Back in the mid nineties I did a course on fabric dyeing and printing. The teacher was fabulous. Her name was Marian and she had lots of wonderful ideas and recipes. I wish could still pick her brains today, but I’m just going to have to manage on my own. With the help of the internet, of course. In those days, if you did not have access to someone who knew, or could look it up in a library, you were on your own. Haven’t things changed.

Anyway, one of the things she taught us was to do block printing with polystyrene. You take a soldering iron, melt/burn a pattern into the polystyrene, ink it up and hey presto, you can print.

These prints were negative, meaning you printed with the part of your PS block that did NOT have the pattern, and the pattern you had burnt with the soldering iron remained white. She showed us how to dye the fabric in rainbow colours first, then print over the top. The pattern that appeared was multicoloured against a black background. I printed quite a bit of fabric that way, but the only piece I have kept is this tee. I still can’t part with it although I have not worn it for years, preferring a different shape to my tees these days.

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You can see that the technique has some drawbacks. You either use a polystyrene block big enough to do the entire garment, or you have joins. The joins are not as noticeable in real life as in the photo, but still. And for someone like me who likes to print yardage, a block big enough for the whole width would be unwieldy. Then there is a lot of black, or whatever colour you use for printing.

So I always wanted to adapt this technique to produce positive prints. When I came across this tee, it inspired me to give it a try.

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I thought for a while whether to carve multiples of the pattern, such as my leaf, out of a large block, in a way that each iteration of the print will tesselate. This makes printing fast, but you need to be very regular in the way you apply your block to make an even pattern. Not that easy when you can’t see very well where to put down the block for each repeat of the print. Besides, you need to carve up a lot of polystyrene and although it is a lot easier than Lino or potatoes, it is still tedious.

So I decided to try for a single motive, about the size of my hand, and repeat the print on my fabric. You still need to be even, but because every time you move your block there will be little irregularities in the spacing, it won’t be so obvious overall.

I wanted to make the Tina Givens Bloom dress my canvas and used the rest of the purple sheet left over from the Zelda dress. Cut out, sew the shoulders, lay flat and print.

What you need:

Polystyrene
Knife to cut it to size
Pen to draw your drawing onto the PS
Soldering iron (I used a very fine one)
Screen printing ink
Plastic plate or ice cream lid
Foam roller to ink your printing block

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I covered my cutting table with newspaper, laid my Bloom dress flat and inked up my roller on the plastic plate. You spoon a little of the ink onto the plate, then distribute it evenly rolling back and forth with your foam roller. Your aim is to put a nice layer of ink onto the roller, without any blobs. If you can see shiny patches of ink on top of the foam surface, that means it is not distributed evenly enough.

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Next you ink up your printing block. It is a good idea to have as little polystyrene around the edges of your motif as possible. Any extra surface may get ink on it and then onto the fabric where it is not wanted. Once inked, your motif should stand out nicely and cleanly against the white polystyrene. If it doesn’t and you have ink on non-printing parts of your block, you have not carved them out deeply enough. You must remedy this or you will get a messy print.

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Apply your well inked printing block to the fabric. It is important that you have your fabric on a smooth surface, any unevenness will affect your print, much like a crayon rubbing. You need to press quite firmly all around your block, taking care not to move it. When you are satisfied, pull the block off the fabric. The fabric stick a little, be careful it does not smudge.

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And there you have it. How big to make your print motifs and how to space them is a matter of experience. I am encouraged by my first try, although not in love with the result yet. I think my motif is a little large and too far apart. I will try again with something about 2/3 the size, and closer together. While I dislike small prints because I see them as frumpy, a print that is too large can visually add kgs. Not what I am after.

Choice of fabric and colour is also crucial. I think my black print will look better on natural linen, or on white like my inspiration tee.

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In the next post I will show you the finished dress and discuss the pattern.

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