Ever wonder how our linen fabric is hand screen printed? Or what it means to be 'artisan made'? There seems to be quite a mystery behind how this magic happens. So, let's kick off this years first blog post with a look at the extensive print process and how we proudly uphold a long tradition of high end, artisan made fabrics.
What makes artisan made fabric special? Let us count the ways...
The Artisan. The Art.
According to Wikipedia: "An Artisan (from French: artisan, Italian: artigiano) is a skilled craft worker who makes or creates things by hand that may be functional or strictly decorative, for example furniture, decorative arts, sculptures, clothing, jewellery, food items, household items. Artisans practice a craft and may, through experience and aptitude reach the expressive levels of an artist. They were also the dominant producers of consumer products prior to the Industrial Revolution."
Screen printing and it's artisans have been around for a very long time. Though the basic method of the art form can be traced back to China's Song Dynasty 960-1270 AD, the process that we are most familiar with today was invented in Germany and Scotland during the late 1800s. In 1907, an English print maker by the name of Samuel Simon developed the process even further enabling him to print high end, custom wall papers and fine fabrics.
For much of the 20th Century, most screen printing techniques were 'trade secrets', confidential and carefully guarded by the print studio they came from. And rightfully so. That is a long history of failures and accomplishments to stand on, in addition to specific studio practises and individual flare. It is a very labor intensive medium so tricks of the trade are sacred.
Today, this old school art form seems to be going by the wayside. Or is it? In this world of over saturation, disposable design, mass production and 'same-ies'...... artisan quality, hand crafted and uniquely one-of-a-kind takes on a new meaning and appreciation.
If These Walls Could Talk: A Corner of American Textile History
Originally built in 1847, this massive building operated as a woven textile mill before Griswold took up residence in 1943. Standing in this space is quite an experience. Perhaps it is the sheer size or because of it's history producing textiles for well over a century. Or perhaps it strangely reminds me of being back stage in the theater, working with top notch crafts people who are behind the scenes making the magic come alive. It is always a great to visit and an opportunity to learn something new about the craft and my chosen (second) profession.
Griswold Textile Print, Inc. is a family owned mill that has been hand screen printing fabrics since 1937. It is also one of the few fully operational, hand-printed fabric mills left in the USA. Their crew of artisans handle everything from start to finish; Stock, prep, the printing process and specialized finishes. They understand the designers specific needs, what the industry demands and focuses exclusively on the production of high end, textiles for interior decor.
Whether a small, boutique size company or an internationally acclaimed leader in the industry, Griswold has been a key player in bringing a designers vision to life. They are known for producing printed fabrics and wall coverings that can be found in some of the most distinguished museums and historic houses, including the White House and the Palace of Versailles.
Fun Griswold Facts: The mill is a total of 130,000 sq ft square feet. It has 5 floors with 3 of them currently in use. There are 6 print tables, prepped and ready to go. These tables are 50 yards long. Each.
The mill was key in establishing the community of White Rock, (RI) providing a store, school, homes and employment for those in the area.
An endless room of screens. There are literally, tens of thousands of screens archived through out the mill. Some screens have been stored for decades, later to be pulled out and used in new collections, modified by current colourways on trend.
A wide view of CTS+D linen fabric on the table being printed.
The Process Begins: (Below: Top right and left) Multiple types of fabrics are available depending on the print job, client and it's application. (Bottom left) Squeegees specifically made for printing yardage. (Bottom right) Three of my four screens lined up and ready to go! Screen four was already on the table.
The Colour Library: Each company and their design has it's own colour file where their specific colour chips and formula's are referenced.
Below: (left) Colour samples and and print swatches from the CST+D file. (middle) Testing how cream prints differently on linen with slight colour changes. (right) CST+D Nigma and Champa colours, mixed and ready to go.
INSIDER TIP! The middle image above, is a very good example of why clients are strongly advised to purchase extra yardage for their project. Just in case they need more than expected. It is nearly impossible to reproduce the same colour every time. Though the colour formula is remains consistent with each mixing, exterior factors to play a huge part in the print outcome. A slight change in fabric colour, (as seen in the top right image) effects how the colour prints on the fabric. The weather temperature, time of year, and the humidity during the printing process also play a part in the final results. I believe there is great truth behind the saying: "screen printing is part art, and part alchemy".
(Below) Where the colour mixing magic happens. Carefully calculated and formulated to nail the right colour ratio. Did I mention all inks and dyes are water soluble and eco-friendly?
Another TIP! The art of screen printing requires a different screen for every colour in the design. An expensive investment up front, but one that pays off decades later.
These buckets lined up (below) are for an 11 colour print job (design). And yes....That means 11 screens to create the full design!
Waxed Tables Tops: In order to keep fabric in place while printing, a thin layer of hot wax is evenly distributed across the print table and cooled. This creates a sticky surface keeping the fabric from pulling up and print alignment in place.
Rolling Out The Fabric: When rolling out of fabric, especially yardage it must be taught, laid out evenly, with the warp and weft (horizontal and vertical threads of the fabric) as straight as possible. This keeps the printing registration aligned.
The Screen Registration: The alignment or 'registration' is everything in screen printing. Whether you eyeball it (not recommended!) or have peg markers along the table rails like what is seen here. Each time the screen is placed onto the fabric during a print run, it is lined up against each peg and secured before a print is pulled. This ensures that the top and bottom of the of the screen (and repeat design) will line up between prints. (more on the method to this later.)
Ink + First Pull (print): The ink, or dye is poured into the well of the screen, then pulled with a squeegee to create the first print. When printing by yourself, you are actually 'pulling' the squeegee towards you, from top to bottom. Because yardage screens are so large, it takes two people to print.
Round One: Pulling every other print allows the previous print to dry safely while keeping the screen from picking up, and tracking, wet ink along the way. It also keeps the printers efficiently moving so they can continue the process to the end of the fabric. This is why having pegs along the rail of the table is so important. The screen stays in registration, and the design pattern prints seamlessly.
Keep It In The Family: It was a real treat to meet this brother-sister team who printed my fabric for this particular run. Both have been working at this mill for over 30 yrs and have it down to a mastered science. Watching the two of them, quietly working in tandem, was like watching two dancers move through a choreographed sequence. There is a rhythm to printing, so working with another person, like dancing, takes a lot of awareness and synchronicity.
Clean Screen: While the first round of printing is drying, the screen must be cleaned, dried and prepped for the next round. Screens for printing yardage are massive and require two people to handle them. I hope by this point, folks can now understand why I no longer print the fabric myself!
Second Round. Filling in the blanks: Check out the video below to see the printing in action and how it all falls into place.
Big Moment + The Selvage: The print along the edge of the fabric (the selvage) doesn't really get used for anything except to provide information. The designers name, copyright, the name of the print design itself, and to indicate the colours used to print the design. But to a designer, it is much more. It's a right of passage.
Dry Time: Fabric is then lifted up off of the table to allow for proper drying. Impressive to see so much fabric draped at one time.
NEXT! - Once the fabric has fully dried, it is placed into one of these fantastic laundry carts and taken to the first floor to be processed.
Below Deck: There is a buzz of action happening below deck as well. From stitching, to processing, to specialized finishes, setting the ink (or dye), washing and drying, inspection and quality control just to name a few.
Put It Through The Works: Printing really is just half the this process. After the fabric leaves the print table, it goes through various cleaning stages and processes below deck. If there is a special fabric finish required, this is where it happens. And some of these processes can get pretty scientific!
A Word About The Colour: Griswold uses two types of colour to print onto fabric. Dyes (or vats) and inks. One is not better than the other, it is just a matter of preference and practicalities. Dyes are more transparent and have a lighter hand. When put through the wash and steam processes, the dye molecularly adheres to the fiber, becoming a part of the textile itself. In contrast, inks are quite different in look and feel. The wash and steam process is also used to set the ink. However, inks are more opaque and sit on top of the fabric surface leaving it with an ever so slight, heavier hand.
The Eagle Eye: Inspection and quality control are very high on the Griswold list. Every square inch of fabric is carefully inspected and scrutinized for fabric flaws or misprints. After it passes rigorous analysis, it is rolled onto bolts, packaged up and ready for shipping.
Another exciting moment of the process.... When it arrives at the studio!!
Nigma - Grey. Champa - Ruby. Mali - Cream.
Screen printing is a unique medium falling into fine art, craft and design. Each print is executed by hand, therefore making each yard one of a kind and a 'limited addition'. It is the attention to detail, quality and environmentally conscious materials. It is about designing and creating with intention. It is the time, the care, the result of the expertise and generations of artisans who have come before us.
And that, is what makes artisan fabric special.
**A huge shout out and many thanks to Jack Wilson and the entire Griswold crew for sharing all of this historical and technical information and for letting me lurk in the shadows during production. You guys rock!