Surface Design

Surface design is a term that was coined by Jack Larson who was the Keynote Speaker at the first Surface Design Association Conference in 1976. “I don’t like the term,” Larsen will tell you, preferring instead fabric embellishment to represent manipulations of textiles that go beyond woven constructions. Larsen felt the loom relegated fabric to uniformity and that surface designers are more interested in fabric as geography, which provides unlimited options for dimensional and structural enhancements, greater possibilities for opening interior spaces, and more opportunities for experimenting with color, texture, and design. (from the Surface Design Association website)

Surface design on felt is really no different from surface design on any other fabric. However, hand-made felt has some unique qualities that distinguish it from a woven fabric. The surface of hand-made felt is much rougher and more textured than woven cotton, for example. Many surface design techniques such as painting, printing, screen printing, shibori dyeing and discharge can be performed on felt but the textured surface of the wool and wool’s properties must be taken into consideration for satisfactory results. It is difficult to get very fine patterns or designs to transfer to felt and the serendipity of the process should be allowed to run its course. Don’t expect perfection.

That being said, there are hundreds of techniques that can be categorized as surface design and experimentation is the key here. What works for a cotton fabric might not work exactly the same on hand-made felt but try different options and ask yourself “What if…?”. You’ll be able to find methods that work great with hand-made felt. Acid dyes can be thickened with various substances such as sodium alginate and used for printing or stenciling. The felt will need to be soaked in vinegar/water solution before printing and steamed after printing so that the dye will set properly. Felt can be rusted but avoid using steel wool to rust dye as it will leave small bits of steel wool stuck in your felt. Use large rusty pieces of metal instead. Shibori dyeing works wonderfully with felt but remember to thoroughly wet the felt before applying the dye as the thickness easily prevents the dye penetration completely. Screen printing works well on felt but again, fine details will be lost so it works better to use screens that have bolder designs. Discharge is the process of removing dyes from a piece of fabric through a chemical reaction. Many times, cotton fabric is discharged with bleach. Bleach will damage wool fibers and should not be used. However, there are several discharge pastes on the market that are safe for silk and wool and can be used to remove or change the colors in your surface design.


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