Stop SOPA – and some hurried fabric designs

fabric design incorporating message 'Stop SOPA'

[I made the fabric designs in this post in an effort to include a little eye candy in an otherwise serious message.]

I’ve been searching – mostly in vain – for responses from the fabric-designing and fabric-crafting community to the looming legislation known as SOPA. This is a bill (the so-called “Stop Online Piracy Act”) that the US Congress will be considering after it reconvenes next week. If passed into law, this measure won’t stop online piracy, but may irreparably damage the Internet as we know it.

fabric design incorporating message 'Stop SOPA'

The fabric-based creative community, like any creative group, depends on bloggers and web sites, both large and small, to show and publicize its work. But SOPA threatens to preemptively remove from the Internet, without due process, any web site alleged to be connected, directly or indirectly, with an instance of copyright infringement. Here’s an article on how three major reputable sites of importance to the fabric community – Etsy, Flickr, and Vimeo – could be affected if SOPA becomes law.

fabric design incorporating message 'Stop SOPA'

SOPA would also have a chilling effect on blogs and smaller sites, whose owners lack the means to defend themselves against preemptive takedown actions, however frivolous or predatory in intent. Thus the Internet would lose valuable public showcases for user-generated content, diminishing our creative community. For this reason (and others – e.g., the prospect of Internet censorship and reduced online security – that I don’t have time to go into here), please, if you are in the US, consider taking action to defeat SOPA.

fabric design incorporating message 'Stop SOPA'

The black diagonal banner at the top of this blog links to some useful information and resources. There’s also a discussion on the Etsy site and an interesting opinion piece in Forbes.

fabric design incorporating message 'Stop SOPA'

Spoonflower’s ten-thousand-numbers problem

color palette with errors
color palette with errors


First, some kind words for Spoonflower…

Spoonflower, the printer of custom fabrics and showcase/marketplace for indie fabric designs, is a startup that a lot of people love and want to see thrive. By the rules of social marketing and web 2.0, Spoonflower has been doing all the right things. It seeks to fill a genuine need; it engages customers in friendly public conversation; and, most interestingly, it recognizes its customers as a creative community rather than a bunch of passive, isolated consumers. The Spoonflower blog, design marketplace, and weekly contests have fostered connections within this community.

So, what’s the problem?

What do I mean by “Spoonflower’s ten-thousand-numbers problem”? On the one hand I’m referring to something really trivial: some mislabeled color tiles in Spoonflower’s official fabric palette – the Spoonflower Color Map of 3,000+ colors. (Click here to order the Color Map or read more about it.) On the other hand, I’m talking about an issue that goes deep: my sense that Spoonflower doesn’t quite “get” the nature of software and distributed creativity today. One indication of this, to me, is the near certainty that some unfortunate person had to input by hand the 10,800 (mostly 3-digit) numbers printed on the official fabric palette. A needless, mind-numbing, and wretchedly dreary task! I know, because I started down that road myself before coming to my senses and finding an easier way.

color palette with errors
color palette with errors

Drudgery begets errors

The original error-free source of the 10,800 numbers, as far as I can tell, is the Adobe Swatch Exchange file available here on Spoonflower’s web site. So why didn’t Spoonflower just extract the numbers from this Adobe file instead of having some poor human enter them manually on the keyboard (and inevitably, in the process, introduce a bunch of errors)? Well, to be fair, it’s not obvious how to do the extracting. The Adobe Swatch Exchange format is something of an Adobe proprietary mystery, and it isn’t all that easy to find software for pulling the needed numbers out of the Adobe file. I don’t fault Spoonflower for being stymied. But why didn’t Spoonflower appeal for help to its customers – to the friends of friends of its customers – or, simply, to the Internet at large?

Hope, frustration, and, finally, indignation

The Spoonflower Color Map (and the accompanying Adobe Swatch Exchange file) went up on the Spoonflower site back in March. I was busy then with other things and didn’t notice for many months. But, when I did notice, I was thrilled at the prospect of a large palette colors would print predictably on Spoonflower’s equipment. Finally, after years of waiting! I downloaded the Adobe Swatch Exchange file, downloaded the image file used in printing the Spoonflower Color Map, and ordered a quilting-weight copy of the map. Since I don’t use Adobe products – I run all my computers and do all my work with open-source software – I then faced the same problem that Spoonflower must have faced: getting those 10,800 numbers in the Adobe Swatch Exchange file into a digital format that my software could read and use.

keyboard detail

I looked for a solution online, didn’t find one at first, and tried, briefly, to solve the problem by brute force – by manually copying the numbers printed on the Spoonflower Color Map, i.e., typing them one by one into my computer. That’s when I discovered that some of the Spoonflower numbers were wrong – and wrong in a way that reflected human error, rather than any likely computer glitch. That’s when I knew I wasn’t alone in my crazy number-typing predicament. And that’s when I got indignant. “Why should anyone,” I asked myself, “let alone two or more people, be toiling away in the second decade of the 21st century typing 10,800 numbers that came out of a computer?”

A better way: the generosity of the community

Fortified by knowing that I wasn’t completely alone, I went back online and found a great solution: a free open-source program called Swatchbooker created by Olivier Berton, a multi-talented singer who lives in Belgium, collects and shares digital fonts for the Khmer language, and, obviously, writes very useful software. The miracle, generosity, and diversity of the Internet! I was so, so grateful! I used Swatchbooker to create a digital palette file that you can download here. This file contains, in order, all the numbers found on the Spoonflower Color Map but without the mistakes introduced by human error. The numbers are in ordinary human-readable text, and the palette file works perfectly with the GNU Image Manipulation Program (aka GIMP – the free open-source counterpart of Photoshop).

Overcoming the proprietary mindset

Like any other business, Spoonflower has to operate in the real world – a world where the work flow of many fabric designers depends on expensive entrenched proprietary software that’s not necessarily shaped around their needs or budgets. For the sake of those customers Spoonflower has to publish its palettes in Adobe Swatch Exchange format. But Spoonflower could look beyond that particular subset of its customers. There’s a whole world of designers who don’t use Adobe palettes – and, I imagine, at least a sprinkling of software developers who’d like their programs to interface better with Spoonflower’s printing service.

So, Spoonflower, next time you take a really important step forward – like publishing a palette of 3,000+ colors – please do trumpet that accomplishment from the rooftops. And, if you don’t have the means to translate the palette out of its opaque proprietary format, please don’t be embarrassed to broadcast a call for help. Relax! Reach out! This is a golden age for software – for crowd-sourcing, networking, and creative collaboration. People love your company and want it to succeed. You don’t have to sit there for nine months all buttoned up with an Adobe-only palette and an image file on your site that’s blighted with hand-typed errors.

[The image below shows some of the colors in the Adobe Swatch Exchange palette, as viewed in the GNU Image Manipulation Program. There are no color errors because the color data was extracted from the Adobe file by software, rather than laboriously typed by hand.]
error-free palette

…and getting back to fabric design…

Edit: Several weeks have slipped by since this post, but, though quiet, I haven’t been idle. Among other things, I’ve been trying to embed a Spoonflower-compatible palette in my homemade textile-design program.

Well, I’m back with more to say about cloth. And with more inclination to follow my instincts and speak my mind. (What I mean by that will become apparent, I guess, in time; I plan to post something new here about once a week.) Meanwhile, just to offer a few pictures that aren’t tangled up in somebody else’s copyright, here are some swatches of repeat patterns that I made from scratch this morning.

fabric swatch

fabric swatch

fabric swatch

fabric swatch

fabric swatch

fabric swatch

Using software I’ve been developing and a bit of hand editing with GIMP (the open-source "GNU Image Manipulation Program"), the whole process took about an hour. More on this later…

No more Etsy fabrics here

I used to host hundreds of pages here filled with thousands of color-sorted images supplied by Etsy fabric sellers. A small sample – and not necessarily a representative one – drawn from the tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of fabric listings appearing on Etsy each day.

This felt exciting at first. It got me a write-up on Etsy’s featured developers page, made me feel I was doing something useful for small businesses, brought many visitors to this site, and, like any new software project, taught me new technical tricks. But I became frustrated with the limitations inherent in building something on top of somebody else’s business and working – at a great distance – with other people’s content.

Where do the pictures of products on Etsy come from? From Etsy’s point of view, as stated in the API Terms of Use Agreement, the pictures come from the sellers and belong to them. Third parties like me get to use these images – in highly restricted ways – because the sellers have granted Etsy some rights and Etsy in turn has granted some rights to us. The reality, I suspect, may be even more complex. Lurking behind a photo supplied by a fabric seller there may, in some cases, be rights held by a photographer, a manufacturer, or even the original fabric designer. A whole can of copyright worms to worry about…

Copyright issues can be terribly constraining. Suppose, for example, that a seller posts a photo of a fabric print that’s more or less deep red but bordered on one side by a chartreuse tape measure (included in the photo to show the scale of the print). I don’t want to run this image as-is through my color-sorting program; the chartreuse tape measure will mess up the color calculations. Nor do I want to plop the photo down as-is onto a page of other deep red prints; the tape measure would distract the eye and generally wreak havoc with the overall look of the page. I could, of course, crop the tape measure out of the image. I could even write a little script to crop out all tape measures from all photos coming from this particular seller (assuming some consistency in where the tape measures are placed). I could, but the for fact that cropping an Etsy photo would violate both the API Terms of Use and god-only-knows how many copyrights.

Over the year or so that I ran this Etsy-based fabric project I tried, unsuccessfully, three different approaches:

(1) Initially I eliminated – manually, by visual inspection – all or almost all of the tape-measure-afflicted or otherwise unsuitable images. I repeated this operation with each site update. As might be expected, the process was unpleasant: a dreaded recurrent day or so of eyestrain and drudgery.

(2) I wrote about this in my blog. And I posted guidelines for Etsy sellers who wanted their fabrics on my pages and wanted to make my job a bit easier. I could have done more to publicize these guidelines, but I drew the line at becoming a nag. Shopkeepers have the right to present merchandise as they choose. Who was I to tell people how to run their Etsy stores? So I stopped yammering about the guidelines, and they went unread or at least unheeded.

(3) Finally, in a last-ditch attempt to keep my project going and keep alive some remnants of my initial enthusiasm, I dropped a great many sources I’d been using for fabric photos – told my software not to scan them for listings at all. It pained me to do this: many of the sources I dropped had been providing, along with a modest percent of unusable images, some of the best fabric photos on Etsy. But even after this change, problem images kept cropping up. I finally had to accept that in a marketplace of constantly changing merchandise where sellers were constantly rearranging their wares, it just wasn’t possible to predict in advance which particular sections of which Etsy shops would dependably deliver usable photos.

So I began to lose interest. Not in the problems of color classification, not in the issue of how best to present (for shopping purposes and for art purposes) a big diverse collection of multi-colored prints. I just got tired of working against the grain, of trying to extract order and beauty and maybe even meaning from a stream of artistic content over which I had no control and no editorial rights at all. Except, of course, the tedious, eye-straining, and generally depressing right to reject one image after another.

I love Etsy for its diverse content and the freedom of presentation given to Etsy sellers. Unfortunately, the very things I love about Etsy proved a mismatch for the kind of scalable computer-maintainable site that I had in mind.

My upcoming fabric project involves digital fabric designs, suitable for printing at Spoonflower and other print-on-demand services. I’ll be applying some of the same techniques to classify these designs by color (and by other criteria as well). More about this in a week or so…

Keeping morecloth going: what to do?

[Above: a small quilt that I made a few years ago. It was good to come back home and see this item hanging on the wall. I'd forgotten all about it while I was away caring for my Aunt Claire (who lived almost to age 90, missing her birthday by just 27 days - see previous post) . The curving designs on the pale patches of fabric are derived from the rims of neolithic Korean pottery; I'd screenprinted them using paper stencils held together by ordinary sewing thread. To me the quilt feels somber but also full of energy - a good welcome back after a difficult couple of months.]

Not surprisingly, I’m looking now with fresh eyes at quite a lot of things, including my own goals and how I’ve been spending my time. It does seem to me that maintaining the Etsy fabric listings here has soaked up an extravagant amount of time and labor (my own). I didn’t mind in the beginning, when that labor had a large creative component. It was fun deciding how to color-sort the fabrics and writing the new computer code to do it. But now that the job has settled down into a clerical routine…

Here’s the problem. I can pre-select a bunch of locations on Etsy (i.e., sections of Etsy shops that sell fabric) and write programs to analyze and group in various ways all the fabrics for sale in these locations. But I don’t control the images in Etsy shops; and I have no way, without getting deep into the some kind of horribly computation-intensive computer-vision software, to filter out automatically those images that don’t work well as part of a group. (There are about ten types of such images; read about them here.)

To produce attractive pages of fabric, I’ve been doing the filtering manually. In other words, each update of the morecloth site has required someone (me!) to review thousands of images, arranged on hundreds of pages, clicking on all those I can’t use. It’s depressing doing this – saying “no, no, no, no no” – and also a very tedious and eye-straining task, one that takes an entire workday or more. I want to be using my talents to celebrate cloth and design. It pains me to spend whole days squinting at pictures I have to reject (and often for seemingly really petty reasons).

And here’s yet another problem. Even if I could persuade a group of Etsy fabric sellers to organize their shops in a way optimized for my purposes (i.e., with some designated sections that never include images of the kind I can’t use), I’d still have to deal with the issue of duplicate images. Because most fabrics (even niche fabrics like those created for the quilting and home-sewing market) are mass-produced, there’s bound to be a lot of overlap in the offerings of Etsy fabric stores. For buyers and sellers this may be a good thing. Buyers can choose where their money goes and shop at the stores they most want to support. Sellers can compete on the basis of customer service, shop aesthetics, and social networking, rather than on inventory alone. But for someone with my particular interests, duplicate fabric images are a time-consuming nightmare!

Aesthetics and data-mining possibilities have been, for me, primary factors driving this morecloth experiment. I want to create compelling online displays of fabric (which, to me, means, among other things, web pages without duplicate images). I’d also like (through statistical analysis of fabric listings and images) to uncover trends in fabric color and design. This information may not be timely enough have any commercial value, but it’s altogether fascinating from a social and cultural point of view. Because, of course, printed fabric, like all other art forms, both reflects and shapes the culture in which it lives. I want this information, but I don’t see how to get at it without some automated computer-driven way to identify listings and images that are essentially duplicates.

Any solutions? I’m momentarily at a loss – not sure how to revamp this morecloth project so as to reduce the amount of drudgery and recover my original motivation. I’m open to suggestions, willing to swap ideas and collaborate in various ways. I’d also be happy (if there’s any interest) to distribute (under an open-source license) all the working computer code for this site. Thoughts, suggestions, and wild ideas most welcome….

Remembering Claire

[Above: a pair of colorful necklaces that my Aunt Claire found in a thrift store.]

For the past two months I’ve been away from this blog, away from my home, and only intermittently able to access the Internet, I was called away, abruptly, to care for my Aunt Claire during the last weeks of her life.

While I’ve been able, minimally, to keep the morecloth site running and updated, I’m still not home yet and only just beginning to catch up on email. (If you’ve written to me or commented here and not yet got a reply, I’ll be answering soon.)



[Above: fabrics from shirts that Claire sometimes wore]

My Aunt Claire loved color, fabric, and decoration – and, not surprisingly, also loved to sew. She left behind, among other things, a well-oiled machine and a closet full of bright and pretty clothes.

[Above: the view from my Aunt Claire's kitchen window.]

Books about textiles: love and commerce

a few illustrated books on textiles

In this now deleted post, I talked about wanting to write, if not balanced reviews, at least appreciations of some books on textiles that have mattered to me. (I’d even gone so far as to sign up with Powell’s and Amazon’s book-selling “associates” programs so as to get permission to use their bookcover photos.) And then I changed my mind, lost my enthusiasm for the project.

Partly because the permissions extended to cover photos only, leaving me only words to convey a book’s inner content. (A real handicap in cases where the book’s strength lies as much in its images as in its text!) I also felt uneasy about the conflict of interest inherent in praising books on which I stood to earn a commission, however small. So…no book reviews, at least for now.

Spoonflower’s new design marketplace: thoughts on disruptive technologies

carved rutabaga slices

digital textile design based on rutabaga print

[Above: rutabaga slices carved for printmaking purposes and a digital textile design using motifs created by printing with the rutabaga slices on paper.]

Back in 2008 Spoonflower altered forever the landscape of small-quantity on-demand fabric printiing. By offering digital printing at prices affordable to artists, hobbyists, and small crafts businesses, Spoonflower changed not only what can be done (and done by whom) with cloth, but also what’s likely to be done, both for pleasure and for profit. Commercial inkjet printing for fabric has been on the horizon for decades – see Danielle Locastro’s essay at first2print.com for an analysis oriented toward the garment industry – but only recently available at artist-friendly prices. In the past designers who wanted to see a repeat pattern printed on fabric had to: (1) sell or license the pattern to a business, (2) pay $100/yard or more to a commercial digital printer that bundled digital editing and/or color-matching services in with the printing, or (3) resort to low-tech printing devices. And by “low tech” I mean everything from finicky consumer-priced inkjet printers to silkscreen to linocut blocks to Javanese wax-printing tjaps to rubber stamps to paper stencils to the lowly potato (or rutabaga). Spoonflower’s affordable printing service changes everything; it’s what’s known, in business terminology, as a “disruptive technology.”

digital textile design based on rutabaga print

digital textile design based on rutabaga print

[Above: two more digital rutabaga prints, rendered in randomly chosen colors from Spoonflower’s downloadable color swatch

Every printing process has its special aesthetic appeal, and fabric designers will no doubt continue to print and experiment with all the traditional low-tech methods. And, of course, they’ll continue to produce repeat patterns with the mass appeal needed for profitable mass production. But the services of Spoonflower (and its emerging competitors in the affordable custom-printing marketplace) will surely help shape the future of printed fabric design. Patterns bubbling up from hobbyists and artists/craftspeople will mingle in unforeseeable ways with those created strictly for mass production. That’s the nature of disruptive technology: game-changing, fascinating, and potentially disruptive. As far as “disruptive” goes, I guess I’ll just say that I’m glad I haven’t invested all my hopes in a business making old-fashioned rutabaga prints! The Spoonflower-enabled competition might be fierce.

digital textile design based on rutabaga print

digital textile design based on rutabaga print

Well, that’s an example (albeit a contrived and ridiculous one) of how affordable high-tech fabric printing could undercut a hypothetical low-tech printing business. What about Spoonflower’s new design marketplace? What effect will it have on person-to-person sales of digital repeat patterns outside the Spoonflower marketplace? Up till now these patterns have mostly been created and sold for non-textile purposes – as backgrounds for web pages, textures for 3D-computer-modeling, etc. But there are some at designs at patternhead.com and at istockphoto.com (find them at istockphoto by searching on “seamless pattern”) entirely suitable for printing on fabric. Will people go to the trouble of searching out these designs, paying for them, and uploading them to Spoonflower, if they can get similar designs right at the Spoonflower site with no trouble and no extra payment at all? The Spoonflower design marketplace benefits designers by providing them with a free place to show their work to a highly interested audience, by paying generous royalties on fabric actually printed, and by allowing them to retain copyright to their work. And, at the same time Spoonflower poses a serious challenge to designers hoping to set up shop independently in the just-barely-emerging person-to-person textile design market. It will be interesting to see how this challenge plays out.

I will be writing more on this. And also on Spoonflower’s textile design software that, I read somewhere (can’t recall where, just now), may be in the works.

Designing printed fabric: two “less is more” strategies

Each time I update fabric listings on this site, I find myself lingering over particular images and thinking about the design strategies behind them.

Fading and blending with restricted color

fabric imagefabric imagefabric image

The three fabrics above, all quilting-weight cotton from the Northcott “Visual Arts” series, appear to be printed in the normal commercial way (i.e. using rotary screens, a small palette of colors, and, maybe, halftones for the areas where one color fades to another). These color-blending areas – light yellow to dark in the top two images, light green to dark in the bottom one – give the cloth a vaguely antique or hand-colored look. I love these subtle blends, however mechanically and artificially achieved. But getting the fading colors to read as fresh and contemporary (rather than simply as nostalgic and fake) has called for some clever design decisions.

Each of the yellow-background fabrics is overprinted (in appearance, if not in reality) with a highly complex but single-color (black) pattern. This pattern catches and holds the eye, diverting attention from the mechanical means by which the background effect is achieved. And the crisp, unfaded black lines announce up front that this is a piece of contemporary fabric, not imitation vintage. In the green fabric, a grayish pattern, derived, maybe, from a high-contrast photo of a woven texture, is printed over a solid yellow-green ground. This pattern looks modern/postmodern (frankly photo-derived) and it also draws attention away from the mechanics of the green fades going on inside the round medallions.

No fades, no overlaps, no oblique angles

fabric imagefabric imagefabric image

The next three prints , which by coincidence (or maybe not) all happen to be animal prints, use simple shapes, no blending and little detail inside the shapes, and no overlapping at all. In the middle fabric – the only one where some of the shapes are hollow – a few of these hollow shapes do touch each other or the big black target-like form. But none of these collisions lead to deformation. Nothing gets squashed; nothing overlaps. It’s as if all the animals, plants, and rocks (or whatever) are on parade and all taking care to stay a proper distance apart and turn their best sides toward us.

The charm of each design is that they do this so well, filling up the blank white space so fully and evenly. That and the inherent appeal of animals, however symbolized and simplified for easy recognition. There’s also the feat of fitting all these shapes together while keeping all the animals in heads-up position (or, in the case of the first fabric, at right angles to each other). The designers have done a lot with simple means.

Spoonflower, color palettes, and open source

dark combination of Spoonflower colors

light combination of Spoonflower colors

At some point back in 2000-2001 I made the decision, for reasons both practical and philosophical, to stop using Microsoft’s Windows, along with a lot of other proprietary software. Everything I do these days – the morecloth site, my personal computing, the soon-to-be-launched site I’m building for online textile design – everything runs on free open-source software. This policy has worked well for me. The only only glitch I’ve encountered so far has come from the fact that fabric-printing services, all of which seem to depend on mysterious black-box configurations of unnamed software and hardware, tend to release clues about their secret processes only in proprietary Adobe Photoshop formats.

Of the four low-cost custom fabric printers I’ve looked at (Spoonflower, FabricOnDemand, KarmaKraft, and EyeCandey aka candeyshop.com), Spoonflower has been the most forthcoming with information. Last year Spoonflower published a downloadable file (in Photoshop .aco format) containing 523 colors (well, actually, 505 colors, since some turn out to be duplicates, at least when expressed in 24-bit truecolor RGB format) – let’s just say a downloadable file containing a big general-purpose selection of Spoonflower-safe colors. By “Spoonflower-safe (my term, not theirs) I mean that, if I understand things correctly, none of these 523 (or 505 or whatever) colors is “out of gamut” for Spoonflower’s printers. In other words, all of these colors can be printed, singly or in combination with each other without triggering the dreaded “remap colors” function that seems to reside deep in the bowels of all commercial printing systems.

I say “dreaded” because this “remap colors” function is undisclosed (at least to us end-user customers) and therefore unpredictable. The function doesn’t just remap the out-of-gamut colors to in-gamut colors; it remaps some or all of the in-gamut colors as well. In short, it tries to help us clueless customers out – and, no doubt, in many cases succeeds – while telling us, in effect, not to bother our pretty little heads about all that in-gamut / out-of-gamut stuff. Not my preferred way of doing business. In fact, as I’ve been getting ready to offer design-and-layout services to people wanting custom-printed fabric, my biggest worry has been color predictability – i.e., preparing files in such a way as to dodge the unwanted help of unknown color remapping functions.

Yesterday I finally set to work on Spoonflower’s Photoshop-formatted file of safe colors. (I hadn’t realized earlier that it could, in fact, be auto-translated into a format usable by gimp-2.4, the free open-source program I use in place of Photoshop.) Once I had the Spoonflower palette file in a format I could use, I still had to make some adjustments; I had to split the palette up into smaller ones, since indexed-color images require palettes of 256 or fewer colors. But now, with that detail taken care of, I have the means, so it seems, to auto-generate a large number of color schemes in Spoonflower-safe colors. (You can see a sampling of 252 such color schemes in the two images above.) I’ll be printing swatches to test things out and, if all goes well, uploading some color scheme files here that others may find useful.

(To see the Spoonflower-safe palette and a couple of smaller palettes that I extracted from it click on the following link.) Continue Reading »