Project 3: Combining Digital and Hand Surface Design Technologies on Fabric (2005-2006)

Combining Digital and Hand Surface Design Technologies on Fabric (2005-06)

This project focuses primarily on small scale printing on fabric with the home printer. We are searching for approaches to help the home studio artist working in textiles.


For the last 5 years I have been experimenting with digital printing with fiber reactive dyes on fabric, using equipment in the Digital Design Center at the College of Textiles. My findings have identified several problems and challenges for fiber artists which must be overcome when using digitally printed fabrics in the construction of works of art in the medium (which is the main trust of my creative scholarly work). I have outlined these thoroughly in several conference presentations and in an article in Surface Design Journal (summer 2004) (list available on request).

Of the problems and challenges I have previously identified, I am currently focusing my attention on solving issues of loss of both surface qualities of the fabrics and the loss of personal hand contact with materials that occurs during the digital printing. My aim is to expand the visual vocabulary associated with digitally printed fabrics available to fiber artists and to help make the computer and digital printing effective and “invisible” tools in the making of contemporary textile art works.

Proposal: I am conducting a series of studies on digitally printed cloth to investigate a wide variety of approaches to alter the surface of the fabric by hand after printing. Tentative approaches will include cutting, piecing, layering, painting, drawing, combining with other fabrics and materials, and stitching. The goal is to re-introduce the dialogue between the artist and the materials that is lost in the digital printing process.

Part one investigates fabric construction types and fiber choices as contributors to achieving the goal of maintaining surface qualities. Printing will be done on my Epson C80 pigment printer and/or the large-scale digital printers at the College of Textiles, when they are available. We will print a variety of hand drawn or painted, photographic, and computer generated images, using both pigments and dyes.

Part two applies a wide variety of techniques in hand dyeing, printing, painting, devoré, discharge, resist dye, and direct application to add marks and images, which alter and enhance the digital printing. This will test the effectiveness of each major type of hand process in combination with the digital print, and evaluate the effectiveness of restoring the textural characteristics desired in both pigment and dye environments.

Part three tests a wide variety of hand and machine embroidery, as well as fabric manipulation techniques on the digital prints, and altered prints. The embroidery experimentation will focus on using the stitched line as drawing, to create a variety of marks, and raise surface texture. The fabric manipulation will investigate techniques such as tucking, pleating, gathering, appliqué, reverse appliqué with digitally printed fabrics to document effective ways of restoring texture and three-dimensional qualities. This phase of the project will use several types of Bernina and Juki brand digital and analog sewing machines, and a newly acquired digital embroidery machine (equipment already belongs either to the Department or me.


The challenges I have identified with digital printing on fabric are being expressed throughout the fiber art world as this new technology becomes increasingly available to artists everywhere. Although seductive as a way to place images on fabric, in the printing process, cloth loses its tactile, textural, structural and three-dimensional qualities—the defining qualities of cloth—rendering it quite paper like and without its usual and characteristic surface “architecture.” In addition, the evidence of the human hand is lost. Most artists and designers working in the medium are attracted to these very qualities. The information learned is valuable to help artists use the technology and restore their contact with the fabric and satisfaction with the work produced with digital aids.

This project, which I have been conducting piece-meal on my own at a very slow pace, will gain speed, organization, and value to others if I have assistance. It will involve a graduate student with current research in the field. It seems appropriate and important to extend this opportunity to graduate students in fibers coinciding with the implementation of our new Master of Art and Design/Fibers concentration in fall 2005.

Working with a Research Assistant to Investigate

This project is in progress, with the assistance of two research assistants. We are working together to: identify the range of images needed to for printing; locate a range of fabrics types and fibers contents to print on; and devise matrices of parameters for printing. The research assistant is largely responsible for scanning, tweaking, preparing fabric, and printing. I do most of the recording of results with different fabrics. We will collectively organize and evaluate the printing results, assembling a book of samples with commentary. I am using a research assistant with considerable years of experience with Photoshop and other visual software.

During the second semester this year I will begin working with a second research assistant with strong embroidery skills. We will brainstorm to devise both a matrix of hand surface techniques to test with each type of print and a matrix of studies to examine the interrelationship of a certain types of stitched marks and fabric manipulation techniques which can alter the surface. Working simultaneously, the research assistants and I will experiment with the techniques and evaluate the results, assembling another book of samples.

Short Statement of Results

We hope to publish our results when the year is out. Look here to find out where.

If you have an interest in this area and are conducting research of your own, I would love to hear from you (by email) and discuss results.