Workshop Wednesday: Surface Design


Have you done much surface design? Surface design sounds so simple but it’s a topic with so many methods and possibilities. In the larger art and design world, it pretty much means anything you do to a substrate, or surface, to make a visual design. So when you translate that to quilting, it mainly means something you do to a fabric surface, to make a design or change it in some way. You can then use the fabric in a quilt. Generally, when you make design alterations to a finished quilt, it’s classified as embellishment.

So, as you can imagine, surface design is full of possibilities, and the only limits are one’s imagination. You can paint, draw, print, use resists, markers, bleach, dye, dimensional manipulation, even natural processes like rust and heat to make artistic marks on your fabrics. I’ve always been fascinated by the variety of options, though I’ve only tried a few personally. If you’re curious about the ways in which you can make your own fabrics, a great place to start is Playful Fabric Printing, a book by Carol Soderlund and Melanie Testa. You can find it for sale here.

Playful Fabric PrintingIf you’re interested in getting hands-on training for fabric printing, there’s a really neat series that teaches all about how to print of fabrics, using natural items. The course is called Printing on Fabric with Natural Materials, taught by Jane Davila. It covers how to print using vegetables, fruit and fish. It also covers how to do heliographs, or sun-prints using different resists. You can learn about direct and indirect prints and use UV reactive dyes to create original fabric and much more. Learn more by clicking here!

Printing on Fabric with Natural Materials

Speaking of surface design with natural materials, I had the chance to explore leaf pounding several years ago while working for Quilters Newsletter Magazine. We did an easy lesson feature about using fabric, leaves, masking tape and a hammer to transfer the leaf color and shape to a piece of fabric. So, of course, I had to try it out in order to write the article. It was so fun and easy.

Basically, all you do is tape a leaf to a piece of fabric with the masking tape. Cover the entire leaf with tape, and it helps to use a brayer or some tool to really make the tape stick to the fabric around the leaf. The pound the heck out of it with a hammer! I put it on a wooden cutting board and hammered on the fabric side so I could see the color being transferred to the fabric (I used muslin). Once the color is transferred to your liking, remove the tape and leaf and soak the fabric in white vinegar for about 10 minutes to set the color. Then rinse and you have a leaf motif fabric! I made a bunch of leaf different shapes and cut them into squares, and pieced them together with green and earth tone batiks to make a simple quilt top. I made this top years ago but I haven’t yet basted and quilted it. One day!

leaf pounded quilt top

leaf pounded quilt top

Another of the surface design techniques I have tried, and the easiest to experiment with, is fabric painting. You don’t have to be an accomplished artist to try painting on fabric, you can do something as simple as painting in shapes on black-and-white prints, which is what I did several years ago. I used water based fabric paints and diluted them so they acted like watercolors, coloring in printed fabrics without covering up the printed motifs. It was easy, quick and fun.

close up of some painted print fabrics

close up of some painted print fabrics

I didn’t make that many fabric painted samples, so when I wanted to use them in a project I paired them with black-and-white-with-a-pop-of-color prints. I make a simple checkerboard design (yes, another one!) and put it on the back of a colorful floral quilt.

Quilt back with fabric painted squares throughout

Quilt back with fabric painted squares throughout

Another cool surface design technique that I have tried for myself is image transferring with markers. There are a lot of possibilities with this one, and it seems like a great activity to do with kids. I don’t have to just tell you about this one, I can show you! Here’s a video.

So between the various kinds of printing with synthetic and natural materials, leaf pounding, fabric painting and image transferring, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of surface design possibilities. I feel like I can speak best about things that I have experienced myself, so I did include a lot of personal projects here, but there is so much more to explore. Read a book, take a video course, or just look at pictures to spark ideas and get your creativity going, and soon enough you’ll be making quilts with all kinds of personalized, hand-made fabric. What technique will you try first?

Happy quilting!

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