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March 2017

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Digital Textile Design for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat!

So, i've been working on a pretty exciting extracurricular project lately, for my friend and colleague, costume designer Jennifer Caprio. I've worked on several shows for Playmakers with Jen, including the currently-running Private Lives, for which we painted that fantastic Schiaparelli-inspired silk crepe.

But, clearly as a successful and nationally-known costume designer, Jen works on multiple shows for a variety of venues, all in different stages of development at any given time. So when she asked me if i'd be interested in a freelance gig doing a series of digital textile prints for the titular costume in the upcoming national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, i jumped at the chance!

Jen's design concept for the Dreamcoat is inspired by the famous series of twelve stained-glass windows which Marc Chagall created for the Abbell Synagogue at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem. Created in the 1960s, each of Chagall's windows represent one of the twelve tribes of Israel. In Jen's vision of the Dreamcoat, it's an ankle-length frock coat, the skirt of which is cut in twelve gores, each corresponding to one of Chagall's windows.

Coat front.PDF-page-001
Costume design for the Dreamcoat by Jen Caprio (front view)

In talking about how this coat could be created in the (admittedly slender) window of time required, we threw out several ideas.

It couldn't be a situation like the painted lily fabric for Private Lives, because that would require the draper to supply me with threadmarked pattern pieces for the finished coat, each of which i would have to stretch and hand-paint and steam-set and all that, and i couldn't even begin until after the mockups were fit--no time in the calendar for that step to occur, particularly since we'd also have to factor in shipping time, since the coat's being made in NYC by the custom costume house John Kristiansen NY.

It also couldn't be an engineered cut-and-sew print done 100% in CAD, for the same reasons--we needed a way to make this coat, staying true to the design concept, but in such a way that the final fabrics would be ready to cut with very little turnaround time between the mockup fitting and the fashion-fabric fittings.

We also knew that this show was going to be out on the road for two years, that there was a need for at least two of these coats, but the possibility should be considered that at some point in the tour, another actor might need to step into the role and potentially more of these coats made if that person weren't the same size as the original performer.

So, with the ideas in mind that this needed to happen swiftly, with a high degree of aesthetic specificity, and allowing for the possibility of streamlined repeatability, the idea Jen and I settled on was to create a textile design that would provide the "leading" pattern of the background--all the black lines defining splintery sections of the "stained glass," and have it digitally printed as yardage in twelve different colorways. The symbolic motifs of the animals and plants and celestial objects and such could be created separately and appliqued onto the coat, being placed in situ during the final fabric fitting.

The first thing i did was to analyze the Chagall windows for a section of their leading pattern i could use for my print repeat. I took a high-res scan of the most high-contrast window and isolated a section of it in Photoshop. I erased everything but the leading, then followed the method for creating a half-drop repeat described in Kim Kight's A Field Guide to Fabric Design.

Meanwhile, Jen was analyzing a dry-cleaned Color Guide from Spoonflower to choose her colorways--we know this coat is going to be dry-cleaned on a regular basis throughout the show's two-year tour, and Jen needed to choose her colors based on what the inks look like after dry-cleaning, as opposed to freshly printed. She sent me the twelve hex-codes for the colors she wanted, and i began painting in the backgrounds. Each design is washed with a sort of mottled color rather than just being a solid, in order to better mimic the look of stained glass.

I put all my designs into a Spoonflower fabric design collection called Dreamcoat, which not only makes it easy for the show's design team to share the links to the fabrics as a group, but also gives me the opportunity to order a swatch sampler of each fabric design in the collection in a single batch:

Swatch sampler of twelve 8" x 8" swatches from the collection

This option is really exciting for theatrical digital textile design--you save money on a sampler, and you can easily send a selection of the fabrics to, say, your set designer or director or lighting designer, or to your craftsperson for initial dye/paint samples, or whatever. These samplers are a flat cost dependent on the type of fabric you have them printed on, and wind up running around $1.25 per swatch, as opposed to the flat rate of $5 per individual swatch ordered normally.

And, now the shop responsible for draping/cutting/sewing can order the fabrics in whatever quantity they need, not only for these first two coats, but also any time in the future when duplicates of these costumes might need to be created.

Pretty cool!


I love this solution to the problems at hand. Very clever use of available technology and resources.