In addition to weaving tapestries, I design textiles for the home products market. My pattern obsession drives me to create hundreds more designs than will ever be licensed by my clients. So in early 2009, when I read a New York Times article about Spoonflower, a new print-on-demand fabric service that could print my designs both digitally and quickly at a low cost, I immediately went to their website and began uploading my own designs.
THE BACKSTORY: I had worked with digital fabric printing before. It involved lots of back-and-forth to persuade companies in the business of printing signage to print textile designs on nasty-feeling polyester canvas at a high cost. Paying a lot of money for printed fabric with a questionable hand was not a good deal. Shopping online for digital printing services was an opaque process that required emailing design images for quotes. Few fabric options were available. Nothing was upfront or easy to understand. Using this process to experiment with ideas seemed expensive and risky.
THE GAME CHANGER: This all changed when Stephen Fraser founded Spoonflower in 2008. He was working as an internet consultant to the print-on-demand book publisher Lulu Press when his wife Kim, who likes to sew, remarked how great it would be to get her own designs printed on fabric as easily as one could get a book printed online.
Fraser began his market research by beating the blogosphere to explore interest in the idea and bagged a list of 10,000 potential customers. Working with North Carolina State University‘s wide-format printer, he began rolling out custom fabric. The business went big fast and he was soon scrambling to acquire his own printers along with additional work space.
THE NEW PARADIGM: There are a range of choices when it comes to print-on-demand services; I will evaluate some of them below. But first: what is different about Spoonflower?
Fraser says the business has been designed to satisfy the needs of design professionals (like me) as well as DIY makers who want to design their own fabric with or without experience or technical/design skills. Someone with just a digital camera can produce fabric as easily as someone with Photoshop, Illustrator, and a lot of training. The Spoonflower website has simple tutorials, excellent image prep and upload instructions, plus space to store hundreds of designs online with easy access and editing capabilities. It’s even possible to rotate a design through several repeat layouts. Designs can be shared with others who can comment on your work.
The Spoonflower blog promotes creative and stimulating weekly fabric contests, open to anyone, that showcase winning ideas. Watching how the popular vote goes every week is highly instructive in understanding this audience’s tastes; it’s great market research! I often enter the contests. Though I find that most winners tend toward a kind of kawaii cuteness, I was nicely surprised when my entry in the Gourds contest won last Fall.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The range of fabric types is ever-increasing. Basic cotton print cloth, organic cotton knit & sateen, cotton & linen-cotton canvas, cotton voile, and recently silk crepe de chine are available. $1.00 will get you a complete booklet of fabric swatches. $5.00 will buy an 8″ square sample of any available fabrics to test design and color before purchasing larger yardages. There is no minimum yardage purchase.
Fabric designers are offered a 10% discount. Orders above 20 yards of the same pattern are given another 10% off. You can choose to make designs in your portfolio public – or not. Once you have had a design printed you can offer it for sale, and once it sells you earn a 10% commission in “Spoondollars” which can be credited to future orders or withdrawn via Paypal. A surprising number of Spoonflower shoppers purchase the fabric designed by other site users. So on top of all the other services and features that help you design and produce fabric, Spoonflower also offers a fabric marketplace where you can sell your work.
Digitally printing your designs is a good a way to test how scale and color work over a large surface and how the patterns work once made into various end products. This is particularly useful when I prepare my portfolio to show to my design clients.
MY FIRST PROJECT: I like engineered designs, which can be cut & sewn directly into a project. My first use of Spoonflower’s service was for a gallery print invitational – a great way to test some new ideas. I designed a 19th-century style fabric sample book, had the cloth pages printed digitally, then sewed them into needle books.
An engineered design – sometimes called a placement print – offers added value to the cloth being printed while maximizing every inch of it. As a maker and designer, I am very conscious of the relatively high price of this custom fabric, which starts at $18 per yard (as compared to $8-$9 per yard for good quality commercial prints). The pattern itself needs to have visual integrity and high design value since the actual quality of the goods can’t compete with the price point of commercial fabric.
To celebrate each New Year I send my design clients a calendar illustrated with some of my best designs. This year I was inspired by a Spoonflower contest theme and designed tea towel calendars that were engineered specifically for the wider and more absorbent linen-cotton canvas. The thank you letters I received in response were wonderful!
THE COMPETITION: There are several other sources for print-on-demand fabric which are similar to Spoonflower. Karmakraft offers printing with fiber-reactive dyes which may hold more appeal for some. Most digital fabric print services use pigment inks which often create a rather stiff feel and don’t thoroughly penetrate the fabric. On the other hand, inks are considered more environmentally friendly since minimal water is involved. Dyes need several extra processing steps, including washing out dye effluent, that really tax water usage.
Fabric on Demand provides a straightforward process for producing your digital designs on fabric at competitive prices while offering a range of 10 different fabrics. Eye Candey stocks a few cloth varieties – but can also print digital designs on edible-image cake frosting sheets! True Up, a blog about fabric design, has several articles about digital printing on fabric, ranging from compari son of a few popular print services to ideas for digital fabric applications.
A PATTERN OF COMPULSION: I keep going back to Spoonflower. There is a friendliness about the company that, paired with certain aspects of the user interface like storing your designs online, makes them very easy to work with and very hard to resist. In clicking to Spoonflower.com to research this article, I found myself ordering more fabric every time, since the first thing I saw was images of the latest designs I had uploaded. How narcissistic is that!?!
MEET LAURA FOSTER NICHOLSON AND STEPHEN FRASER AT CONFLUENCE:
2011 INTERNATIONAL SURFACE DESIGN ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE
in Minneapolis starting June 9.
Fraser is a featured speaker and workshop leader.
Nicholson will be part of a panel that will illuminate
how love of textiles & pattern can lead to livelihood.
For more information and to register, visit surfacedesign.org
Check out this NCArts video about the birth of Spoonflower from youtube.com,
where you can find a whole library of Spoonflower tutorials.
Laura Foster Nicholson is a textile artist widely-known for her handwoven brocaded tapestries. Educated at Kansas City Art Institute (BFA) and Cranbrook Academy of Art (MFA), she lectures, teaches and exhibits in the US, Canada and Italy. She designs jacquard ribbons and home textiles for her own company, LFN Textiles, while also licensing her designs to Crate & Barrel, Land of Nod, Renaissance Ribbons, Larsen, Inc., among many others. Visit her blog at lfntextiles.blogspot.com
Her work is included in numerous museum collections. Grants & awards include an NEA fellowship, the Leone di Pietra Prize at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, 3 Illinois Arts Council fellowships, and a grant from the Graham Foundation for Research in the Fine Arts. She lives in New Harmony, Indiana.