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November/December 2003


The Digital Quilt

Being able to print photographs and computer-manipulated images directly onto fabric opens up
a new frontier for quilt artists.

by Michael James

Michael James, The Nature of Things (detail), 2003; digitally developed and printed cotton, reactive dyes; machine pieced and quilted; 52.5 by 108 inches. Photo: Larry Gawel.

Printed textiles have been central to the quiltmaker's art since long before the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries began to overtake woodblock printing, making printed textiles both affordable and plentiful. "[B]y 1836 American mills alone were turning out about 120,000,000 yards of printed cloth a year," write Susan Meller and Joost Elffers in Textile Designs: Two Hundred Years of European and American Patterns Organized by Motif, Style, Color, Layout, and Period. According to Meller and Elffers, one of the oldest extant printed textiles is a child's tunic dating from the 4th century A.D., and by the Middle Ages tradesmen were producing block-printed textiles throughout Europe.

Naturally, these textiles found their way into patchwork bed coverings and garments, where their colors and sometimes intricate designs allowed quiltmakers to amplify the expressive and decorative qualities of their work as well as the textural richness. In the 19th century especially, these features of printed textiles took firm hold of the imaginations of American and British quiltmakers, to the extent that simulated patchwork by the yard became commonplace in dry-goods shops on both sides of the Atlantic, writes Florence M. Montgomery in Printed Textiles: English and American Cottons and Linens 1700-1850.

The aesthetic history of the patchwork quilt is inextricably linked to the history of the printed textile. Today, the advent of digital textile printing in the studios of contemporary quiltmakers and surface designers signals a sea change in how these artists and designers can interact with the constructed textile surface. While digital textile printing won't replace more labor-intensive artisanal processes of image development, such as stencil/screen printing, batik and discharge, hand painting and dyeing, and the conventional hand and machine techniques of pieced and appliqué fabric construction, it will significantly affect the way that imagery is created for and within the quilt surface.

Michael James, A Strange Riddle 3, 2002; digitally developed and printed cotton; machine pieced and quilted; 35.25 by 48.5 inches. Photo: Larry Gawel.

The ability to use sophisticated design software such as Adobe Photoshop and other more specialized CAD [computer-aided design] programs and to transfer the output of those digital manipulations to fabric on equipment that can be easily accommodated in the independent maker's studio suggests that the distance that once existed in the production process between the printed textile designer and the user (designer/design department > art director > stylist > printer/converter > finisher > distributor > retailer > quiltmaker) can be effectively, if not inexpensively, eliminated.

The quiltmaker developing his or her fabric digitally will need not only a computer with ample memory and an inkjet printer predisposed or adaptable to the needs of textile printing but also design software, a digital camera, a flatbed scanner, and, for those printing with textile dyes (reactive or acid), a steamer. The quiltmaker will also need training, both in the use of the equipment and the software, and in design itself. The latter is key: digital technology does not a designer make. No amount of equipment or cutting-edge software will conceal a lack of visual design acumen or skills.

On the other hand, for the skilled quilt designer, the ability and ease with which imagery can be layered, altered, re-sized, re-colored, and otherwise adjusted to the needs of specific projects and concepts using available software suggest an expanding vision of what a quilt surface might look like and how that look might be achieved. Expensive hardware is not needed; the fabric designer can now send image files to digital textile printing studios that, for set fees, will transform those files into ready-to-quilt yardage.

Michael James, The Nature of Things (top image, front; bottom image, back), 2003; digitally developed and printed cotton, reactive dyes; machine pieced and quilted; 52.5 by 108 inches. Photo: Larry Gawel.

My own investigations of digital textile development and printing started in early 2002 with the arrival of a Mimaki TX-1600S printer in the Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, where I teach. This wide-body floor model prints fabrics up to 60 inches wide using inkjet technology and either reactive or acid dyes (in the first year of our use of this printer, we've restricted ourselves to reactive dyes but have successfully printed with them on both cotton and silk). Software that accompanied the printer and its computer included Artbench (by Sophis), the program with which I've worked most extensively after Adobe Photoshop. In fact, all of the imagery I've developed for my own use was worked initially in Photoshop, then transferred to and further manipulated in Artbench.

I've given a lot of thought to the implications that sophisticated technologies such as those embodied in this equipment and software hold relative to my practice as a quiltmaker. The capacity to place imagery on fabric is virtually unlimited. Almost anything that the imagination can conceive, combined with the facility offered by layering, transparency, tiling, color reduction, filtering, and other digital options, as well as photography and all that this medium brings to visual expression, is doable. This aforementioned facility doesn't come easily, but once the basics of the CAD programs are mastered, experimentation will open endless avenues for creative exploration. The danger is that this work can easily become facile, leading to vapid or predictable photo montages with little meaning or emotional resonance. This is a problem not unique to digital quilts, of course. It's a concern in any medium and with any materials or processes.

Graduate student Nao Nomura (left) and visiting faculty member Surayyo Rajaboja work on a repeat fabric using the Mimaki TX1600S printer at the University of Nevada-Lincoln. Photo: Michael James.

Access to these digital technologies came, for me, at a very opportune moment. I felt that I was exhausting what it was I had to say with hand-painted fabrics and the geometric pattern formats and constructs that I'd been exploring since about 1995. I'd begun working with an MRI scan of my brain and had integrated an embroidered facsimile into the hand-painted ground field of a large work aptly named Scan (1999). This led, in March and April of 2002, to the first group of digitally fabricated textiles that I produced, focusing on that MRI image and adapting and altering it according to both whim and purpose. The results included Mind's Eye and the series entitled A Strange Riddle, a sequence of three quilts that adapted imagery from a family photograph to explore my own relationship to pattern and to memory.

These quilts were followed by a second series in which I explored notions of concealment and revelation, order and chaos, beauty and ugliness, and the unnerving contrasts and visual paradoxes that I've encountered while traveling overseas, specifically in Japan. The paradoxes--of exquisite beauty on the one hand (epitomized, for example, in the purity of a haiku poem or the elegance and restraint of a Zen garden) and, on the other hand, the blight of overbuilt cities and of countrysides obscured by the arbitrariness of advertising signage and by the endless procession of high-tension lines--reveal the dichotomies of visual and spiritual experience that we all live with and make sense of in our everyday lives. Our human capacity to synthesize and to negotiate physical and emotional terrain representing great opposites holds deep fascination for me. Access to digital media has offered me technical strategies that enable me to explore these concepts to a degree and extent I'd most likely not have been inclined toward otherwise. Along with my colleagues, I feel very fortunate to have these media at my fingertips.

Patricia Mink, Tapia No. 4 (top; detail bottom), 2003; cottons, silks, and synthetics, rayon thread, cotton backing and batting; inkjet printing on fabric, fused appliqué, machine piecing, quilting, embroidery; 60 by 39 inches. Private collection.

Other artists working with quilts are likewise exploring the possibilities that digital printing has opened up. A series by Patricia Mink, printed on an Epson C80 desktop printer, effectively captures the pitted and distressed physiognomy of some crumbling wall, reflecting back at the viewer his or her own mortality and fragility.

Vincent Gil Vargas Quevedo, Descend, 2001; cotton fabric and batting, poly/cotton bias binding; photography, Photoshop manipulation, digital printing using reactive dyes, machine quilting; 43.5 by 54 inches. Photo: Michael James.

Vince Quevedo's gestural nudes, printed on the Mimaki printer, float in an isolated but spotlit netherworld in which the exaggeration and drama of their poses are countered by an equally palpable poignancy and vulnerability. Caryl Bryer Fallert's essays, created with desktop printing using Bubble Jet Set fabric pretreatment, integrate digital imagery with familiar quilt structures, including repeat module sets and central medallion/border arrangements. Each artist has explored ways to adapt digital technologies to her or his expressive aim.

Those of us working in the area of quilt design are in the very early stages of these explorations. As technologies develop and become more discipline-specific, as manufacturers and software developers become more aware of the broadening constituencies for their products, and as both hardware and software become more affordable and ubiquitous, the digital revolution will contribute to the ongoing transformation of the quilt medium and of quilt culture that the last 30 years have initiated.

Caryl Bryer Fallert, Stars of Africa (with details), 2001; cotton fabric; inkjet printed, machine pieced and quilted; 78 by 78 inches. Photos by the artist.

Michael James makes quilts in his Lincoln, Nebraska, studio. He serves as the Ardis James Professor of Textiles, Clothing and Design at the University of Nebraska, where he is also a faculty fellow of the International Quilt Study Center.

This profile first appeared in:

Nov/Dec 2003

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