Silk Standard Making


Sir Duncan Bruce of Logan and Sir Gawayne ap Tristam


This article describes how to make a silk standard, suitable for heraldic display at SCA events. These are standards and not banners. A banner would have your arms as registered on it, and it represents your person on the field. If your banner captured was and you were not, it was assumed that you were forced to flee the field. What was typically carried onto the field was your battle standard. A standard would have elements of your heraldry, but not your complete arms. You would travel with your banner, your standard would be carried by your baggage train that would follow later.

The basic principle of silk standard making is creating a page for a coloring book, but using silk material instead of paper. First you apply a resist or “gutta” to create the lines, and then fill in the empty areas with color using a dye. Next, you set the dyes and gutta with steam or other methods of fixative. Now rinse out the excess dye, attach the ties, then hang it up on a pole. The result is a pennant that is brilliantly colored on both sides and floats on the smallest wisp of a breeze.

The fabric used is the #5 (4.5mm) weight silk. #3 weight can be also used. The #3 flies with the slightest breeze, but probably won't last as long in harsh conditions (like on the field at Lilies). We used the #5 weight silk and it has stood up rather well at Estrella War and at Lilies.

A little dye will go a long way, as the silk will wick the dye very well. Mixing some magenta into the scarlet and a little bit of apricot into the yellow gives nicer colors, and the red doesn't seem to fade as quickly. The trick is to write down the amounts that are mixed together so the color can be reproduced again when it is used up.

The rubbery (non-water soluble) gutta comes in multiple colors, but black seems to be the most useful. The gold and silver look nice, but tend to be stickier, and the metal flakes off over time leaving clear gutta. The water soluble gutta isn't as gummy to work with, and after the standard is washed and rinsed it leaves behind just a line. This allows your standard to fly better, but it will not provide any resist should you need to re-dye it later on.

Designing Your Standard

Design is the hardest thing!!! Period standards used element from the arms and badges associated with the owner. The design will go easier once you realize that your design is not limited by your “Arms” but can be augmented by using all the household, baronial, group, and kingdom badges that you are entitled to use. You can also use any heraldic item that you like as well. It is helpful to consult with a herald, as they typically have a good understanding of period style would look like. However, this is your standard, so ultimately it should look the way you want it to.

Once you have an idea of what you want, draw your design at the size you want it for the standard on the newsprint or butcher’s paper. That way all you have to do is trace it on to the silk. Having a large roll is handy, so you can have your entire design on one piece. This allows you to save your design for the next standard. Tape the design down on the floor (or table), and then tape the silk down to the floor (or table) on top of it. Have the silk flat but not really under tension. Trace the pattern on to the silk with a dark pencil. A light table would be ideal for this, but having to constantly move the design and silk (keeping them matched up) is a huge pain. If you just happen to have an 8 foot light table, then go for it!

Preparing For Dyeing

Once you have traced your standard design onto the silk, your are ready to prepare your standard for dyeing. In order to ensure the dye penetrates all the fibers of the silk, the silk needs to be taut. This facilitates the wicking of the dye throughout the cloth. It is also important that the silk be taut before the gutta is applied. If the gutta is applied first, then when the cloth is stretched gaps may form, allowing the dye to flow into an area where you don’t want it. The tension is achieved by attaching the silk on a stretching frame.

Building a Stretching Frame

Using the materials listed below, you can build a PVC frame large enough to hold your entire standard under tension. The listed material builds a frame that can be configured to fit standards of many sizes. It is designed to keep the silk off of the frame and suspended several inches above the work surface. The instructions below are for stretching a 9' x 3' standard.

  1. All four of the 10 foot pieces of PVC can be cut into a 6 foot and a 4 foot section. You can do this at the store to allow you to transport the PVC home without the need to use a large vehicle.
  2. Cut all four of the 6 foot sections in half, giving you eight 3 foot sections.

  3. Cut two of the 4 foot sections in half, giving you four 2 foot sections.

  4. Cut one of the remaining 4 foot sections into four 1 foot sections.

  5. Save the last 4 foot section. You may need to make sections of other sizes for other sized standards some other time.

  6. Cut two 2 inch pieces from four of the 3 foot sections. Use these to connect the 45° elbows to the center join of the tee connectors.

  7. Connect the open end of the 45° elbows to the ends of the 3 foot sections you just cut two 2 inch chunks from. This should give you four sections with tees at each end. These will act as stretchers in the middle of the frame that are below the level of the cloth.

  8. Connect two of these stretchers with two of the uncut 3 foot sections to form a square. This is the center of your frame.

  9. Connect the four 2 foot sections to the open tees at the corners of the square, and then attach the remaining stretchers to them. This gives you a 7 foot long frame supported at each end and two places in the middle.

  10. Place two of the 90° elbows on each end of one of the remaining 3 foot sections. Connect this to the frame with two of the 1 foot sections. Repeat for the other end.

  11. Adjust the frame so that it is relatively square and level.

Your frame is now ready to hold a 9 foot x 3 foot piece of silk. By having extra pieces of PVC available, you can make the frame larger or smaller as needed.

Attaching the Silk

The silk is attached to the frame by using the brass safety pins and rubber bands. It is important that all the pins and rubber bands are the same size. This will keep the tension even. You also need to make sure all the rubber bands are attached to the pins the same way. One technique that works well is to stick one end of the rubber band through the closed loop of the safety pin, then pass the rubber band through itself. This hooks the rubber band securely to the pin. To attach the pin to the frame, wrap the pin free end of the rubber band around the frame, and then pass the pin end through the free end. Then attach the pin to the silk about ½” from the edge.

The more pins you use, the more even your tension will be. Having the pins evenly spaced also helps. We found a pattern that works pretty well. For each section of the frame, follow the pattern shown in the figure below. Start by pinning the corners and middle of the short ends of the silk to the short ends of the frame (the spots represented by the “1”s in the figure). Then do the same in each of the sections of the long sides of the frame. Now in each section put pins at the places marked by “2”s, then “3”s and “4”s. It is best if the pins are relatively straight with respect to the weave of the cloth. That helps keep the tension even.


Once the silk is under tension (and the dye will wick better with the tighter tension) the straight lines you drew will no longer appear straight. DON'T PANIC! They will straighten out again when the tension is relieved.

Creating the Outline

Now we need to create the “coloring book” outline on the silk. This outline needs to be unbroken to keep the dye in the section of the standard that you want it. You also need to ensure that it penetrates all the way through the silk, or the dye will wick under it.

Apply the gutta along the lines you traced. (While a heavier bead along the outside can help to act as fray check, we have found that turning and sewing the edge is a good idea and helps your standard last longer.) Start at one end of the standard and work towards the other, such that your hand won't smear any wet gutta. Again, make sure you haven't left any gaps in the gutta between two colors. Otherwise the color will bleed through the gap. If you have a relatively large or intricate standard, by the time you get to the end, the first part will be dry and you can start applying the dye. Otherwise you might want to wait an hour or so to allow the gutta to dry thoroughly.

A Word About Diapering

“Diapering” is a term used to describe the designs you see in the background of an image that are drawn in the same color as the background, or close to it. It can add some interesting elements to your design, but is very useful if you have large, otherwise unbroken areas of a single color. As mentioned below, when you apply the dye you want to try and avoid “watermarks” that can be caused by applying new dye next to dye that has already dried. If you have a such a large area of color, consider adding diapering. By using the gutta to diaper the background, you create lots of small areas of color, rather than one large one. This is easier to dye without help. If you are going to have large areas of light colors, you might consider getting the transparent gutta in addition to the black.

Painting the Picture

This is the most exciting part, applying the colors! If you are going to custom mix colors, mix up all that you need for one standard before you start, so the color is consistent. Even so, write down your proportions so you can at least approximate it later if needed. It is also more convenient to do any mixing in small containers that you can seal up when you are done. That way you can keep your custom colors rather than having to recreate them.

Dye Application

Apply light colors first. That way if you mess up and get it in the wrong spot, you can over dye with the darker color. Also, have some ammonia based window cleaner handy (like Windex) to clean up any major mistakes.

Apply the dye with the foam paint brushes. Apply a little more tension to help the dye wick into the silk fibers. Don't apply dye right next to the gutta. Let it wick up to the gutta instead. Otherwise you will end up with an overabundance of dye right at the border, where it is more likely to bleed when rinsing.

Try to keep the fabric uniformly wet with the dye as you work. If you apply wet dye next to dry, you can get lines in the color. When covering large areas in a single color (like the purple around a Calon cross), having two people work at the same time, each going a different direction around the cross is helpful. That way you are always working next to wet fabric as you go, and when you meet up on the other side. This helps avoid “watermarks” in your otherwise uniform color. (See the comment about “diapering” above.)

More dye does not equal darker colors. However; it does mean there is more dye to soak into the silk threads. Try and put on just enough dye to saturate the silk, without creating a puddle.

Some Words about Brushes

You will want a variety of brushes available to you. Water color painting brushes seem to be the most versatile. Small, pointed ones allow you to get dye into those small areas of contrasting color, like the gold bits in the center of a Calon Cross, or the red eyes of a demo-bison. Larger, flat brushes allow you to get more dye onto the silk. Some people have had good luck using foam brushes for this, while others find the brush soaks up too much dye and doesn’t put enough onto the silk. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Making It Stick

Ensuring that they color you have applied stays where you put it, rather than running into another section of your standard, or rinsing away in the rain or wash, is probably the trickiest part of this entire operation. We have tried two different methods:

Chemical Fixative

When treating your standard with a chemical to fix the color to the silk, the color fastness seems to be directly related to how long you allow the standard to dry on the frame before applying the fixative and rinsing. Multiple days seems to have worked REALLY well.

The fixative is mixed into a spray bottle according to the directions (1 ounce per quart of cold water), and then sprayed onto the fabric evenly. It needs to sit on the fabric for 7 minutes (some people are very picky about this length of time). You then rinse the standard with cold running water until the rinse water runs clear. Rinse while the standard is still on the frame and parallel to the ground. That way any dye rinsed out doesn't flow over some other part of the standard and bleed into it.

Once rinsed, the standard is washed in a special soap called Synthrapol. This prevents any excess dye particles from reattaching themselves to the fabric, possibly onto a different color. A very small amount of the soap (1/8 of a cup) is mixed into a large tub of water (the equivalent of a washing machine load), and the standard is removed from the frame and gently washed in it. If more color comes out, dump the wash water and repeat. Once the water stays clear, rinse the standard a final time and set out to dry. The drying time will depend on the weather.

Heat Setting

Another way that color fastness is achieved by heat setting the dye. Allow the painted silk to air dry completely. When properly heat set, painted fabrics can be laundered and dry cleaned. They have excellent wash-fastness when laundered on the gentle cycle and dried on low heat without fabric softeners. Items which will not be laundered or exposed to rain and snow need not be heat set. When applying one product over another, always allow the new dye or paint to dry to the touch and air cure for 24 hours.

Set the paints with an iron or in a dryer. Make sure that you are using a dry iron at the correct temperature setting for the fabric. If you don't heat set at a high enough temperature for a long enough time, the paint may not be thoroughly set. Dharma Trading says that it takes 2-3 minutes at the hottest silk setting. If one uses foil, shiny side up, under the fabric and a layer over the fabric, setting time is said to be only 45 seconds. Another way of setting the dye is to just throw it in the dryer. Pre-heat the dryer on a hot setting (cottons) and then throw the piece into the dryer for 30 minutes. Then spread it out to cool and prevent the gutta from sticking to itself. Once it is completely cool, cut to the final shape and finish. Finish the hoist end with ribbon for strength and to provide ties.

Finishing Up

Once you have completed setting the dye into the silk and allowed your standard to dry thoroughly, you can cut it to size and finish the edges. While the non-water-soluable resist can act as a fray check, it generally will not hold up to multiple days of flapping in the wind. So we recommend that you cut your standard out leaving some silk outside your outer most resist line, turn it under and sew it like a small bead around the edge. This will provide more support when your standard is whipped back and forth. If you finish the hoist end with ribbon or some other fabric scrap it will provide more strength and something to attach the standard to a pole with.

Final Words

To steal a phrase from “Hitchhikers Guide”, DON’T PANIC. Lots of things can (and will) go wrong while you are making a standard. Don’t expect your first attempt to go perfectly (or your fifth or tenth, for that matter). Keep in mind that typically your standard will be above your head flying in the breeze. Its purpose is to identify you across the field (or campsite), not stand up to the scrutiny of Mistress Laurel Seamchecker.


Fixing Mistakes with Window Cleaner

Spray the cleaner on a piece of paper towel and then blot the area while using another piece of paper towel underneath the silk to have something to press against. This sucks the dye right up off the fabric and left just a small faint stain that could be covered up easily with more dye. It even works to some extent on the parts that were to remain white. It was quite amazing to see it, besides - no one will see it when it is flapping in the breeze.

Web Resources

The place we got our supplies is Dharma Trading.

Good sources for ideas:

Materials List

This is a list of the materials you will need to follow these instructions. We have listed where we found them, but you may find better sources.

PVC Stretching Frame (Hardware Store)

  • 4 - 10 foot long 1 inch diameter PVC pipe
  • 4 - 90° 1 inch PVC elbow
  • 8 - 45° 1 inch PVC elbow
  • 8 - 1 inch PVC Tee connector
  • Lots of Brass Safety Pins (steel may rust and stain your silk)
  • Lots of Size 32 rubberbands

Standard Materials (Dharma Trading)

  • #5 weight silk gauze - 9 feet long
  • Jacquard American black gutta (one 4oz bottle will go a long way)
  • Dye-na-flow silk paint in various colors (1 or 2 oz of dyes is usually enough to do a standard)
  • Gutta applicator bottles with #7 tips

Tools & Supplies

  • Ball point pen or #2 pencils
  • A bottle of isopropyl alcohol
  • A bottle of water
  • 1 bottle ammonia window cleaner
  • Sharp scissors
  • A variety of brushes
  • Roll of paper towels
  • Some Q-tips
  • Roll of masking tape
  • Porous paper, such as newsprint paper or butcher paper