Sunday, July 21, 2013

Crafting in the digital era: Design your own fabric
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 28, 2013

 On a typical episode, the long-running competitive reality show “Project Runway” gives the remaining fashion designers a conceptual design challenge, then takes them off to shop in midtown Manhattan in a multi-level store (“Mood”) bulging with fabric. Famous for throwing curve balls, “Project Runway” has caught many a contender off guard by dispensing with the trip to Mood for one episode, and requiring them to design their own fabric, from which they are expected to create a winning look. The final results serve as proof that good fashion designers are not always good fabric designers, and many are so used to working with solids, they have no idea what to do with a print.

But for those of us who love to work with fabric, we watch this design-your-own-fabric episode with envy and wonder. What would it be like to have that much creative freedom and control? How much more would that curtain, quilt, dress or textile art we want to make become a truer expression of our creativity?

In this one-of-a-kind book-DVD package, 
celebrated fabric designer, illustrator, sewist, and
author Heather Ross shares reproducible artwork
 for her bestselling fabric prints and step-by-step 
instructions for designing your own fabric.
What with the recent development of print-on-demand calendars, books, and tee-shirts, I should have suspected there might be a way to have your own fabric printed. I’ve actually been doing that for years on a small scale, running 8-1/2 x 11 pieces of freezer-paper-backed cotton fabric through my home printer. But a small piece of fabric obviously has its limitations. So now there is a way to create yards and yards of fabric, digitally printed with your own design. Welcome to the amazing world of print-on-demand fabric.

The book that clued me in to this exciting new opportunity, written by a former Santa Cruzan, is called, “Heather Ross Prints.” In the late 70s, Heather Ross moved from Vermont to Santa Cruz in fourth grade with her father and twin sister, Christie. They lived in family housing at UCSC while her father attended graduate school there, and the girls had plenty of opportunity to explore their new community. Heather, who learned to sew at a young age, remembers shopping at Harts Fabric. “I used to buy my own fabric when I was in junior high and I remember shopping for my Halloween Bride of Frankenstein outfit and a woman helping me there,” she says.

In 2011 Heather Ross teamed up with Walden
 Surfboards to create this Mermaid surfboard for girls.
Today Heather lives in New York City, and has become an author, illustrator and trend-setter in the designer fabric world, with her whimsical, childhood imagery. Playful caricatures of mermaids, unicorns, antique bird cages or long johns dance about in soft, retro hues making her style very recognizable and sought after. “Prints,” her latest book, is unusual because she actually shares her signature designs on an included DVD, which can be printed at home on paper for use in several projects. But what really makes the book worth buying is her willingness to walk you step by step through process of designing and having your own fabric printed.

“I really had to force myself as an adult to use a computer,” says Heather. “Digital fabric printing was a little funky at first, but now it’s possible to get a really beautiful fabric.” About her book she says, “What people needed was just some really clear instructions,” and that’s what her “How to Create Designs in Photoshop” chapter is all about.

Heather suggests that good fabric design starts with paper and pencil. She writes that that “a simple drawing will translate much better to a digital design than a realistic or heavily detailed one.” In addition, “Wonky proportions and a ‘flat’ or ‘naïve’ style make the best prints!” For those who do not want to start with a sketch, she also shows a method for creating designs using photos.

“Heather Ross Prints” provides instructions for turning
 her “Race Track” fabric into a toddler duvet.
  The fabric can be purchased on
In her book, Heather demonstrates the process of turning a sketch into a print. From a pencil sketch of a donkey, she makes several photocopies, adds new pencil lines and ideas to create variations and connections, and then cuts them out to make a collage. The collage represents one block that will be repeated throughout the printed fabric, in a pattern of your choosing. The collage is scanned into Photoshop as a black and white image, cleaned up, and scaled to the finished size. Then she shows how to add spot color with various tools until she has finally created an amazing, fabric-ready image.

The finished block is then scanned and uploaded to an on-demand digital printing service, which can print on all sorts of fabric in quantities of your choosing. Heather uses Spoonflower, which prints swatches, fat quarters, and yards of fabric, plus wallpaper, peel-and-stick wall decals and wrapping paper. The website also has a fun “vote for the Design of the Week” feature, which is a great place to soak up inspiration and learn (or buy) from others. Another site, Fabric on Demand, specializes in custom fabric printing, and offers some fabrics, such as lycra/spandex, not available through Spoonflower.

Both websites are user friendly, offering several design layout options, step-by-step instructions, and examples. The process is not in expensive, though. On Spoonflower, for example, cotton fabric starts at $17.50 a yard, and their most expensive option, silk crepe de chine, is $38 a yard. But even at those prices, I think it would be absolutely thrilling to get that first glimpse of your very own design on fabric.

Heather, who still has close connections to Santa Cruz, recently talked with friend Matt Basile, the owner of Harts Fabric in Santa Cruz, at a recent quilt market in Portland, and mentioned that her sister, Christie Danner, who lives in Scotts Valley, has breast cancer. Basile offered to do a benefit at his store in Santa Cruz, and the event began to take shape.

Inspired by the wonderful murals on the streets in Santa Cruz,
 Heather Ross has hand-painted a sewing machine,
 donated for the auction by Harts Fabrics and Jacome.

The fundraiser they are hosting will take place Sunday, June 30, and will include both a raffle and an auction emceed by Heather herself, with donations by Harts Fabric, Martha Stewart, Amy Sedaris, Windham Fabrics, Walden Surfboards and many others. Heather will also make her newest flowery fabric line, Briar Rose, available before its wide release, which, Heather says, will appeal very much to quilters.

Heather’s twin sister, Christie Danner, who lives in Scotts Valley has been battling breast cancer for several months, and will start chemotherapy, July 1, the day after the benefit. “It’s a super aggressive type of cancer,” says Heather, “but they caught it early.” Christie is a mother of three and works full time as an advisor and intervention counselor at Scotts Valley High school. “She is the glue that binds my (somewhat functionally challenged) family together,” writes Heather on her blog. “She is never the person that asks for help, she is always the one who gives it.”

 All proceeds will help Christie (who is not eligible for district insurance, and is covered only by a high-deductible health policy) afford the mounting, non-covered costs associated with her cancer treatment. “The craft community is the most generous and heart-based community,” says Heather. “The response has been amazing.”

(All book photos provided by the publisher, Abrams Books, (Mark Gruen, photographer) except for photos of sewing machine provided by Heather Ross.  Surfboard photos also taken by Mark Gruen.)

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