SDA Swatch Collections Offer Encyclopedic View of *Surface Design*

What is surface design?

Answering this question is one of many challenges faced by Surface Design Association.

It’s a question we may never answer succinctly. The meaning has certainly evolved since the 70s when the term was selected as the name of our association. In the 21st century, “surface design” means different things to different people and can refer to applications as diverse as textiles, architecture and software.

But, like pornography, most of us know it when we see it!

SDA Swatch Collections (formerly known as SDA Swatch Library) are tangible evidence of surface design as it was defined by SDA in its early history. The collections – divided into 3 sets of 80+ samples each – explore patterning on cloth surfaces. As a whole, they leave no stone unturned, in the sense that no technique goes unexplored.

The collections are democratic and member-generated. According to Astrid Hilger Bennett, SDA Board member and Director of Representatives, she encouraged members to bring a 12” swatch to share and discuss at the regional breakfast meetings of an SDA conference in the early 2000s. Her goal was to warm up the networking experience. Conference attendees were mesmerized by the resulting wealth of examples that showcased a multitude of printing and patterning techniques. This spontaneous assemblage gave birth to one of the most valuable educational and inspirational assets that SDA offers its members.

To give credit where it is due, it was former Director of Membership Jan Myers-Newbury who observed the excitement around the swatches brought to SDA’s Innovation/Transformation/Contemplation conference in 2000 (the first in Kansas City, MO). She took the swatches home and also took ownership of creating an SDA swatch lending library.

Myers-Newbury’s original request for swatches was simple. Keep the size to a 12” square in order to maintain uniformity. Leave the edges unfinished. Describe the techniques used to create the swatch. Indicate a willingness (or not) to teach the techniques to other people. She recalls that when she received subsequent pieces at her home address it was like Christmas! She fulfilled requests by shipping them off in pizza boxes, which were just the right size.
(Editor’s Note: You can review the original shout-out for swatches on page 5 in Winter 2000 issue of the printed SDA Newsletter, now scanned and archived on SDA website. If you are a member, just login and click on “Member Resources” to access this formerly printed SDA member benefit. SDA NewsBlog became the digital reincarnation of that newsletter in 2010).

Past SDA President Candace Edgerley took over the collection upon volunteering to become Director of Membership in 2004. She divided the collection into 3 and remembers that she “kept them traveling most of the time…to members, colleges, universities and for display at events such as SOFA and conferences.” She also recalls that Jan Myers-Newbury continued to volunteer her time to label and edge 80 swatches that were collected at SDA 2007 conference. Past Director of Membership Saaraliisa Ylitalo took over management of the collection from 2008-2012 and reports that she sent the collection out about 15 times a year.

Since the first unveiling of the swatch “library” model, the voluntary contributions of more than 70 members has built an invaluable resource. No other collection of its kind exists. Access to the collections is a benefit of SDA membership. Any member can request a collection – for personal study or for group use at a local members’ get-together.

In the spring of 2012, Phil and Linda Witte Henke agreed to catalogue the collections more formally than had been done previously. They photographed and recorded each swatch, generated a pdf catalogue of the collections and produced a PowerPoint presentation. Swatches were newly labeled with maker’s name and website, processes used and a photo that ensures accurate assignation. Member Miki Rodriguez volunteered to sew the labels onto the backs of the swatches. This was no small task. It completed the updating and re-organizing process.

Studying the swatches is a treat. From Jan Myers-Newbury’s gorgeous shibori samples to jacquard woven ribbons designed by Laura Foster Nicholson, each swatch square is a small jewel of incredible color, effective use of multiple layers and often multiple techniques. Each is a fiber confection of visual delight.

The collection’s power to inspire was in full force in March 2012 at Surface Matters, SDA Washington State Area Symposium. The room where the swatches were displayed was packed. The air buzzed with excitement and enthusiasm. In that moment, I realized what an under-valued and impressive resource SDA oversees. No museum offers an equivalent opportunity to go (literally) hands-on with an comprehensive historical record of the past 30 years of surface design on fabric.

As current president of SDA, I am committed to seeing the Swatch Collections recognized as the unique resource they are. I am committed to seeing SDA continue to build the collections. Eventually I would love to see the creation of a “Best of” Collection – built democratically by including work from many members – and curated based on best practices criteria. We hope to have the PowerPoint presentation ready for downloading from SDA website in early 2013.

The current SDA Swatch Administrator, Beki Biesterfelt, orchestrates requests to borrow a collection. Members can contact her to request a collection at
Requests are first come, first served – so make your request well in advance of date needed.

Then help SDA build this outstanding textile arts resource!

We are actively seeking new swatches for the collections – and for possible inclusion in the “Best Of” Collection.

Guidelines and forms for submitting swatches can be accessed via SDA website at


Jane Dunnewold has authored Complex Cloth (1996) and Improvisational Screen Printing (2003) and co-authored Finding Your Own Visual Language (2007). Interweave Press published Art Cloth: A Guide to Surface Design on Fabric in 2010. Her recent exhibitions include Sacred Planet (2009/2011) and Etudes: A Daily Practice (2011). Formerly chair of  Surface Design Studio at Southwest School of Art, Dunnewold is currently President of the Surface Design Association. She maintains Art Cloth Studios, in San Antonio, Texas, USA.

Visit her website at


  • Judi Crawford says

    November 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    Very interesting. Would love to see them but a little difficult in Australia. Are you thinking of a book or DVD of the images??

    • SDA-Enews says

      December 1, 2012 at 8:59 pm

      As stated, there will be a downloadable PowerPoint - perfect for presentations Down Under.

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