Monday, April 19, 2010

Starched Fabric Walls: Look What My Mommy Made!

If you're of my same generation (and today is my 27th birthday, so y'know, around that same age) and you grew up in California, chances are you had to make a model of a mission in elementary school. The white-painted brick and stucco buildings -- part church, part plantation -- go up the length of the California coast. As schoolkids, we'd each pick one of the twenty-one missions, and we'd do a report and make a model of it. I picked San Juan Bautista.

My mom helped me create the most beautiful model mission ever. We didn't use styrofoam and construction paper, no sir. We used high-quality artist's materials, and my mom brought her considerable artistic skills to bear on it. What was just a little kid's class assignment became something that looked like a professional architect's model rendering of their latest project -- if their latest project involved converting Native Americans to Christianity.

I am so thankful that my mom is still helping me with projects! As you may know, I'd been trying to schedule surgery for a torn ACL as well as get my home ready for inclusion in Apartment Therapy's Smallest, Coolest contest. I thought I would have enough time before surgery to get everything done, but you know what they say about the best laid plans. I'd managed to get just about everything done before surgery day... except for my living room wall.

My living room wall is the biggest wall in the house, and it has been my biggest challenge. I tried hanging a few paintings, but it's so huge and blindingly white that it seemed to swallow up my art. I'm not allowed to paint or wallpaper in my apartment, so I was at a loss.

A fabric wall from Apartment Therapy

I can't remember where I heard about starching fabric to a wall in place of wallpaper -- probably Apartment Therapy, let's be real. I was really taken with the idea; I mean, what's not to like? The look of wallpaper, but renter-friendly, without the cost of temporary wallpaper, and with a healthy dose of DIY-ness!

I first tried it in my newly-created "closet office." I decided to go the laundry starch way -- that's what most of the online tutorials recommended. Use laundry starch to adhere the fabric to the wall, let it dry, and ta da! Fabric wall. Only problem was, I couldn't find laundry starch. The stuff in the can you use to iron shirts, yes, I could find that easily. But it wasn't strong enough. I needed concentrated liquid starch, like Linit starch -- or preferably Linit's "Starch n' Crafts," which is just for projects like this. But I couldn't find it ANYWHERE! I went to every grocery store, drug store, fabric and crafts store, and home improvement store in Hollywood and just couldn't find it. I thought about ordering it online, but then I saw that Linit's own website doesn't even sell Starch n' Crafts! I ended up buying a spray bottle of Niagra ironing starch from Target, reasoning that because it was a spray bottle instead of an aerosol can, the formula would be different, and I could always dump the liquid into a bowl and apply it with a sponge if the spray method didn't work.

The fabric wall in my office; though it looks fine, it's the staples at the top and the bulletin board that're keeping it up

The laundry starch... kinda worked. I stapled the fabric to the top of the wall with a staple gun, and using a combination of the Niagra spray starch, a sponge, and a little bit of water, I soaked the fabric thoroughly and stuck it to the wall. At first it looked like it worked beautifully -- it was totally stuck to the wall, it was even and the pattern matched up perfectly, and there were no air bubbles. Then it dried... and it came away from the wall! Thank god the staples were there to hold it in place. It still looked okay; the fabric was only sagging slightly at the bottom, and the starching and drying had ensured that it was wrinkle-free. I decided to leave it and move on, but I knew that for a larger wall -- like my living room wall -- I'd have to try something different.

Back to the Internet, where I found recipes for paste using water and cornstarch. I got all my materials ready... And then I ran out of time. My doctor called and scheduled my surgery for way sooner than I expected. Obviously, I couldn't tell him no, reschedule it 'cause I have an interior design contest I'm working on! It took weeks just to get a consult with this guy! So I had to grit my teeth, have the surgery, and turn to others for help.

I enlisted my friend Vanessa, who is a fellow design enthusiast (we love oohing and ahhhing over the linens at Anthropologie). My mother came down from the Bay Area to help me through my surgery, and she said she could help as well. We made our first attempt at the living room wall the day after my surgery. I couldn't even stand! And unfortunately, it was a disaster. Even though I'd had a tiny bit of experience with the office wall, neither Vanessa nor my mother had done this before, and we just couldn't find a good technique. We were trying to sponge the starch mixture onto the wall, smooth the fabric over it, and sponge some more over the top. But it was taking forever, it was messy, and the starch wasn't being applied evenly. We decided to call it a night and try again the next day with a new method.

The next morning my mom and I got wallpapering supplies, including a roller brush and trays. Then we went back at it -- or really, my mom did. There was another unsuccessful attempt at applying the starch with the roller brush before my mom tried taking down the fabric panel, soaking it in the starch, then stapling it back up and smoothing it out. THAT finally worked.

Once my mom had her technique down it was a lot easier, but still no less time consuming. We were trying to finish this project before my photographer friend was scheduled to come shoot the place, so we didn't have a choice. Knowing what I know now, I would say one should alot an entire day to a project like this, starting in the morning.

After the fabric panels were up and drying, my mom became concerned about the seams in between the panels. It turns out we didn't allow enough of an overlap, and the fabric was shrinking apart, leaving a gap. That's when my mom had an absolutely genius idea: take strips of the unused fabric, iron them to hide the raw edges, and staple them up over the seams. I have to say I was doubtful at first (mostly I was just tired!), but I complied and set to work with the iron. After my mom stapled them up, I was amazed. It looked like molding! It was totally cool, and added real polish to the wall.

The last step was to trim the excess fabric, and we were done! At long, long last!

So, if you've read all this, and you want to benefit from our trial and error and do it yourself, here's what you should do to apply fabric to your own walls.

1. Measure your wall

2. Purchase your fabric -- go with something lightweight like a cotton (mine is a linen blend). Take into consideration how wide the fabric is, and ensure that you have enough fabric for some overlapping.

3. Cut your fabric into panels. I suggest tacking them up on the wall in order to get the length as well as to match the pattern if you have one.

4. Draw a pencil line on your wall where the seams will be between panels. You'll match up the fabric to this line to ensure your panel is straight. Fabric stretches and shrinks and moves, so it's good to have an unmoving guideline.

5. Make your starch mixture: add 1/4 cup cornstarch to 1/2 cup water in a large pot on the stove. Heat and add another 4 cups of water slowly. Stir the mixture to get the lumps out and make sure that it is evenly heated, and keep stirring until it thickens slightly. Allow to cool.

6. Dip the fabric into the mixture until it is soaked through.

7. Staple the fabric to the top of the wall, then smooth it down, sticking it to the wall. Use a roller brush to both smooth it out and also to apply extra starch where needed. Use staples or thumbtacks to pin down the edges as you go.

8. Allow to dry completely.

9. Using a craft knife, cut a seam where your panels overlap. You should be able to pull away the extra strip of fabric from the top panel easily, then carefully reach under the top panel and pull the extra strip from the bottom panel. Reseal the seam with starch.

10. Trim the extra fabric from the top, bottom, and sides of the wall.

Of course, I recommend doing a smaller wall for your first project, and bribe or blackmail a friend into helping you. I know I would still have an ugly white wall without my mother's help. I knew that she thought my idea was crazy, and I could tell she was getting frustrated with me and with the project, but she never gave up. She saw I needed help, and she came through for me. And even though I didn't really contribute much, I still liked the feeling of working on a project together with her, just like that mission model in the fourth grade. Thank you, Mommy!

For more information on starching fabric to your walls, check out these links:

Rental Decorating - The Quick Fix Fabric On Walls

Apartment Therapy: LA - How to Make Removable Fabric Wallpaper

Apartment Therapy: Chicago - Flickr Finds: Meg and Ross's Updated Bathroom

Ruche - DIY Decor from Ruche's Lookbook

eHow - Homemade Wallpaper Paste

How About Orange - Starched Fabric Decal Experiment

The Artful Crafter - Applying Fabric To Walls Using Starch


  1. Haha, I remember making a model of a mission in fourth grade out flour, salt & water dough! They make pre-made kits at craft stores now--kids these days don't even have to use their imagination. Geesh! I love the fabric wall, it looks great!

  2. It looks fantastic! My friend was about to try technique after reading about it at AT. She even e-mailed the blogger who wrote about it...and admitted she didn't know anyone who had tried it.

  3. Mary: I've seen those kits too! I was actually kind of pissed off to see them! All kinds of crafts are being mass-produced so that kids all create the same end products -- whatever happened to limitation breeding creativity? Ick.

    Brigitte: Thanks! When I told my friends/mom about the idea, none of them had even heard of it before. I guess even though I was able to find a fair few articles about it, not that many people have tried it.

  4. hummm... what an interesting idea! i think i will try this over the summer and let yo know how it goes. thanks!

  5. Word to the wise. Do not enter Small, Cool. I entered a few years ago and people ripped on a place Id lovingly put together and loved.
    You wall is lovely. Can't believe you did it a day after surgery.

  6. ♫ Happy Birthday to You! ♫
    You did a fantastic job on that wall! I can't wait to vote for you!! :)

  7. PostGradHairCut/Eileen: Thanks, guys! I'm a little worried about what Anonymous warned about above: I love my home and I know it's going to get picked apart if it's posted on Apartment Therapy. But you know what? It's not going to make me love my place any less. Those commenters don't have to live here, I do! Right now I'm on pins and needles waiting to see if AT will approve my entry for inclusion... Eeeek, I can't take the waiting!

  8. Yeah...It's probably best not to read the comments. They're notorious!

  9. I love the fabric in your closet office! Is there any chance your'e willing to share the mill/designer? I'm trying to redo some things for my new, not-so-tiny, open apartment. The geometric print is what I've been looked for!

  10. Kerry: I'm sorry, I don't know the specifics of that fabric! I just picked it up from a bin at a Joann Fabrics in the valley here in LA.

  11. It turned out beautifully! Your apartment will always be smallest and coolest in my book!

  12. Is there any danger of the fabric dyes bleeding onto the walls? I really want to try this but my girlfriend is concerned about damaging the walls in the process.

  13. will it work if your walls are already wallpapered?! I'm guessing not. My new rental house has plain neutral coloured wallpaper in some places which has then been painted on in yet more neutral colour, I was looking for a way to add a splash of colour/pattern to the odd wall or chimey breast.

  14. I love this idea! I've stapled fabric to walls before, but I was never really satisfied with how it turned out.

    Anonymous-I'd say the chances of stains would depend on the fabric. If you're using something washable, like cotton, I'd wash the fabric first to see how colorfast it is. Then, I'd also do a test patch somewhere inconspicuous (where you could easily touch up the paint if you had to) and apply a small square of the fabric using Simone's technique. Give it a week or two, and then peel it off and see if it left a stain. That way, if you have to cover up the stain, it's just on a small patch of wall and not all over.

  15. I have also seen that you can wet the fabric with the solution, let it dry completely and then iron it on. This would maybe eliminate the problem with the bleeding? I am getting ready to try this in a few weeks (once I get the rest of my moving boxes in the basement and reorganize my furniture.) I will let you all know how it goes! I am excited to make my apartment look more like home after 8 months of living here.


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