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March 2017

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silk painting

Hand-painted silk for Private Lives: Part One

We've begun a really exciting surface design project for our next show at Playmakers, Noel Coward's Private Lives, in which we are making some fabric yardage inspired by this 1935 Schiaparelli dress in the collection of the Museum at FIT.

For the character of Amanda, costume designer Jennifer Caprio dreamed up a glamorous dress clearly influenced by the Schiaparelli gown but without being an exact copy:

Design rendering for "Amanda" by Jennifer Caprio (c) 2013

Our first step in making this dress was to figure out how we were going to create the lily design on the fabric. The dress is cut on the bias, and in the Schiaparelli inspiration dress, the original fabric had a wide pattern of lilies and stems/leaves running down the grain of the fabric in the center of the width. And sure, maybe you could shop something like that, but in a 4-ply silk? In the color palette our designer wants? Probably not.

So we knew we'd need to make it, and we began to brainstorm how. An early suggestion was to digitally design the print and have it made at Spoonflower or [TC]2, but we threw that idea out for a number of reasons--the digital print process does not lend itself well to a quality output when you have large areas of dark color with small areas of lighter value (the product looks inexpensive, and this dress needs to look opulent), and past issues with colorfastness in dry cleaning for such prints.

At first, two other options occurred to me--a discharge process where we'd discharge the lilies from a blue silk, and a hand-painted resist process, where we'd resist the lilies and paint/dye in and around them.

The discharge concept went out the window when tests revealed that the deep blue color our designer wanted would not discharge to as light of a value as she also hoped to incorporate into the imagery. Resist processes became our choice, and my assistant (first-year grad Katie Keener) and i began creating samples.

photo 2
In the initial round of samples, we weren't sure which method was going to work best, so i did some silk-paint tests of colors we had in stock, just to see whether we had anything closet to the palette of the design.

Sample #1: water-based resist with navy acid dye.
In this one, we had our dye concentrate mixed far too low.
Also, we didn't like the results of this water-based resist.

Sample #2: soy wax resist with navy acid dye.
This one, we tried actively cracking the wax to get the spidery lines in the white areas you see here,
but our designer decided she didn't care for the look of that.

photo 1
First year grad and crafts assistant Katie Keener applies a soy wax resist to silk fabric, freehanding a lily design while referring to the original research image.

photo 3
Sample #3: soy wax resist with flowable silk paints.
We then went through maybe ten more sample sets, using not only the resists depicted above but also beeswax, paraffin, and gutta serti. When our designer saw them in person last week, she made a decision:

photo 5
Final sample: Gutta serti thinned with solvent, combination of silk paints and acid dyes.

In a future post, i'll show you how we jump from small samples to a complete dress worth of yardage...!


That iterative process is so inspiring. I love seeing the test swatches. Also, beautiful design.
I really like the cracked wax effect!