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Becca Jubie, co-owner of the online fabric store Quilt Sandwich Fabrics, fills you in on the fabric design and printing process. Becca interviewed industry leaders to give you insight into every step in the process of traditional fabric manufacturing.

Becca has been quilting and sewing for over ten years and loves fabric! (Some favorite fabric designers include Anna Maria Horner, Lizzy House and Carolyn Friedlander, and she loves the quilts of Elizabeth Hartman and John Q. Adams.) Becca is also an active member of the Seattle Modern Quilt Guild. Find Becca on Instagram and Quilt Sandwich Fabrics is there too!

Quilt Sandwich Fabrics specializes in fun and modern, high quality cotton fabric. Some of their favorite companies and designers in the shop include Anna Maria Horner, Tula Pink, Kaffe Fassett, Amy Butler, Cotton & Steel, Heather Ross, Alexander Henry, Michael Miller, Windham Fabrics and Free Spirit Fabrics.

In addition to helping you learn more about fabric design and printing, Quilt Sandwich Fabrics is giving away 11 fat quarters from Lotta Jansdotter’s Follie collection! Comment for a chance to WIN!

Who doesn’t love beautiful fabric? Whether you love colorful, busy prints or clean and simple modern graphics, quilters and sewists can’t resist adding fabrics to their stash. But how do companies get these fabulous fabrics made?

To find out more about how fabric companies design and print their fabrics, I talked to three people at different fabric companies for their input: Hayden Lees, Public Relations Coordinator for Timeless Treasures, Jessica Stern, Marketing Coordinator for Dear Stella Design and Jason Yenter, President of In The Beginning Fabrics.

Of course, we have to start with artwork first! All of the companies I spoke with use various kinds of artwork from a variety of sources. Timeless Treasures and Dear Stella have in-house design departments, while at In The Beginning Fabrics Jason Yenter is the main in-house designer. All three companies also use artwork from freelance artists, purchase art from studios or find unique vintage and antique artwork as a starting point for a collection. Some artists submit actual paintings or illustrations which need to be scanned into a program like Photoshop for editing. Other artists submit designs already in a digital format.

Artwork from Timeless Treasures, purchased from a design studio

Timeless Treasures has a six-person art department that meets to discuss new designs. Designs are generally based on trends, fabric shop requests and popular Timeless Treasures themes. The team at Dear Stella Designs works hard to create unique, beautiful collections that are take trends into account, while staying on-brand. Jason Yenter of In The Beginning Fabrics also takes trends into account when considering new fabric collections, paying attention to shops like Target and Pottery Barn.

Choosing colors for new art at Timeless Treasures

Fabric designs need to be put in a repeat pattern before being printed. Some artists already know how to do this and will submit art suitable for a repeat, but the design departments at the fabric companies will also do this if necessary. Creating a repeat is easier with digital artwork than it is with paintings, but with Photoshop just about anything can be done! Jason Yenter does a lot of work in Photoshop, and especially loves the Clone Tool for blending artwork so that it can be printed in a repeating pattern.

The largest height a pattern can repeat is 24” tall, due to screen sizes at printing mills. (Exceptions can be made, but it is very expensive to do a larger repeat.) Most fabrics have a smaller repeat; when the repeat is smaller, it needs to be a height that goes evenly into 24”– such as 2”, 4” or 8”. Motifs can be repeated either side-by-side, or in a half-drop repeat; this staggers the artwork. A designer may use a half-drop repeat to make the images fit together better. Here are two fabrics from Dear Stella’s Bay Breeze group. The Anchor Grid shows the grouping of anchors repeated side-by-side, while the Flamingos are in a half-drop repeat.

After the designs are finalized, the artwork needs to be sent to the mill. Dear Stella Designs sends a technical package along with the digital files which includes Pantone swatches or color tabs to assist the mills with color matching. In The Beginning Fabrics sends Photoshop files and includes a hard-copy printout of all the designs with the colors shown correctly. The mills use CAD (computer-aided design) software to separate the design into screens.

Most fabric printing mills for the quilting industry are located overseas. All three companies I interviewed use multiple mills for their fabrics. Japan is known for their fine engraving on screens, so they are a good choice for very detailed designs. Mills in Korea are good for hand-painted art, and they can generally do more screens. The mills that In The Beginning use in Japan can do several screens, but the mills they use in Korea can do 18 screens. Each screen represents one color, but because colors can be layered fabrics can have many more colors on them than the screens they have.

After the artwork has been given to the mills, they create strike-offs of the designs. Strike-offs show how the fabric will look and also include a swatch showing each screen color. It takes about six weeks for a company to receive the first set of strike-offs. The design teams review the strike-offs to make sure the screens were engraved correctly and also to check the colors. Sometimes the first set of strike-offs is approved, but often there are corrections. If there are very minor changes, the company may opt to approve the strike-off right away as “approved with changes.” If a re-strike is needed it can be because a screen needs to be re-engraved or a color needs changing. This can get tricky when screens are layered.

An approved strike-off from Timeless Treasures

The following photos show strike-offs from a print from In The Beginning Fabrics’ Marianna collection. In the first strike-off, the colors are lighter than they should be. Jason Yenter decided to ask the mill to change Screen 11 to a darker brown. In the second strike-off for this print, Screen 11 was changed but it changed many other colors too, and Jason felt the entire piece was too dark. He changed the screen again, and the third time it was correct.

Fabric colors are too light

Fabric colors are too dark

Fabric colors are just right!

The amount of time it takes to go from initial design concepts to printed fabric depends on many factors, but working on changes to strike-offs is what can really add time to the process. Each new set of corrections takes 2-3 weeks, so if there are big problems with the strike-offs it can delay a collection by a month or more. If you are anxiously awaiting your favorite designer’s newest collection, try to be patient; the manufacturers just want to get it exactly right for you! Hayden Lees estimated that most Timeless Treasures collections take about 3-4 months from start to finish (if all goes well with strike-offs). Jessica Stern said Dear Stella’s collections can be brought to life in about 4-6 months, and Jason Yenter at In The Beginning mentioned that once the strike-offs are approved it takes about 6-8 weeks for the finished fabric to arrive in their warehouse to be rolled and delivered to stores.

Of course, getting the fabric into stores is the most exciting part because then it can be made into anything you want! Jessica Stern from Dear Stella said, “Our favorite part of the process is to see the creative handiwork of the end user. We love to see our designs used in new and different ways. It’s a constant source of inspiration as we prepare to put together a new collection.” So go out there and make something. As long as there are people out there sewing and creating, fabric companies will keep coming up with new and exciting designs for your projects. It’s the sewing circle of life!

Thank you to Hayden Lees, Jessica Stern and Jason Yenter. Please check out their websites for more information on Timeless Treasures, Dear Stella Design and In The Beginning Fabrics. If you’re interested in learning more about fabric printing, search for “Roller Screen Printing.”