She Wrote the Book on Surface Design Techniques

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disperse dye monoprints
Combed disperse dye monoprints
by Holly Brackmann.

I have several books on surface design techniques using dyes. But the most comprehensive one on my shelf is the aptly named Surface Designer's Handbook: Dyeing, Printing, Painting, and Creative Resists on Fabric by Holly Brackmann.

I have to say that the first time I opened this book, I quickly closed it again. I was intimidated by the small, dense type and the beautiful, professional artwork that filled the spiral-bound pages.

But curiosity got the better of me, and I soon learned that if I took in the contents a little at a time, the information and directions were very easy to follow. And the reason for all that type is that Holly is very thorough; these details are essential to safety and success.

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Holly and ask her some questions that might apply to newbie designers and mixed-media artists.

Q. What interested you in surface design techniques?

A. Surface design and synthetic dyes were a revelation to me. Being able to create unique colors, transforming fabric with added depth and complexity meant I could create original items not available in a store. Surface design techniques allow the hand of the maker to be apparent.

Q. You have so many years of experience with surface design. What changes have you seen over the years?  

A. When I began dyeing, there was no regard for safety. Today, I respect studio safety, knowing that some materials and chemicals are potentially harmful.

Also, early in my career, there were few types of dyes or mediums available, and few retail sources. Today there are many vendors and materials available, most with an online presence. The plethora of choices can be overwhelming. My suggestion is to keep it simple by beginning with one type of dye (such as fiber reactive) that is appropriate for a fabric type (such as cotton). Experiment with many techniques using that dye. Add surface treatments and mediums before moving on to another dye and fabric type.

Q. Which technique is one that you would suggest for beginners?

A. Because of the ease of use, ready availability, and few chemicals needed, I suggest MX fiber-reactive dyes and the soda soak technique for beginners. This is a fast and simple way to achieve varied results by painting, dipping, or using resists. After soaking the fabric in a solution of soda ash and water, one or more dye colors are applied to the wet fabric. You can also apply the dye with a syringe or squeeze- or spray-bottle. The fabric can be folded, tied with rubber bands, or wrapped on a pole and dipped in dye. There are many variations on this simple and fast technique. 

Q. How important is it to keep a notebook or other record of your processes, and how can that be used?

A. Record keeping is essential. Believe me, I discovered this the hard way when I could not remember how I had achieved certain effects. Why create an amazing piece of fabric if you don't later know how you got a specific color or surface because you have no notes? Use a "dye worksheet" (copy p. 119 in my book or create your own) for each project to record all dyes, chemicals, mediums, and techniques. Keep your dye worksheets in a binder or manila folder. If you are in the business of selling your creations, it is imperative to have excellent notes when filling orders for surface design fabrics.

surface design heat transfer
An easy disperse dye method: Transfer crayon
rubbings can be applied to fabric with heat.

Q. What's new in the world of surface design and how can mixed-media artists apply it to their work?

A. Disperse dyes are getting more attention, and what I have been teaching internationally as "Dyeing Without a Dyepot." This dye is lightfast, washfast, produces strong hues and works on polyester, nylon, and acrylic. A unique technique or "dye transfer printing" uses little water and is considered environmentally friendly because there is little waste and no toxic effluents. With this process, disperse dye is painted, screened, stamped, or stenciled on plain paper and dried. The paper is then placed face down against the fabric and dry heat applied. The dye becomes a vapor, moving from the paper into the fabric. Transfer printing does not affect the hand of the fabric

Another popular technique is digital printing on fabric. This can easily be done on a home inkjet printer with backed fabric or by sending a file to an online website. It is also possible to print on unusual media, such as soft drink cans, window screening, or handmade papers by coating with mediums that make the surface receptive to ink. Recently, I have been creating wall art quilts by printing personal imagery on fabric, then combining it with surface embellishments such as stitching, beading and acrylic mediums.

Collage is the technique that brings many techniques together to create layers of imagery on fabric. Fabrics can be created specifically for collage, or you can use fabrics that were otherwise considered samples or failures. Look at a piece of fabric and ask yourself what would happen if you added paint, overdyed it, cut it up, combined it with other materials, layered it, or stitched over it? Continually ask yourself, what if?

Holly has inspired me! Whether you're a beginner, like me, or more experienced with surface design techniques, you will get the best results when you know what dyes are appropriate for which fiber, the proper order of surface techniques and what effects can be achieved. 

This and more is revealed in The Surface Designer's Handbook; Dyeing, Printing, Painting and Creating Resists on Fabric, one of the many surface design and mixed-media books now on deep discount during our Hurt Book and Overstock Sale, ending today!

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