Textures: From Photo to Fabric
by Lois Ericson
from Threads #86, pp. 70-75
I've been focusing on texture and surface design in my sewn creations for several decades. My process usually starts with something visually exciting. I make a sketch or a photo of it, then translate my excitement into a textile treatment or sewing technique, which I can use in my garment and embellishment designs.
A recent trip to Japan gave me the opportunity to record many interesting textures with a camera. While most of the people on our tour were taking pictures of a temple or shrine, I was taking close-ups of textures. (“Is Lois taking a picture of her shoe?” I overheard someone ask. “No,” I said, “it’s the rock next to my shoe I want.”) When I got home and saw my slides projected on a screen, I was thrilled: I could easily visualize at least two or three textile options for each one. I had enlargements made so I could use them more easily in my studio.
Working from a photo
So how do I go from a photo to a sewing idea? I’m not usually trying to reproduce or make a picture of my source material or even to evoke the scene or object I’ve photographed; I’m looking for a fresh, new take on the questions “What shall I sew next?” and “How shall I sew it this time?” I’m looking for ideas about how things go together and what makes them look good or more interesting. For example, the patterns made by tree branches against the sky in the photo below inspired me to play with angular, chaotic linear shapes in stark contrast against a plain background. My translations didn’t have to look like trees; I just wanted to get a similar effect using fabric, sewing machine, and thread.
Of course, you don’t need to go on a trip to find good material, but a new world to look at can certainly open up your eyes. As I played with my pictures from Japan, I was continually struck by marvelous images previously unnoticed in my familiar surroundings at home.
When I play with an idea, I don’t plan too much. I want my experiments to be spontaneous, and I try to push them as far as possible past my first ideas. I love the process of figuring out how to make something work. I’ll try as many different approaches as I can think of, drawing upon all the other techniques I’ve explored and hoping to stumble upon new techniques.
It’s usually very clear what has attracted me to an image, but I have occasionally noticed that what I was first attracted to isn’t what I wind up being most excited by or finding the most fruitful for further exploration. For example, I liked the color shifts on the stained bamboo in the photos above, but I eventually realized that the bamboo’s structure and shapes were more intriguing.
Below you'll find selections of my favorite images from my trip to Japan, along with a few of the experiments each image inspired. May you be similarly inspired, not necessarily by my pictures but to start mining the amazing textures in your own world for the powerful sewing ideas hidden within them.
I liked the way the bright blue sky reveals the positive and negative shapes created by overlapping tree branches. For my first translation (top left), I cut out a tree shape and placed it on a fusible knit; then I pressed a leaf-printed sheer on top—very easy and not too inspired.
Next I abstracted the image using wrinkled silk organza and soutache braid (bottom right). I pressed the wrinkles as I wanted them and placed them on striped fabric, holding the whole piece together with soutache braid.
Then I tried a sheer home-decorating print, pressed wrinkles into it, fused it to a knit interfacing, and outlined the wrinkles with metallic thread (bottom left). A plus for the wrinkling technique is that it gives you a definite and instant pattern to follow for stitching.
A very different effect, inspired by the same sky-and-branch photo, was to draw a twig-like design and silk-screen it to a sheer and a solid fabric (top right).