Batik Part 1

I’m designing costumes for PlayMakers Repertory Company‘s upcoming production of Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. This play affords a huge range of design challenges, not just within specific departments but collaboratively among all the elements of production.

One project we’ve already begun work on is the generation of some batik fabric yardage for the characters of Yamba, Gunda and Bobo, a family of aborigines who are shipwrecked on the same island as the play’s protagonist, Louis de Rougemont. These characters will be wearing lengths of fabric as wrapped/tied costume items (Yamba with a sarong-style wrap and her old father, Gunda, with a shawl-style wrap), which they later remove to create sails for a ship they build onstage.

So, the look of these fabrics is extremely important, not only to myself as the costume designer, but also to the set designer (Robin Vest), who’ll be incorporating them as “ship sails”, and obviously to the director, Tom Quaintance, who’ll be seeing them and using them in multiple contexts.

I began the process by researching what indigenous Australian aborigine fabrics look like. If you Google “aboriginal fabrics,” you’ll get a good idea what the common graphical theme is – pattern creation using dots! Very pointillist, yet abstract. I discovered that a company called M&S Textiles issues a line of cotton fabrics with aboriginal art prints, and this online vendor has .jpgs of the whole line. I then found a local fabric store, Thimble Pleasures, which carried the M&S line, so i dropped by to check out the scale of the prints.

It was immediately clear that the scale was far too small for theatre–the dots in the commercially-available prints are around 1/8″ to 1/4″ in diameter–onstage, those would blend together in the eye of the audience, and create a very different visual than the scale I had initially envisioned, with the dots being more like the size of an adult fingerprint. I realized that we were likely going to need to create this fabric ourselves. Still, I shared the links of the M&S thumbnails with the production team so we could talk about pattern and color with concrete visuals. This is the print to which we all felt most drawn.

So, my next step was to investigate the possibilities for digitally-printed fabric. I consulted some colleagues at the NC State College of Textiles as to the current leaders in print-on-demand fabric. The cool thing about the companies utilizing this technology is that you can create a print design and choose from a whole range of fabrics on which it might be printed–everything from canvas to charmeuse, and a whole range of fibers. (One of our graduate students is having some charmeuse custom printed for her historical reproduction thesis project, which I can’t wait to see the results of!)

I knew I needed a cotton with a fairly soft hand. I looked at some custom digitally printed samples from KarmaKraft, First2Print and Spoonflower, and decided to give Spoonflower’s cotton lawn a shot.

Spoonflower does their printing locally, right up the road in Mebane, NC, and they got me their sample fabrics quicker than any other company I contacted. This is not at all a criticism of the speed or competency of the other companies–it’s simply an example of how speed is often the primary factor in theatrical production. The fast turnaround of orders and processes is why Spoonflower became the option I chose. KarmaKraft is based in Raleigh and also quite close, but they conduct a lot of their printing in China and were out of their sample swatch sets when I inquired.  However, they did send them and have a lot of great options, so it’s likely that, should we need digitally printed fabrics for some future production, they will remain a good contender.

I then created two print designs using Photoshop:

  • Yamba One, in which the pattern is made from crisp-edged “polkadot” style dots
  • Yamba Two, in which the dots have more brushy, irregular edges

I suspected though, that there would be issues with these digitally-printed fabrics that would make them less than optimal for our stage purposes–namely, the “flatness” of the printed colors under stage lights, the opacity of the fabric (so, the front and back would be starkly different when the fabrics are “flown” onstage as flags and sails), and the gridlike regularity that tiling of a print design would create. As I was working on the digital designs, I realized that if we had the ability to spend more time on the creation of the art and the money to utilize a printing service that would afford a larger repeat for the design, perhaps digital printing would still be a great option. In this case though, I decided to see whether my crafts artisan, second year graduate student Samantha Coles Greaves, could generate a couple batik samples as well. I bought two types of fabric for potential in-house batiking at the local JoAnn Fabrics: a bolt of Egyptian cotton and a bolt of dyer’s muslin. (I figured, even if we didn’t use either of them at all on this show, those are great stock fabrics to have around a costume shop for mockups and other uses.) Samantha then created two samples of batik inspired by our chosen aboriginal print.

Samantha used a compass to create a guide for the large circle elements. The research image above right influenced her pattern generation.

In batik, you layer wax application with dye application to create patterns. This is the sample on muslin, stretched in an embroidery frame. I’ll write a lot more about the technical steps in the batik process in Part Two.

Here’s the Egyptian cotton sample, stretched on a small stretcher frame.

You can see in the images of the two samples the different dot shapes created by different applicators–Samantha made dots in a variety of ways, using a round sponge, a wine cork, a dauber, her gloved fingertip and a round-tipped bristle brush. I felt that the brush gave the best result in terms of yielding a dot pattern that was both organic and controlled. The sponge and cork were too uniform, and the fingertip and dauber were too messy. At this point in the process, I was convinced that the Egyptian cotton was going to be my choice–the colors looked great on it. Meanwhile, the swatches of Spoonflower fabric I ordered arrived in the mail! Samantha removed the wax and washed the samples, and it was time to compare…
Wow, look at those four different fabrics! Let’s break it down, what’s what. Photobucket 
They’re all so different-looking! One in particular though was clearly the one for ShipwreckedPhotobucket 
Here I am with the finished yardage!

I’ll be writing a second part to this process in a day or two, documenting exactly how we went from a tiny 9″ x 17″ sample of batik, to the huge three-yard chunk you see in the above photo. For now though, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the first part of this journey, literally halfway around the textile world and back again!

–Rachel E. Pollock, Costume Designer