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Banners and Fabric Painting

Dame Fiona

Dame Fiona Gwyllt Wynne



It is difficult to know just how long flags, banners, and other symbols have been used for identification because, as Smith says in Flags through the Ages and Across the World,

we do not know when or where mankind's first flag was raised, but the antiquity of flags is hinted at by the fact that every example so far uncovered by archaeologists, even ones dating back five thousand years, gives evidence of a sophistication built on elaboration over time[1]

            Flags are a manifestation of an old form of human activity which is the making of symbols.  The plasticity of flags has probably made their use so extensive for so long.  Because flags are capable of being used and seen by great numbers of people simultaneously, they appear to have been in continuous use since antiquity.  In even the most ancient societies, flags were used to express unity and identify one group from another.  The flag, says Smith, "is an externalization of the fears and hopes, the myths, and the magic of those who carry it."[2]

            Religious banners and standards were used extensively in medieval society, as were guild flags.  These flags, tended to be unique examples, and it was possible to have very elaborate and costly designs made.  Among the materials used for such flags were linen, leather, and sendal, a fabric of linen warp and silk weft.[3]

            The actual flags of the period, says Locksley, were more often than not, painted,[4] and this is corroborated by Smith who says it was common to appliqué or paint emblems on the field; and that embroidery developed later,[5] although he does not specify a time period.

            In Cennini's chapter "A Section Dealing with Work on Cloth:  First, Painting and Gilding," he tells how to prepare cloth for painting and he mentions that you must [varnish them] afterward; because sometimes these banners, which are made for churches, get carried outdoors in the rain.[6]

            Two purposes for banner making are decorative and heraldic identification (these will be determined by consultation with a Herald) a)Personal, b)Households, c)Baronial, and d)Kingdom.

            Fabrics that can be used are: Cotton, Canvass, Felt, Leather, Wool, Silk,  any Closely-woven fabrics, Rip stop nylon (would be my absolute last choice)  Note:  Lightweight fabrics will "flutter" in the breeze and Heavyweight fabric such as wools will hang straighter.

            Heraldic colors are  limited to: red (gules) black (sable)         blue (azure) green (vert)          purple (purpure) gold (or) silver (argent)

            Decorative colors are not really limited, except, of course, must be period colors, of which there were many.    Usually these are just to add color inside a hall or in a camp.  Examples would be triangles, long rectangles, or even “wall hangings.”  The triangles and rectangles can be painted, of course, and the wall hangings would be of some medieval or Renaissance activity.


            1.         HERALDIC:  The device has already been approved and the colors chosen.  Size, shape, materials (fabric), and method must be determined.



            There are many methods of putting banners together.  Remember the purpose of your banner; whether heraldic or decorative, and also keep in mind your own talents and abilities.  Whatever methods used can be designs from a book, a pattern, designs researched in books, or create your own design.

            Appliqué:  This is a very durable method of banner making. Banners made in appliqué style are often more elaborate in appearance.  Shapes are cut out of the appliqué fabric and placed on the background by various methods

            Felt:   A quick and easy (down and dirty) way to make an appliquéd banner is to use felt.

            a.         When making felt banners, appliqué (design) is glued on with white glue.  Believe it or not, these banners are quite durable and can withstand a lot of inclement weather!

            b.         Also wunder-under (or some form of 2-sided iron on facing) can be used to iron the appliqué on felt, but it must be stitched down if not glued.

            Cross-Stitch is usually for the accomplished cross-stitcher, Remember when cross-stitching for a banner, that the cross-stitched design probably would be appliquéd to the banner material.  Also, this is not likely to be as durable in inclement weather, so you might want to do this only for indoor banners.

            Embroidery is also usually for the accomplished embroiderer, unless your design is very simple.  Remember the design may be treated as an appliqué or it could be stitched directly to the banner.  In both embroidery and cross-stitch, one must remember that banners take a beating from wind and occasional rain (not to mention the glorious Aten sun), so extensive work could be damaged.  As with cross-stitch, this should probably be considered a "hall" banner.

            Painted, my personal favorite and probably the most durable for outdoor banners, is the painted banner.  The material to be used here should be a cotton or cotton/poly blend and should be a tightly-woven fabric.  I have used cotton duck, sport weight, and other tightly-woven fabrics.  Do not buy a loose weave.  It will not work.  You will not be happy with the results!  You may use:

            a.         acrylic paints (thinned with fabric extender medium. I prefer ceramcoat paint and Jo Sonia’s fabric extender.  I also use Liquitex fabric extender

            b.         fabric paints (I haven't had much luck, but perhaps I haven't found the right brand)

            c.         fabric pens - I have seen banners done with these and they have been quite effective.

            d.         DO NOT USE drizzle paints...they could never pass as period.


            Painted banners will be durable (provided you use a good fabric) and will take a lot of abuse.  If you use washable fabric, your banners will be washable, provided you have used your paints properly.

            Painted banners would also include silk and leather, both of which can be dyed as well as painted (as could fabric...but fabric to be dyed should be a natural fabric rather than a blend). 

            Leather is quite good for a smaller banner or pennant.  There are paints and dyes designed for use on leather.  Acrylic paints could also be used.  Leather is very period.

            Silk - painting and/or dyeing on silk is a very specific process.  Having very little experience with it, I will  not cover it here, although much of the information on painting would also cover silk.

There are many uses for fabric painting such as: Banners, clothing, wall hangings, table covers, favors....anything you wish to paint!!!  See article Beyond Banners: Heraldic Display in The Kingdom Of Atenveldt by Bannthegn Alianora da Lyshåret, on page ..



Good  brushes - they are expensive and fabric painting does wear them out!  You will need a flat, and an angled brush; one that will cover a large surface; and a fine liner brush which has a long tapered bristle.

Some sort of water jar to rinse your brushes (never, never, never leave your brushes in the jar on the bristles!!!!

Lots of paper towels

A painting shirt (one that you don’t mind getting paint on -- you will, and it NEVER comes out!)

Something to hold your paint (you can buy commercial paint palettes, but plastic egg cartons are better -- they hold a little more paint and are fairly inexpensive) - if I am using a lot of paint of one color (or if I have mixed a special color), I usually put the paint in a small bowl (a custard cup, actually) and as long as you wash it as soon as you are finished, it will wash right out...otherwise, you will have to scrape it off!

Some kind of permanent pen to draw on your design (I use a very fine line micro-pen that can be purchased at Michaels or any art store).

A light board if you have one (or put your design on the window to trace)

A “stretcher” frame if you are painting a very large object such as a panel or large banner.


Painting techniques:

            Thinning your paint:   Paint can be thinned with a medium extender, or with water.  I find that using the extender on smaller projects is very satisfactory; however, with large projects I always use water...partly because of the expense (extender is not cheap!). Liquitex can be found at Michaels in the arts section where the oil paints are, or online.  I do prefer Jo Sonia’s fabric medium but it must be ordered on line from www.dickblick.com.

            Thinning with extender:  you will mix the extender and the paint approximately half-and-half.  The paint should be thin enough to spread, but not so thin it runs...usually there is no problem with extender...you just need to get it to a smooth consistency.  Test it in a scrap of fabric before using it on your design.  Do not use the Ceramcoat extender as it is too thick.  .

            Thinning with water: this is trickier...it is very easy to get too much water and to have it run all over your painting.  The saving grace of acrylic is that you can paint over it; however, too much and you have a mess!  Also, I keep a medicine dropper handy and a small cup of clean water as occasionally you  might need a drop of water, even in your paint that has been mixed with extender

            Stretching Your Fabric:

Whatever you are painting, you will want to make it taut!  If you are painting a smaller article, you may use a “coated shirt board” that can be purchased online at www.dickblick.com (Artmate T-shirt Board 8.99 price may be higher now).  Fabric stores and Michaels no longer carry the boards.  I use large quilting straight pins to pin the fabric onto the board.  If you are making a very large wall hanging, for example, you may need to build stretcher bars, similar to what artists use for canvass.  Stretching is a must!

            “Surface” painting:

This technique involves painting on the “surface” of your fabric.  It will soak through; however, so you may want to line your fabric after it is painted, unless you plan to hang it in such a way that the back will not show.  No, forget that.  You need to line the fabric if it is a banner!


            “Scrub” Painting:

This is more of a style where the paint is “scrubbed” into the material.  This one I have not yet used, but this will undoubtedly soak through as well.

            Usually after painting your design, you will want to fine-line with black; however on an extremely large painting you may not need to do so.

            Clean your brushes when you are finished!  Do not leave them sitting in the water.  Use a liquid soap, hand soap or dish soap to clean them and then put them in your empty water jar, with the bristles up!  There are also various commercial cleaners for your brushes.  You will want to take care of them, especially after you realize how much of an investment you will have in them!

            Permanent banners should be lined to give them a finished look, and it is best to line them with a material of the same or similar weight as the ground fabric.  Remember that banners often hang free or are carried in procession, so spending some time and consideration on the lining will be worth it

            THREAD can be used in many forms in creating decorative banners.  I cannot stress this enough:  NEVER, NEVER, NEVER use anything but GOOD thread.  Do not put your time, talent and effort on cheap materials!!!  You do not want your banners to fall apart in inclement weather!



Please contact me at any time if you have any questions about fabric painting. 







Benicoeur, Lord Arval, et al, Heraldry, Compleat Anachronist, Society for Creative Anachronism, Milpitas, CA, 1985.


Blair, Margot Carter and Cathleen Ryan, Banners and Flags, How to Sew a Celebration, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London, 1977. 


Cennini, Cennino d'Andrea, The Craftsman's Handbook "Il Libro dell'Arte," translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr., Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1963

A translation of an intriguing guide to methods of painting, written in 15th century Florence.  A must have book for artisans!  I have this book.


Diehl, Daniel and Mark Donnelly, Medieval Celebrations, Chapter 6, “Decorating in the Medieval Style,” Pages 39-41.  (Note: While this is not about banners, per sea, it is about fabric painting wall hangings, so should be of interest.  Daniel is Master John the Artificer and he has a permanent booth at Pennsic.)


Diehl, Daniel, Constructing Medieval Furniture, Chapter 5, “Painting Wall Hanging,” pages 31-34.  (In case you want to try a large wall hanging, this chapter will be very helpful.  It is by Master Brendan Brisbane of Brendan’s Banners).


Locksley, Ioseph of, "Battle Flags and War Banners," Tournaments Illuminated, Summer 1980, #55


Locksley, Ioseph of, "Decorative Heraldry," Tournaments Illuminated, Summer AS XXIV Issue 91, p. 15-17.


Pacchioni, Eirika Francesca, "Banners for Beginners," Tournaments Illuminated, Spring 1991, A.S.XXVI, Issue 98, Milpitas, CA, p. 31-33.


Smith, Dr. Whitney, Flags Through the Ages and Across the World, McGraw-Hill Book Co. (UK) Limited, Maidenhead, England, 1975.

(This book is a definitive work on all forms and uses of flags from antiquity to current usage.   I now have a copy of this book.)


[1].Dr. Whitney Smith, Flags Through the Ages and Across the World, McGraw-Hill Book Co. (UK) Limited, Maidenhead, England, 1975, p. 34

[2].Ibid, p. 37

[3].Ibid, p. 46

[4].Ioseph of Locksley, "Battle Flags and War Banners," Tournaments Illuminated, Summer ASXXIV, Issue 91, p. 1


[5].Smith, p. 46

[6].Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, The Craftsman's Handbook "Il Libro dell'Arte," translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr., Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1963, p. 103