Zippered-Pillow Sewing Tutorial (And Fabric Painting)

Zippered-Pillow Sewing Tutorial (And Fabric Painting)

Did you know that you can paint fabric?!  I’m not talking about puffy paints or stenciling/stamping on designs, and I’m not talking about dying fabric… I’m talking about painting really amazing pictures on fabric and still having the fabric be comfortable for snuggling up to.  Sure, when you think about it, it might seem like a no-brainer.  After all, the prints on fabric you get in the store are made somehow, right?  Those adorable but pricey pillows with the special, seemingly painted-on images were made somehow.  Granted, most of those pillows are in fact, printed.  But the original design was most likely painted by hand.  In fact, that’s exactly what I am going to teach you how to make today…an adorable pillow with a painted on image that will still be comfortable enough to snuggle up with.  And the best part is, at the end of the post, I will give you a chance to win the pillow cover pictured below!  This post is part of my Sewing Saturday series.  We’ve made a pillow before, but the skill to learn this time is how to install a zipper.  By making a cover with a zipper in for a pillow, you can just wash the cover, giving your pillows a longer life.  Join me for this zippered-pillow sewing tutorial, and learn a little bit about fabric painting!

I could not be happier with how this pillow cover turned out! If you want a chance to win this cover, you will have to fill out the entry form.

Because I was focusing on teaching two different skills for this project, it’s a longer post, and it is picture heavy. I tried to pare down on pictures as much as possible without taking away from the learning process.  I’m going to try labeling/captioning each picture, so if you are looking for more detail, you should be able to see that by hovering over the picture or by clicking on the pictures.  (This post includes affiliate links to the different supplies I mention in the post as a reference point to you… not so much as to what the supplies cost, but for a better description of the items I refer to.  Please read the disclosure in the sidebar or the bottom of the page for mobile for more information.)

A couple of things to note before we dive in.  First of all, there is nearly always more than one way to achieve the end goal to a project.  I am going to list the specific materials that I used, and show my end results, but feel free to get creative!  Second, I will try and give you some tips and ideas for ways you can do this differently, but it’s totally optional for you to follow them. I am not including a template for any designs, but feel free to try and copy my images if you would like.


For the pillow:

  • 3/4 yard cotton (I used two heavy flour sack towels…not the really thin ones like they sell in packs of 5 or 10 at Walmart)
  • 18″x 18″ pillow form
  • 14″ zipper (matching or coordinating to your fabric for the cover)
  • Thread to match

(I am doing this on the sewing machine, but feel free to hand-sew… I would personally use a tight, running stitch.)

For painting the pillow:

  • Paint *NOT puffy paints, NOT glossy paints.  Fabric paint, craft paint, or acrylic paint will work well (typically, craft paint is acrylic paint, but they aren’t all, so just pay attention).
  • Paint brushes in a variety of sizes (I used a total of 3 sizes for my projects)
  • Water in a cup you don’t mind getting paint on
  • Paper towels or an old rag
  • Cardboard
  • Template or picture (optional)
  • Spray bottle of water
Here are two different pillows that I’ve made by painting with this technique. Obviously, one is just lettering, but I use the concept that I share in this post. It’s a two-sided pillow, one for autumn, the other for Christmas time. The Wisconsin pillow is a bit worn after almost 3 years of heavy use, but still in pretty good shape.

First thing’s first, you will need to decide what fabric or fabrics you will be using for the entire pillow.  You can use just about any solid color cotton fabric for this, but keep in mind that the paint will show up differently on darker fabrics, and that the thicker the fibers of the fabric, or the looser the weave, the more it will affect how your finished product will look (thicker fibers are harder to paint on, and the looser the weave, the more difficult to get a clear or precise picture. There are a few ways to make your pillow…do you want it to be double sided?  (If you use a neutral color or one that works for more than one season, you could flip the pillow over for different seasons.)  Do you want the back of the pillow to be a different color?  Do you want the backing to be a different textured fabric?  I’ve made a few of these before, all in different ways, and there is no wrong way to do this.

Before you begin, you will need to wash your fabric ahead of time, dry, and iron with a hot iron.  You want any possible extra chemicals washed away, and if the fabric is going to shrink, you want to have it happen before you do any painting.  Dyed fabrics, can have residual chemical residue, and most fabric comes from the store with a product called “sizing” on it, which can affect the absorption or adherence of the paint.

Step 1, Cutting:

Once you have chosen how you want your pillow to look, cut out two squares of fabric, one for the front, one for the back, at 19″x19″.  (Here’s where I tell you that you can make your pillow any size you want… I did mine for an 18″ pillow form, and the 19″ size allows me a half inch seam allowance all of the way around the perimeter of the pillow cover.)  If you accidentally cut your squares the wrong size, keep in mind that it is better to err just a smidge on the small side.  That way, your pillows will be nice and “full” looking.  The sewing and cutting process of this project is largely like the process of our previous pillow project, so if you have more questions on that, please reference that post here.

Step 2, Painting:

For the front of the pillow take your piece of fabric and lay it flat on a piece of cardboard (or heavyweight paper…poster board, foam board, or an old paper grocery bag should work fine).  Once you have chosen your design, get your paints, water, towels, and paint brushes ready.  You will want something to put your paints on as well.  I often mix paint to get the right color, and I find that it is easier to get my paint from off of a paper plate or a piece of cardboard than it is from a container.  Keep paint containers closed reduces the risk of spilling the paint, and messing up your project.  Depending on the look you are going for, you can have a more detailed picture, or  more of a water color painting.  If you want the water color look, you might want to have a spray bottle of water on hand… I will explain more later.

If it helps you, you can lightly draw or trace your design onto your fabric using a pencil or using a transfer paper (something I did not do).  Get your paint brush wet as this helps the brush hold your paint better.  Mix just a little bit of water into your paint, enough so that you don’t have a glob of paint on the brush, but not so much that it’s dripping off the brush.  No matter how you go about this, if you are painting a picture (vs. writing words), you will have a slightly watercolor look.

If you are going for a more heavily watercolored look, you will want to use the spray bottle of water and spritz the fabric lightly with water, and then gently wipe the fabric with your hand.  This will help the water soak in.  Having the fabric lightly dampened will help the color to bleed more.  Fine details should be added when the fabric is dry.

With your slightly watered down paint on your pre-moistened paint brush, you can begin painting.  It is important for the colors to be watered down, because if they are not, you will get a build-up of paint on the fabric that is thick and will crack or peel later on.  It’s also a lot less comfortable for snuggling.  It is difficult to get light colors to show up on top of darker colors, so start with any lighter colors and work your way up when possible. Make sure your hands stay clean as you go as paint on your hands can mean you get paint on your design where you didn’t mean it to. I’m just going to let the pictures do most of the talking, but there are captions if you need more details.

When you want to create a harder line that will not “bleed” (bleeding is where the pigment of the paint spreads out on the fibers), use paint that has just a tiny bit of water in it, like maybe getting your brush wet and then dipping in a bit of paint and spreading around on your mixing surface to mix the paint and water.  It should be enough to keep the paint from spreading, but not so much that it is really heavy.  I always put a larger… squirt… of paint onto my plate, and just work a portion of the paint at a time.  That way if I decide to mix colors or I want less water in my paint, I haven’t ruined all of the paint.   It’s a good idea to draw the boundaries of your image first, one portion at a time.  Work in small sections at a time.  Unless you are making something like a heart (like I did above), you won’t want to draw out all of the boundaries first.  You just want to do a small portion of the picture at a time.  In the flower painting I did above, I worked on drawing out the center of my flowers, then the petals, one flower at a time.  After your first boundary is drawn, you will get your paintbrush wet again, and mix a bit of the water and paint, and rewet your paintbrush again, and mix once more.  You want to make sure that your brush is not dripping.  It shouldn’t be really watery.  You want to work from your boundaries, inward.  After you have applied the second portion of paint, just re-wet your brush again, and spread your paint inward again.  Be careful of how much water you are adding.  The water can bleed through the paint, and cause the paint to leak pas the boundaries.

If you are wanting to create a blend of colors, where the image has more depth than just using a solid or single color, there are two ways to go about this.  The first way is to only partially mix some paints together.  If the paint isn’t fully blended, you will see some variation in the color when you apply the paint.  The other way is to add a second color of paint next to or on top of the first.  If you are adding the paint next to the first, you can blend them by washing the two colors together with a bit of water.  If you are adding the second color on top of the first, as long as the image is still slightly damp, the two colors should mingle at least a little bit, and will spread in the direction you pull the paint.  Sorry, it’s extremely difficult to take pictures of yourself painting, so I don’t have a better way to describe that process to you!

Step 3, Heat Treating:

This step is the most important (second to washing your fabric first) to insure that your painting will last!  After you’re done painting the design on, let it dry just a little, and then lift it off your paper or cardboard and let it finish drying somewhere else, either on a clean sheet of paper, or hanging to dry.  Once it is dry, run it over with a warm, dry iron, several times.  Then tumble it in a warm drier, maybe more than once.  It is really important to heat set your painting!  If you do not, there is a good chance that your painting will wear off or wash out after running it through the wash for the first time.

Step 4, Installing the Zipper:

The first step in assembly for this pillow sewing tutorial, we will start by placing the zipper.  First, you will need to make a temporary seam, 1/2″ wide.  Use a standard stitch for the first 2.5 inches, doing a backstitch at the end of the 2.5″.  It would probably be wise to mark out your 2.5″ with a pin or a pen so that you can clearly see where you need to do your back stitch (right before the 2.5″ mark).  Switch to a large basting stitch and stitch across the seam until you are, again 2.5″ from the end of the seam.  Switch to standard stitch length, backstitch, and then stitch forward off the remainder of the seam.

Press the seam open using an iron or a pressing tool.  Center the zipper over the seam, and pin in place.  (There is a handy tool called basting tape that you can purchase.  It’s a double-sided tape that just holds the zipper in place so that you get a nice, straight application.  I don’t typically use it, but I have in the past, and it can be helpful.)

Stitch the zipper in place, using a zipper foot.  If you have a zipper foot for your machine, now is the time to use it.  It helps keep your zipper in place and gives a nice, consistent distance from the zipper teeth, but it’s not a necessity to use one.  If you do not have a zipper foot, line the foot of your machine up with the seam (or just next to the seam if the zipper teeth won’t allow for that), and stitch roughly 1/4″ from the seam.  Note that not all zipper feet look the same.  Usually the hole for the needle is on either side of a little bar instead of being right in the middle.  If you aren’t sure if you have a zipper foot, you can look up online what the foot for your machine looks like.

If you are finding that you are having a lot of trouble getting your zipper properly placed, it might be worth the time to hand baste it in place so you can get more accurate results, and then go back and permanently place the zipper.  When I sew a zipper in place for a project like this, I always sew the zipper in place while it is closed.  The biggest problem you will encounter is sewing around the zipper pull.  If you are too close to the pull, the presser foot, will want to walk you around that pull and back to the teeth of the zipper, creating a curve in your seam.  To avoid this, I start sewing just below the pull of the zipper, back stitch, and sew around up to the other side, just below the pull again, and back stitch.  Then I pull the seam open just a couple of inches so that the pull is exposed, and I pull the pull down the zipper a bit.  Now the teeth are opened, but because the top of the zipper is stitched in place, you can finish sewing down the remainder of the zipper in the same way as you did with the first part.  You really should sew a small line of stitching at the top and bottom of the zipper, joining the seams on either side.  It helps reinforce the opening of the pillowcase and it also keeps the zipper from being pulled out with repeated use.

Once the zipper set, you can remove any basting you have done.  (Que seam ripper.) Open the zipper, at least a few inches.

Step 5: Finishing the Cover

Now, put the right sides of your pillow together, pinning the pieces together.  Sew the seams, 1/2″ on the remaining three sides.  At this point, you have the option of “finishing” the seams, which would include either serging the seams, using a zig-zag stitch, or trimming the seams with a pinking sheers.  You also don’t have to do anything.  A standard cotton with 1/2″ seams won’t fray much at all.  I will leave it up to you!  Keep in mind that if you are using a fabric that will fray a little more easily, you may want to finish the seams.  The frayed thread can get stuck in the zipper, causing it to break or stick.

Trim your corners, and turn right side out.  Use something somewhat sharp, like a point turner, to poke your corners out.   Work your seams until they are flat, and press.

Insert your pillow form, and vóla, it’s finished!

More Notes:

  • Okay, so a few more things.  Like I said, feel free to adjust this to your sizing needs… you can make a 10″x 10″ or 20″x 20″ pillow or any other size or shape variation.
  • You CAN make this a pillow without the zipper, however, I do recommend being able to wash the cover separately.  It’s best to hand-wash if possible, and that will be much easier if you can remove the cover.   Always wash with cold water, and dry with heat as it helps to keep the paint set and colors from fading.  You could hang-dry or tumble dry, but you should at least iron it afterwards.  Keep in mind that this IS decorative, so while you should be able to curl up with a comfy pillow and read a good book, it’s not a great idea to put this on something that’s going to get a ton of abuse, or if it is going to get a lot of abuse, that it won’t last forever.
  • You can also purchase pillow covers in store or online, and paint them just the same.  Just wash first, and insert a piece of cardboard or thick paper into the cover before painting, and follow all of the same steps.
  • If you are doing a full front side painting for a cover you are making, cut your fabric larger than you need… Roughly mark the boundaries of your painting, and paint to the edge of the fabric.  That way you won’t have gaps in the painting around the edges, and you can trim it down to the right size after heat treating it.  Just be sure you mark the center of the square so that you have your image properly centered in the painting when you cut it out.
  • And last, you can use this fabric painting technique for projects outside of pillow covers.  I first got the inspiration to try this kind of fabric painting because of a woman whom I used to be in a quilt guild with.  She is absolutely fantastic at painting fabric, and uses her end products for a variety of projects.  I’m not sure that I use the same technique as her, but it works!  I first gave a fabric painting project a shot with the Wisconsin pillow pictured at the top of this post.  I was working on redecorating the living room at our old house, and I wanted a cool accent pillow that would really stand out, and I kept finding neat map pillows on Pinterest through sites like Etsy.  Only problem was, they wanted at least $40 for them (worth it, but not in my budget), AND I couldn’t find a map of Wisconsin pillow, so I decided I would just try my hand at it.  It turned out great, but it took me ALL DAY to paint.  I went slowly because I had never done it before, and because I didn’t want to screw up and have to start over.  I couldn’t print the design to the size I wanted, so I had to free-hand the whole thing.  It was a bit painstaking.   However, I figured out what worked and what didn’t and I got a really good grasp of how to paint fabric from that project.  That being said, my fabric got a couple of tiny tears in it in the span of 3 years.  This pillow does get used frequently.  When I have washed it, it has been by hand.  I have seen a little bit of wear on the paint, but pretty much only on an area where I was a little too thick with the paint in order to cover up a mistake.  Otherwise it’s held up pretty well in that time period.

Don’t forget to be patient with yourself!  Putting in a zipper is something that may take several attempts before you really get it right.  The BIGGEST thing to be careful of when installing a zipper is to not sew over the zipper teeth if at all possible, ESPECIALLY if they are metal teeth.  Metal teeth with either bend your needle or break it, and plastic ones can certainly dull or bend your needle as well.  And if you sew too close to the zipper teeth, you will not be able to open your zipper (or at least not very smoothly).  Better to take it out and try again if it isn’t right the first time!  (And it probably won’t be, so don’t get discouraged!)  And painting on fabric will probably take at least that many attempts if you are not much of a painter to begin with.  I really liked using the flour sack towels for this project because the were inexpensive and I was able to have a few go rounds at it before I nailed it this time.  Sometimes I have success right away, and other times, not so much.  The other nice thing about using a flour sack towel is that they are larger than you need for your cover, so there will be scraps of fabric you can practice on to get a feel for how this kind of fabric painting feels.

If you missed our first pillow sewing tutorial, you can check it out here, or feel free to learn more with us by reading any of the posts listed below.

Alright, I think that’s all!  If you think I missed something or have questions, please, let me know!  I’ll be happy to try and walk you through it, and if it’s important enough to correct, I’ll adjust the post for future reference.  I know that was a TON of information, and I was trying to not make this too overwhelming, but I think I may have.  I might need to come back and break this into two posts in the future if there are problems for people with understanding what is all happening, so PLEASE, let me know if you need help!  We’ll do another zipper application in the future, but we’ll put it into something more challenging next time 🙂

Oh, and if you would like a chance to win the flower pillow cover (please note that I am just giving away the cover, not a whole pillow…it simplifies shipping a LOT for me that way), you’ll need to follow the steps on the entry form at the bottom of this post to find out how to enter!  Best of luck!


The Basics

Introduction to Sewing: Part 1

Introduction to Sewing: Part 2

Sewing Tools

How to Buy Fabric

Hooked on Sewing

Your Sewing Machine

Acquiring a Sewing Machine

Getting To Know Your Sewing Machine

Setting Up Your Sewing Machine

Sewing Machine Maintenance and Troubleshooting

Hand Sewing

Sew, A Needle Pulling Thread

Basic Hand Sewing: Part 1

Basic Hand Sewing: Part 2

Hand-Sewn Stockings


Throw Pillow Supplies and More Sewing Tools

How to Sew a Pillow

How to Make a Patchwork Table Runner: Part 1

How to Make a Patchwork Table Runner: Part 2

How to Make an Applique



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