Marking fabric, on the cheap

TL;DR: don’t use ordinary colored pencils in place of tailor’s chalk pencils, but children’s washable markers work really well!

When I started sewing a lot, I dug up some tailor’s chalk pencils from the bottom of my sewing bag. Until then, it had just been for the random alteration and I’d used pins to mark everything. It took me a couple of weeks of regular project work to grind the four that I found into little nubbins.

They worked generally well. Aside from the fact that the lead (chalk, I guess) inside broke somewhat regularly, they marked well and I never had a problem removing marks from fabric. Getting to the shorter end of the last one, I went online to buy more.

That didn’t work out well. Even with a little searching at all the places where I usually buy discount supplies, the cheapest one I could find was well over a dollar. Even at my local retailers, everything rang in over a dollar with coupons and sales. I started to look for other solutions, things that would work even better.

My first stop was water-soluble markers. The sewin g varieties are supposed to be pretty good, although I had read that sometimes they don’t come off perfectly if you press over them. I press a lot and I don’t want to have that problem. Even without that, those were even more expensive: the cheapest I could find was over $3 retail. I know markers aren’t very durable with felt tips and I don’t expect that these would last very long.

So I looked somewhere else. Going by association, the tailor’s pencils looked just like regular colored pencils. The first package I bought was at the dollar store, brand name, Crayola, 10 in a package for exactly one dollar (plus tax). I didn’t even bother testing them, I just went ahead and used them. The only project I was working on at the time was a muslin pattern.

Somewhere in here I was at Wal-Mart for another inevitable fabric-buying bender (the prices are so low!) and I decided to take a peek at the school supplies aisle. My goal was to see if I could get colored pencils for the same price at the dollar store — I could — but I discovered something even more interesting: children’s washable markers. I remember using these as a kid, I guess my mother didn’t want me getting real marker all over my clothing. This struck me as a coincidence, that they’re specifically designed to wash out of clothing and other things that children are likely to draw on. Best of all, they’re a dollar for a pack of 10.

The Field Test

Yup, I’m still an engineer. Check. Here I was with all these pencils and now some washable markers, questioning whether or not these were adequate replacements for the real (expensive) deal. How hard could this be to test? Surely, not much. I set about to design the test.

First, I do a lot of work both on cotton fabrics and on synthetics. I wasn’t in the mood to be too precise, so I selected a large swatch of some nameless stretchy synthetic I had a lot of and a decent swatch of my pattern muslin. I figured those would be the things I was most likely to make into patterns anyway. I did need layers — part of the benefit of fabric markers is the ability to bleed a mark through a single layer or multiple layers to mark a single spot — and I was going to have to wash this whole deal. Washing muslin means the edges definitely need to be finished, otherwise the stuff shreds in the dryer.

After a little bit of hemming, I had these:

stretchy synthetic
white muslin

This didn’t take long. The synthetic would have been so much better if I’d attached some stabilizer to it but this was just a test. That didn’t really need finishing either, which was good because I found out that I’m still not very good at sewing a single layer of that stuff without stabilizer. The synthetic is 3 layers thick and the muslin is 4 layers thick. I added a single seam down the long end of each of the test platforms, just a bare stitch (the serger stitch imitation that my machine does) on the synthetic and a straight foldover hem with a turnover ribbon finish on the muslin.

Here’s some more detail:

four finished layers
three layers with a sad attempt to finish the edges of the center

Now the fun part: scribble all over them! Actually, this is not fun for me, I’m fairly obsessive and there’s nothing that tickles my fancy better than fresh, clean, pressed fabric. In white, no less. But that wouldn’t really test anything.

I didn’t wash anything before I started. I figured that there may be something in some of the detergent I use that helps to prevent stains. I made sure to hold the markers on the fabric good and long in at least some of the scribbles, ensuring I had solid, dark marks through all the layers. I used a few different colors, thinking that there may be some variability in the permanence of different colors. I tried both the colored pencils and the markers. Then I decided to put a small mark from the tailor’s chalk pencil as well, as a control. Good experiments need control. Finally, before washing, I (dry) pressed everything good and hot, as hot as I dared with the fabric — that’s maximum temperature for the muslin and a notch and a half lower for the synthetic — for a good long time, 20 seconds with steady pressure.

What I ended up with looked like some awful abstract art:

the test pattern

Now into the wash. It was delicates day, which means cold wash with Oxy-Clean on a handwash cycle, followed by low heat in the dryer until everything’s dry. Luckily, I had plenty of other work that day so I didn’t sit by the machine waiting for the cycle to complete.


First and foremost: the markers didn’t even wait to start to fade. The marks started getting duller as I was pressing them. I can’t say that they were so light that I’d worry, but they weren’t as vivid or strong. They faded more on the synthetic than the cotton, making me glad that I’d done a test with both fabrics.

Next, the colored pencils. This was the biggest disappointment. Those marks didn’t really wash off at all. I’d marked every layer of both fabrics and the marks looked remarkably similar pre-wash and post-wash. Conclusion: don’t use ordinary colored pencils in place of tailor’s chalk pencils.

Then came the coup: the washable markers were exactly what they were billed to be, completely washable. No color, no bleed and no stain survived the wash. Even the top layer, that had gotten the heaviest application of marker (in order to get it to bleed to the lower layers), washed out completely. If I’d not had pictures of the marker scribbles, I wouldn’t have ever known they’d existed. Conclusion: children’s washable markers make fantastic fabric marking devices.

Of most interest, however, was the tailor’s chalk marks. They dulled significantly through the wash, but they didn’t come out completely. I would imagine that successive washes may remove more, but I was expecting them to wash out completely. Conclusion: be careful with tailor’s chalk pencils, they don’t wash out completely on the first wash.

For those who require photographic evidence:

post-wash results

And so there you have it. A 10-cent washable marker seems to be the best fabric marking device. They come in wide or fine point and plenty of colors. The only significant problem I can see here is that they don’t come in white, so I’m going to have to resort back to the conventional tailor’s chalk pencils when I do projects with black fabric.


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