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
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
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.