Field Trip: Spoonflower Printers

Today we took a field trip to RTP: Research Triangle Park. Speeding toward where I worked many years ago before my freedom from the passionless corporate grind, I watched our blue dot blink on the iPad’s Google map travel along the route down I-40.

RTP in the Hay Day
RTP is called the 2nd Silicon Valley –at least it was back in the early 90s. RTP is beautiful. A gorgeous green environment that used to be filled with internet technology firm transplants from Germany, Japan, Canada, and the UK. The building regulations are wrought with covenants that predominantly include “a company shall not erect buildings taller than tree tops” -it’s true! This is what continues to make RTP a resort-like industrial park for companies and their employees. On the weekends, it’s absolutely motionless -a perfect haven for rollerblading, biking, skateboarding, and other sports that require acres of empty asphalt.

Five large colleges, state-of-the art hospitals, and a winter to die for, this landscape was a definite welcome for any homeless snowbird from the cold and lonely MidWest ravages of ice, wind, and snow.

RTP Today
Now after the dot-com-bust, companies imploding from hostile takeovers and bad management, the hidden maze of several buildings stand vacant. Interestingly enough, a few entrepreneurs are reclaiming RTP as their home for their small businesses. Fortunately, the setup is already installed with facilities for those in service fields, in this case: printing.

Deciding to add a leather handbag line to our collections, we have to include linings as part of the design. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to add leather linings to an already heavy leather bag, so another fabric has to be evaluated. As we research our options for suppliers, we also contemplate the idea of digitally printing my designs on fabric. Having read about Spoonflower on the Interwebs, I called them up for a tour.

Because we’re serious about printing and being local, scheduling the tour was pretty fluid. For those of you just curious, I’d recommend reading their blog and watching for behind-the-scenes images. They’re incredible busy and this particular season has them busting ass around the clock.

We arrived and parked in one of the more popular RTP sub-divisions in front of a typical one-level corporate office encased in glass and surrounded by blooming dogwood trees, forsythia, and tulips. While I’ve lived here for almost 18 years, I still get giddy that in early April we geeks are dressed comfortably for 75* weather. We met with a gracious, dressed-down team member Friday afternoon and she gave us the brief tour of their facility. 

The scene is a common model for a start-up, even though they’ve been around for almost 3 years. Erase any romanticized thoughts you might have about the foyer -this isn’t The Devil Wears Prada by any stretch. Think Office Space without the cubicles. Quintessential corporate muted color carpet to hide everyday dirt, computer wires hanging off, under, and around folding tables in complete disarray, and yards of freshly printed fabric laid out in rows to color match and calibrate their new printers. Now I can guess one of several reason one has to ring the doorbell to gain access. 😉 She apologized for the mess but we felt right at home. They’ve just moved into this space and it looks like they’ll want to bust down the next wall to accommodate their growing pains.

Why Digital Printing?
The major shift in the retail world, licensing world, and outsourcing has forced me and my design passion to take a back seat the last few years -this option is a major democratizing force and very freeing to my pursuits. I don’t have to wait to be picked to play on someone’s team when I can build my own team. That’s satisfaction.

The tour took just over an hour and for the average Jane, perhaps only 20 minutes. The reason? We’re geeks asking questions about whether they’ve named their temperamental printers to the fabrics they print for Dr. Who show. How awesome is that?

So, let me breakout the reasons why I love this brave new resource:

  • It’s digital textile printing —  it gives us an opportunity to play and experiment at very little cost.
  • Low Volumes. Our experiments don’t have to fill our studio with unncessary greygoods.  Who needs more unusable crap?
  • Eco-friendly. Spoonflower uses large-format inkjet printers—and eco-friendly, water-based pigment inks—to print designs on natural fiber textiles.
  • A growing number of fabric options. A number of fabrics include weight cottons, cotton sateen, twill, knit, voile, and canvas, as well as silk crepe de chine.
  • US Based. I like the idea that my options are here in the US, specifically within driving distance.
  • Free account setup. I also love the idea that I can create and keep my profile private. I have the option to share collections online and even sell them for a royalty right there on their site if I wish.

Quick and dirty file details:

  • Quick online upload of a computer generated or a scanned sketch.
  • Online Design Template. Allows us to center the pattern or create repeats in various size options. Doing this online also helps the artist understand how well the repeat lines up.
  • Sample Swatches of our new fabric to test color and weight. This is a grand discipline to roll into our process before we decide to run yards and yards of unusable fabric.
  • Online color guide. The color guide is an 8″x8″ swatch of printed quilting weight fabric with 171 color chips and their hex codes. Sure, printers are capable of printing millions of colors, but the colors were selected by their team for breadth and true rendering. You should also consider purchasing one of their printed color scales for your library.

Overall, this is a strong contender and an ideal solution for our fabric woes.

While I have been researching digital fabric providers, I have also found a few additional resources:

  1. In the states:
  2. In Europe:

If you can think of any more, please add them here.

If you need any help translating your ideas into patterns, please contact me. I can help you.

Tradeshow Tip
When Andrew and I talked about taking our business in a new direction a few years back, it was about offering my image library for licensing. When setting up tradeshow display, artists typically install their art by affixing them with double-faced tape on booth walls only to return the next day to see them all crumpled on the floor. Yes, it’s quite the alarming scene, but it only happens once to those of us who decide to return again for more tradeshow punishment. 😉 If you ever decide to participate in a tradeshow, please remember that humidity is much different on TV than it is at home (snicker).

Tradeshow displays don’t have to be so grueling. For our Spring 2007 booth in NYC, we looked into having banners made with our images -this would allow us to hang them without fuss, blood, or tears. Believe me, I’ve witnessed some pretty anxious exhibitors yelling and in tears because of their booth failures. After sending my image files to the company (outside of Charlotte, NC) complete with sizing directions, we received the rolls of fabric showcasing our IP. Since we knew the dimensions of each panel within the booth, we designed the banners to fit automagically -what a breeze!!

At the time, there were only a few fabric options of reasonable price, so we had them send 5 banners on the 5 different fabrics that they had just so that we could see & feel the differences for future reference.

For the original purpose, the solution was great. During the show, I was thinking about tear-down, a not so fun task at the end of any show. (This is why companies send interns.) I invented a solution that would have been great if I had known about the fabrics long before the show.  If you look closely in the photo above, you can see at the top Bacchus the reaching cat on white that has been backed with fabric -he’s pinned at the top by 2 straight pins. Another pillow front example is hanging next to Bacchus in a yellow & pink fusion composition. I Spy two more examples: What looks like a light blue and gold placemat just right of Andrew and a deep purple pillow peaking in from the left of the photo. All were cut from the fabric banner that was sent to us just days before we trekked 900 miles North.

Had I thought quicker, I could have finished these and sold them before we left the city. We would have money in our pocket and a little less to pack.

Next time.

And next time, I’ll send my intern. 😉

Hope this helps with any fabric printing and tradeshow quandaries you might be having. I would love to hear how you solved your fabric product challenges.


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