If you follow what's going on in the technical theatre industry at conferences such as USITT, and via blogs like this one and other media, you've seen a growing number of examples of the use of digital fabric printing. From Disney's sublimation printing department,
to fabric yardage pre-printed with age
for regional theatre, to reproducing historical folding fans
by digitally printing the designs onto silk, i've covered ever more of this type of work of late.
It's clear that theatrical costume designers and crafts artisans need to develop a familiarity with the processes of digital textile design and printing . I've begun to encourage my students to take on projects that involve elements of digital textile print design, like this fan leaf design
by first year grad student Leah Pelz
But it does beg the question: how does one learn how to go about such things? Obviously digital fabric design classes are out there, offered through a college of textiles, but that's not an option for most of us working in the field.
I received two books for Christmas which might be of help, if you're hoping to get some grounding in textile design to actualize the kinds of projects that present themselves in the course of costume production. Neither are ideal for theatre artists, but then again, we're not exactly a huge demographic. Both are useful in different ways, and laid out in such a way that you can pick and choose what you need from them to get done what you need doing.
The first is A Field Guide to Fabric Design
by Kimberly Kight. Kim is the author of the blog TrueUp
, which also hosts a fabric design forum for discussion of relevant topics. The book purports to deal with designing fabric "for quilting, home dec, & apparel," and it's a pretty succinct overview.
I will admit an aesthetic bias, before i even get to the content: I love the way this book is laid out, organized, and graphically designed. The images are great, the paper quality is nice, the font families are easy to read, and it's full of all kinds of useful info for the novice who wants to learn all about textile print design, from basic nomenclature to various method tutorials (both digital and analog). She also addresses things like copyright and licensing issues, which are of more pressing relevance to those designing fabrics for sale, but are useful to know from a costume design perspective as well.
In terms of digital design, Kight's book has a few tutorials on working with both Photoshop and Illustrator (versions CS3 or later), and she has some excellent insights into how to create stuff like a cohesive color palette for a design, or making a decent-looking scatter-print using spot-repeat grids.
The other book is Digital Textile Design
, by Melanie Bowles and Ceri Isaac. Let me start by saying, if i had an aesthetic bias in favor of Kight's, i've the opposite with this text. Plainly put, i found this book hard to look at. From the font choices to the non-intuitive layout, to the (IMO) hideous and already-dated-looking images/designs, it was not easy on the eyes for me. Even the size and paper used kind of turned me off, because it felt like a low-rent workbook. Then again, it does seem to be aimed at a fashion-school textbook-buyer's market in some ways, so maybe that's to be expected. It's got some of the same basic information to be found in Kight's book, but is less comprehensive in terms of related chapters on things like color theory and fabric types and even some of the terminology.
The good thing about the book is that it's got a ton of actual step-by-step digital fabric design tutorials. Mind you, they aren't very clearly written, and i wound up using them more as vague signposts on a road of progress--a couple of them resulted in some cool exercises that helped me understand new ways of working with images and design programs, and some of them were essentially useless without liberal use of the Adobe Help site. Again, if the text is taken as a workbook meant to be used in tandem with an in-class instructor, maybe its vagueness in places is not a problem in that context? I'd think you'd want it as "idiot-proof" as possible, myself. Figuring it out on your own, it's hit or miss.
I think though, after reading both of them and working through their respective tutorials and guidelines, if i had to recommend a course of action for the average theatre craftsperson or costume designer who wanted to begin working with digital textile designs, i'd recommend buying the Kight text. If you suck at Photoshop and Illustrator, her book will get you going conceptually, and Adobe's support pages
have so many really good instructional videos that you can hunt through them for the specifics on how to do something like "select just this part of the image" or "paste this but mirrored" or whatever.
After reading both these books and doing some tutorials, i put my learning to the test, and spent a day off futzing around with Photoshop and Illustrator to see what i could come up with in the realm of random textile design (meaning, not with some specific stage need like the Parchman Hour prison stripes
A while back I had scanned all these funny old 19th century ads and cartoons that have to do with historical millinery/hatmaking, and decided to see what sorts of fabric prints i could make with them as jumping-off points. I've begun grouping them on Spoonflower in a collection called Vive les Chapeaux!
. So far i've got two hatters' ad prints for making hat linings and such, and a hilarious border print
that i'm thinking about using for cafe curtains in my millinery studio. Fun!
 No, i don't believe that digital printing and design will ever entirely supplant the artistry of surface design techniques, from batik to screenprinting. This post is not about that debate. This post is about the rise of digital design and printing as one more tool in the toolbox, as it were.