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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

ABC 702 Interviews With Dom Knight - Silk Dyeing And Printing

Tonight on ABC 702 with Dominic Knight we talked about the methodology behind dyeing and silk screen printing and how they are being made slowly redundant through the advent of digital printing. We also talked about hand-dyeing and silk painting.

Sara Aniton's  hand-painting on silk work : Source: Dharma Trading

The art of silk painting is as old as the weaving of silk fabric. The first known examples of silk painting come from India around 200AD and were later found in Indonesia where many of the modern day techniques for dyeing and painting have remained unchanged.

Around 300 years ago silk painting became popular in Europe. It was originally believed to have been an art form that was instructed to the French by members of the Russian court who had been informed of the technique from contact with the East. 

Silk painting was a precursor to screen printing on silk. Both are done effectively with a combination of both dyes and paints. The difference between dyes and paints is that whilst dyes chemically bond to a fabric, by contrast paints attach themselves to the fabric and do not chemically bond. This means that when you print there is often a change in the 'handle' (the way silk feels in our hands) of the silk. With a dye, there will be no change to the handle of the silk.

Silk dyeing is often a technique which is best employed using steam fix dyes. Although it is possible to use dyes which can be set using chemicals, the best results for bringing out brilliant colours is to set the dye using steam. This is often done by blasting the fabric with steam for a period of 30 minutes to 3 hours depending on the silk and the quantity of fabric that is being set. In the case of home artisans, silk is often set by steaming devices they use on either a home pot or else a home steaming machine where they roll the fabric between sheets of blank news print. 

Indian dyes in a market. Source: Wikipedia
Once a silk has been dyed it is often possible to print over the top of dye the design of the alternate colours. When dyeing one colour over another or printing, often a discharge is applied to the fabric so that the dye will be released and the ink paint will replace the dyed area. In the case of printing, the fabric is cured by ironing or heating the paint to fix it to the silk, in the place of dyeing the fabric needs to be once again steamed to set the fabric.

Hand painting and screen printing on silk can also be done using a 'gutta'. Gutta is a a solvent based product which comes from Indonesian rubber trees (Gutta Percha). Gutta is what is known as a resist. By applying it to the silk, the dye will not go where the gutta has been applied. This allows artists to create the distinct shapes and designs which will be used when hand painting silks and is one of the most widely used materials for the French Serti Technique of silk painting.

In order to make a great silk design into something like a scarf of a pochette, it is important to know what kind of base cloth you are using. Different printing techniques will work better with different cloths. Printing on 12 mommes silk habotai (pronounced 'mummies' - a Japanese silk measurement which refers to the weight in pounds per 100 yards of a 45" wide cloth) will give a different result to that of a silk twill versus a georgette. Knowing your silk fabric to start with also means that some methods, such as digital printing, will work great and give a vibrant and deep result with one silk, but will work poorly in others. You also need to think about the application you wish to make your silk. Are you going to be making a cravatte? A pocket square? A scarf? A Tie? Each object will differ in what parts of the fabric will be seen. In the case of the pocket square, both sides need to be visibly seen in order for it to perform its function well. This is not the case for most cuts of a regular tie.

Source: Better Workwear Australia - Screen Printing in motion
The fight for the survival of screen printing and steam dyeing fabrics is now well and truly underway with the fast pace at which digital printing technologies are attempting to catch up to traditional printing techniques. Many brands, even the top ones you would never suspect, have already moved over to digital printing. As one contact in England told me last week, you are hard pressed to still find traditional Italian screen printing and dye houses anymore. The digital era has been so fast in it's rise because the designers are used to working with programmes such as Photoshop and Illustrator which lend themselves to digital printing more than they do to screens. Furthermore, screen printing is far more laborious and there are much higher minimums often required by production houses which means that only large companies with big distribution channels can undertake the MOQ of 100 -1000 metres of fabric depending on where the companies produce their silks. By contrast, digital printers are often happy to produce anywhere from 2 metres so long as they are paid their design set up fees.

Given that we are currently seeing a widespread drift towards digital printing, it is likely that over the coming years the price of screen printing, hand-painting and steam set dyed silk will only increase in price.


Are you interested in knowing more about screen printing or hand-painting or do you want us to show off your own artisan work? Let us know by contacting us on

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