Sunday, January 24, 2010

The blessing/curse of surface design

Going through images from a series I completed several years ago, I am reminded again of one of my recurring observations about fiber art: that beautiful surface design can be both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing, of course, because fiber artists are familiar with such a variety of techniques and materials, and it’s so easy to produce glorious, unique fabrics. A curse, because it’s so hard to figure out what to do with those glorious fabrics once you have made them.

Case in point: some beautiful discharge pieces I made as part of a series on letters of the alphabet. I cut the big M from a campaign sign that I rescued from the trash after an election. (Campaign signs make excellent resists for wet mediums, because the heavy cardboard is heavily coated to stand up to rain.) I was so enthralled with the results of spraying bleach over the resist that I made Ms in practically every color of Kona cotton available to mankind. But what to do with them??

My first thought was that the Ms were so beautiful, I would simply sew them together into the simplest possible composition. That quilt looked OK, especially if you got up close to it and noticed the beautiful blotches and shadings of the bleach discharge. But as time passed I realized that from a few steps back it was kind of boring. To be more accurate, it was really boring.

M&Ms 2 -- 2002 -- 33 x 34

Since I had lots of Ms still in the box, I decided to try to pep them up by slicing and reassembling the letters. You’ll probably agree that these two smaller compositions are far more interesting than the original.

M&Ms 3 -- 2004 -- 24 x 9

M&Ms 4 -- 2004 -- 30 x 10

I used the same technique of slicing and reassembling to make a larger quilt in the same series.

Seven Cs -- 2005 -- 52 x 63 

The M&Ms quilts were my first experience with the blessing/curse of surface design. Since then I’ve wrestled with the problem in many other formats, with varying degrees of success. And I’ve thought about it a great deal.

In a nutshell, the dilemma of the surface designer is how to transform your beautiful fabric from yardage to art. If you simply sew up your yardage into a whole-cloth quilt or hanging, it often lacks the pizzazz to be a successful piece of art, even though it is truly beautiful. Yet if you cut your yardage into small pieces and use them as you would use any other printed fabric, are you just flushing your hard work down the toilet? If the pieces are so small that you lose the character and detail of your unique surface design, you might as well go out and buy commercial fabric, with much less investment of time, effort and money.

I’d like to return to this question again in future posts, and show you more examples of how I and other fiber artists have wrestled with the issue.


  1. This is an issue I've thought about as well and here is my take. Part of this is the 'need' to work in a certain way - a particular involvement with the materials and a particular way of processing your ideas. These things don't work the same way with every studio practice. For me, if I am working with hand dyed or commercial fabric which is mostly solid, it immediately puts me in the mode of working with shape and the creation of space and spacial relationships. The textural elements then come through the quilting or stitching. I likely will have a very predetermined direction that I work with. As I have begun to work with surface design, I find that while I may have a process in mind , the form of the final work develops as I work and a particular piece of fabric may lay around a long time before it is used. I also think that sometimes we may develop the fabric to a point where it is indeed complete unto itself and become hard to use. I also believe the key to this is the artists and the more things you are trying to handle, the more difficult it is to resolve....difficult but not impossible.

  2. Good thoughts, Terry! I also think that there's a difference between creating a piece of surface-designed fabric that you plan to use as whole cloth (much as a painter addresses a canvas) and creating fabric just to try out various techniques or patterns, and then figuring out what to do with it.