quilting to produce cushion covers and other decorative pieces.

Ailie Findlay, from Richmond in Surrey, has always enjoyed quilting but until now had been frightened of using colour. "I've learnt so much today about mixing colours. I've found some of the techniques irritating, provoking and even maddening, but I'll be in the studio till late tonight practising."

Some of Mary's own work shows how different disciplines can be fused into one. A selection of kitchen cushion covers showed how she had used cross sections of peppers, onions, apples and pears as a printing block and then quilted the material.

"You can apply sequins on to calico, you can print with little wooden blocks, stencil with leaves, print with potatoes to get the effect you want. You can paint calico and then sew silk organza over the top and weave in some beads for a pretty wall hanging. I enjoy encouraging students to experiment a bit and it is quite interesting how southerners seem to be more willing to play around in the abstract than northerners.

"In my teaching experience I've noticed that students from the north want to produce something specific. They want to take a picture home to show their husbands what they have been doing. Perhaps it's practicality versus fantasy, but the contrast is interesting."

Mary Fortune has a City and Guilds qualification in creative studies and is a member of the Embroiderers and Quilters Guild. She also teaches at the Women's Institute residential college in Oxfordshire. Her weekend course at the Old Rectory adult education college in Fittleworth, near Pulborough, Sussex (01798-865306) costs from pounds 95 for non-residents to pounds 119. All meals are provided in the price.