Developing a New Product: Aprons

two ladies wearing aprons with cats

The Tortie Girls aprons make their debut, modeled by Maggie and Diane!

When it comes to the handmade goods you see on the internet and at shows and festivals, did you ever wonder how the artist developed that item from an idea into a product you can purchase? The path is often less than direct, but most people who make things have the incentive of sharing what they’ve made with people who would enjoy it.

block print curtain

Detail of The Goddess curtain

I won’t go all the way back to the genesis of these block prints. I designed them and cut the blocks about 12 years ago, beginning with prints on paper but always intending to move out to other products, like the t-shirts I recently sold to benefit Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami; I’ve also printed them on curtains, tablecloths, place mats, scarves and other textiles to pleasing success with each—and I can’t wait for this summer’s printing sessions, now that the weather is good.

printed aprons on hangers

Cookie aprons drying out on the deck.

But I always wanted to print on an apron! A nice full apron with ties around the back of the neck. I don’t know why, but it may have been the popularity of the other kitchen items with the girls on them that encouraged me, or it may have been the cat-themed aprons I received as gifts.

Sometimes I’ll make my own products to print on, as I did with the place mats and table cloths and a few curtains, but those were unique sizes and shapes. The apron, well, I’ve made aprons in the past, and I knew I really didn’t want to make a dozen aprons for this project.

printed aprons drying on hangers

Kelly gets her turn.

So that left me to shop the market for blank aprons. I considered looking for one or two in local stores, but retail items are prepared for display and sale and always have a little—or a lot—bit of sizing in them which is difficult to print on and impossible to paint on with cold-set fabric paints, as I discovered when I purchased a package of tees and tried to print on them. I had to over-ink the block, and the dye rolled right off. This also happened with most tablecloths and curtains. I could wash it, but then I’d have to press it out completely to look like new, and while I actually enjoy ironing, that was a little more time than I wanted to spend on a t-shirt, in part because I also noticed they weren’t as heavy or as well-made as the blanks I usually purchased. I considered it a disaster and decided I wouldn’t waste my time again.

tortoiseshell cat image on apron

The Goddess on an apron!

But there are companies that sell blank items for just this purpose; my favorite is Dharma Trading Company. I always look for fair trade items made from organic materials by someone who was paid a living wage to make the thing; I don’t mind paying for that and generally my customers don’t mind paying for it, either, and we all support each other. Dharma always has these fair-trade options, but the aprons were always a little more than I wanted to pay and I decided I’d wait until they came down in price.

tortoiseshell cat image on an apron

Kelly already watches everything I do in the kitchen.

Just in the past year, the aprons came down in price, and a customer going out of business handed me a half dozen blank aprons that were more than acceptable saying, “I’ll bet you can do something with these!”

Indeed! The white cotton duck aprons were pretty close to what I would have chosen, and you can’t beat “free”! The only thing was to wait for good weather since I still need to use my oil-based ink on textiles, and the smell of the ink (smells like an oil spill) and turpentine (even the “safe” stuff smells) is not something I want to fill my basement with, not to mention it’s flammable. So for safety’s sake, I wait for a day that’s at least 50 degrees and sunny, and print as much as I can.

We had one of those days in March, and I had everything ready as the temperature began to rise; I also had to print a few Tortie Girls t-shirts people had ordered in sizes I thought I had but did not, and I was nearly out of prints on paper which I also need to print in oil-based ink to resist the watercolor I paint into them.

ghosted printed image

Detail of the ghosted image.

So I started with the old familiar rice paper and got the block all warmed up with those, then went to the tees and got the block ready for the fabric. I knew the cotton duck was a little stiffer than fabrics I usually used, and if I washed it to soften it I’d again have to press it out and make sure it looked like new, so I took the chance to print on the fabric as it was.

painted tortie cat image

Coverage not dark enough, and it takes too much ink!

Block printing is a technique wherein the artist carves the surface of a piece of linoleum, leaving raised areas which will become the image. Ink is rolled onto these raised areas, then a piece of paper or other surface is pressed against the block by hand or by a press—in my case it’s by hand, and I use a “baren” and my fingers to press the surface against the block, rubbing gently against each of the details of the block and can sometimes even see the ink soaking into the fabric.

Still, I don’t know if it’s all evenly inked until I lift the surface from the block. When it’s lifted away the ink remains, leaving the image on the surface. Because of the nature of the medium, each print is unique and ink coverage varies by the surface. Most artists consider this random activity to be part of the process of creating an individualized print, and along with the hand-painting makes a unique wearable work of art. Even with this, I want even coverage with no filling of the tiny details and no doubling or ghosting of the image.

fabric dye spreading

Cookie aglow. That won't work!

I had three aprons for each of the two Tortie Girls. Even with the best of preparation, there is still the chance for difficulty, and it took me two of the aprons to get the amount of ink correct, and the pressure to print until I got one good impression. With each of them, one print wasn’t inked enough, and the next print ghosted, or produced a slightly doubled image because the fabric shifted after I had impressed it on the block. Oh, well.

tortie cat on apron

Kelly's edges are spreading too.

Then came the painting of the aprons, and seeing the tight weave of the fabric I decided first to use fabric markers since I could press the marker against the fabric and the pigment wouldn’t chance rolling off. It really didn’t cover the fabric well, just the surface, unless I really pushed, and I’d have to purchase a new fabric marker for each apron at this rate.

Then I tried dampening the fabric to see if the fabric marker settled in a little better. Usually, when I paint the tees and other lighter-weight products, the ink has settled into the fibers of the fabric and acts as a barrier to the water or paint; not so with the aprons, as you can see by Cookie’s and Kelly’s “glow”.

So I went back to the cold-set fabric dyes and carefully painted a priming layer of dye that lightly soaked into the fabric but dampened it enough that the next pass of the brush colored the fabric just about right with a minimum of runaway dye, producing two “good” aprons.

I secretly showed them to the tortie group when I went to the book-signing in Washington. They seemed to pass muster.

That leaves four for me to use or pass along to friends to product test in the kitchen and in the laundry. But I got one good print out of each of them, and I have those for sale on Etsy.

women clinking glasses wearing aprons

I think they enjoy modeling as much as I enjoy printing! Perhaps it's the glasses of wine...

They are also modeled here by Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall Executive Director Maggie Forbes and Library Director Diane Klinefelter. Thanks for taking the time to model for me!

I think after this little experiment I’ll get a few of the softer natural-colored canvas aprons I had seen at Dharma Trading, and now that the weather is consistently warmer I won’t have to wait for the two hours in an afternoon to print.

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