Custom Block Printed Drapery & the Hardest Project I've Ever Done
Once upon a time in a far away land that looked a lot like San Francisco, there was a girl with an Etsy shop.
She was working her princess tush off, trying to get her design business off the ground, but all she could seem to sell were silly little cards and pillows.
Then one day, she opened her inbox to find a magical email inside. The email was from an architect (in shining armor, duh) who wanted to commission her for a huge custom fabric order.
The design princess quickly responded back, and within a few weeks, the silliest and most magical collaboration began.
Our story begins in a dark wood:
…no, literally. I was camping in the woods when I started on this project.
This project was the first of three large drapery projects that I created for a client who is an architect in the bay area.
He was working on a residential project for a client who was designing his home with a very vibrant African theme.
They were both very into artisanal products, so my hand printed fabric was perfect for this commission.
The scope of the project was to somehow take John’s (the architect) very wild watercolor illustration of a herd of buffalo and turn it into a giant block that I would print onto two huge linen drapery panels.
It was going to be 3 colors, and multiple sections. Some of the prints would have to be layered to get the effect he wanted. It was very complicated, but I thought I could figure it out.
After a few weeks of discussion, logistics, and me trying to convince myself there was a way to do this, John finally sent over the initial drawings and measurements.
I worked on this project all day and night the first few days. At breakfast, then while I was camping! (That’s practice fabric, not the real deal. No Tapatío near final fabric!)
Once I wrapped my head around everything and came up with a plan of attack, I transferred the images to large blocks and started carving out the background pieces.
The carving was simple, but I had to layer them PERFECTLY if I wanted the detail prints going on top to line up exactly.
Not a small feat.
The background color was going to be bright pink, by request of John for a specific reason I can’t remember. Below you can see the swatches he watercolored for me, and a few options I gave him for ink colors.
Once I had the background pieces carved and tested, I moved onto the detail blocks.
There were a few huge problems with this. As you can see below, the heads of the buffalo overlapped with the bodies of the buffalo in front of it.
Because of this, the edge of the detail block could not just come to a flat edge (like in the image below that).
The edge had to allow for the head of the buffalo behind it to fit right into it, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see the details of the horns and face.
Did I lose you? Not important. Anyways, all you need to know is that it was a PAIN!
Here’s what the inked detail block looked like. You can see there had to be a few layers to get all the details that he wanted.
To create the illusion that it was all one big stamp, I had to carve a few other small blocks that would fill in the holes.
All these blocks needed to fit carefully together like a puzzle, and even when they did, there were still even smaller areas that needed to be filled in.
In the image below you can see my 3 attempts to try and fit it all together. The top row was the first attempt.
Everything looks great except the center buffalo has too much space around it. So I tried again on the second row, but I moved the detail blocks in a little on each side.
In the second row there is less of a gap around the center buffalo, but I still needed to move it in some.
The third row shows how the final prints should look (minus the pink). Everything lined up perfectly, and then I went back in with a small paintbrush and filled in a few areas to finish it off.
Finally I had gotten the block printing part down. John came over to deliver the final fabric. When he handed them to me, he explained how the drapes were made with Irish linen, straight from Ireland, then sewn and lined.
He kept talking, but I must have made a face like I was terrified because he said, “I’ll just shut up now and let you do your thing..” !!!
I was nervous to get the first prints down because they had to be very straight…and also I can’t really fix things if I screw up. There is no delete button!
Below you can see one of the panels that I had to print. I used my mini dumbbells to weight it down since the fabric was so heavy.
First I went through and printed all the background blocks and created the layout of all the groups of buffalo.
Once that was done I could relax a little bit, the hard part was over. Anything I messed up from here on out (save for dropping paint all over the drapes) could be semi-easily hidden in the black paint.
I sent over a few pics to John for approval. He thought it looked great and ran a new idea by me.
He was thinking it could be cool to add in a little texture on the pink, so he had me mix a slightly darker shade and stipple it over the print once it was dry.
It was kind of a cool subtle detail that probably only artsy people would notice, but it didn’t take long to do.
I let that stippled layer completely dry. Then I went back in with the black detailed layer, piecing it all together very slowly.
I finished one, then went back and painted in a few details. It looked great, so I became a lot more confident. I flew through the rest.
(And by flew I mean took a very long time because it was extremely difficult!)
Once I finished with the black (hooray!) I had to…do it all again, but in pink.
John and his artsy self wanted to create the idea of a reflection (the black buffalo vs the white and pink buffalo).
The background block on the reflection was white, and I layered the detail block in pink on top.
That took a few more days to finish up, hand painting and all.
Finally, I was done!!!
I wasn’t great at documenting my projects back then, so below are the best photos I have of the final outcome.
Also, I think I thought this was pretty funny for some reason, so here ya go.
And of course, the final drapery in it’s forever home:
I love how even in this sad blurry photo you can see all the details of the buffalo and see their smiling faces :)
Taking this commission was definitely a challenge, but I learned a lot and now most projects seem pretty easy by comparison.
I challenge any designer to give me more complicated project!