Making bespoke fabric in London
A while ago, Tree, the one-woman powerhouse behind the YouTube channel 'Stitchless TV' got in touch to tell me about about a fabric printing factory she'd stumbled upon in North London. She was bubbling with excitement about this place that produced custom fabric by the metre, but didn't seem to be known about by sewists.
Here is the factory, Contrado. It's run by Chris - the man you can see busy in the background - and his wife Fran, who set up a digital photo printing service about 12 years ago and have expanded bit by bit to become a full blown bespoke printing and manufacturing service.
So Tree asked Chris if she could bring along a bunch of sewists to see the factory, and Chris agreed. Chris wanted us to use the fabric printing service so he could so how we interacted with it, and to ask us some questions about how we found the process. Basically, he wanted to step inside the mind of a sewist, which we all know is a deep and complicated place, often found to be repeatedly chanting the mantra "I love fabric. I love fabric. I love fabric."
Chris kindly offered us 3m each of fabric printed with our own designs. So I started designing. I've been collecting print design inspiration on Pinterest for a while and generally obsessing over the hand-themed embroidery/jewellery/stickers in the Buried Diamond Etsy shop, so with these in mind I set about doing really crap drawings of my left hand.
With a bit of help from Adobe Illustrator, I made a few variations of a simple repeat and asked my Facebook friends to help me choose the best one.
With lots of helpful feedback on Facebook, I had another go and made this design, which I really like. Thank you, people of the internet!
Inside Chris and Fran's factory, this is where the fabric magic happens. We were there on a Saturday so it was quiet, but normally there are 50 staff working throughout the building.
The range of fabric that can be printed on at Contrado is quite simply jaw dropping. I think Chris mentioned 70, but 70 is just a number and doesn't truly give you an idea of the wondrous possibilities until you start hearing words like neoprene, organza, polar fleece, chunky rib knit and ripstop nylon and breathable waterproof polyester. A custom printed raincoat has now been added to my list of things to make!
They have an absolutely enormous swatch book, which we all had a good rummage through in the office. Tree is on the right there, talking through options with Momtaz, who runs The Make Escape in Hackney and is an all round wonder woman of psychedelic craft. Momtaz ended up getting a print done on velvet, because she is awesome. Also along for the ride were Kate and Rachel of The Foldline and Barley Massey, the pilot at the helm of sewing and craft studio Fabrications and an upcycler extraordinaire.
For a look at all the fabrics available from Contrado, do browse the fabric library on their website.
With difficult decisions made, we uploaded our designs onto the Contrado design suite, which looks like this. For anyone accustomed to using Spoonflower, it's very similar. I'd say Contrado's is actually a bit simpler and more visually pleasing. There are also some excellent design options, like adding text, or adding a background fill colour. They've basically taken some of the simplest elements of Photoshop and built them into their website.
The only thing to watch out for is that their sizing boxes pop up automatically with a width of 1m. This does not represent the full width of the fabric, which as sewists we are obviously used to working with. You need to check the width of the fabric before you get to this point, so you can manually input it into the box.
We sent our designs through, then wandered through to the factory, where lo and behold, my hand repeat was already being printed! At this stage, it's being printed onto paper, which is later used as a giant transfer to press the design onto fabric.
Here is the first printing room. Kate and Rachel are watching their design get printed directly onto cotton. We are all far too excited at this point, and as you can see Barley in the middle is radiant with joy!
While our fabrics went through the printing process, which ends in this room...
...Chris gave us a tour of his factory. We mentioned Sprout Patterns, the Spoonflower off-shoot, and Chris showed us that people use Contrado's services in exactly the same way. If you look closely at the fabric in front of Chris, you can see that the patterned areas are actually printed in sleeve shapes. I think Kate's look of astonishment here represents the feelings of us all.
Let's stop for a moment to appreciate Momtaz's hair. Oooooooo...
We're in the dedicated sewing room at this point. Contrado is not just a fabric printing factory, they actually produce garments there too. This is the area where they experiment with pattern design and construction of new items. You can see they're working on a floppy brimmed hat.
They make dresses, vest tops, t-shirts, bomber jackets, leggings and all constructed here in their London factory. I find this truly incredible. At this moment, it looks likely that Britain's biggest steel works are about to be shut down. Manufacturing in the UK has been in decline since the 70s and despite a bit of a buzz about 'made in the UK' in the last few years, it overwhelmingly continues to be outsourced to workers who are paid a lot less in developing countries.
In London right now, land has become a commodity. The government and Mayor of London view land as investment rather than a place where people can live, love and be creative. Yet, right here in our capital Chris and Fran have built a business piece by piece, that now employs a workforce that manufactures custom clothing.
Anyway, back to the sewing room. Look at this machine! It purely exists to sew bias binding!
And look, they make shoes! Those classic espadrille stitches you can see are done by hand.
Even crazier than this; Contrado don't just manufacture things out of fabric. I asked Chris why there was a corner full of wood and he casually said, "Oh we make deck chairs and canvases." So you can get your custom design printed onto fabric and Chris's team will turn it into a deck chair. RIGHT HERE IN LONDON. Here is Chris in deck chair corner.
They have this awesome ironing board in deck chair corner, which obviously I want.
Chris's factory actually makes things out of almost every material under the sun. They vacuum form phone cases, bowls, trays and Xbox control covers (see below). They make sports bags, pencil cases, lampshades, yoga mats, aprons and they even bind books. RIGHT HERE IN LONDON.
The machinery they have and the breadth of their manufacturing possibilities is unbelievable. I honestly haven't been paid to be a salesperson for any of their products, but I am genuinely astounded by the practical, creative possibilities they have at their fingertips. For instance, if you as an individual wanted to set up a shop that just sold plates, tea towels and table cloths with Ryan Goslings face on, you could.
Anyway, back to the factory to see what's going on with my fabric...
... where my design is being transferred onto polycotton. This process is called sublimation, and the dyes from the paper are being transferred to the fabric at the molecular level as they are pushed together through an enormous rolling heat press.
My mind boggles slightly at the science of this. As far as I understand, the dyes aren't just sitting on the surface of the fabric, they are actually reacting to and combining with the 'poly' part of the polycotton, so that they become part of it. The machine is very hot.
And here is my fabric!
In the normal manufacturing process, once the fabric is printed, the transfer paper is thrown away. However, Tree has experimented with taking this home and pressing it onto fresh, blank fabric using an iron. She has produced really strong, bright prints from using the paper in this way. Chris kindly let us all take our rolls of transfer paper home so we can have a go at this ourselves.
This is the second fabric I got printed. It's a thick, quilted jersey. I'm hoping to turn it into an oversized raglan sweater.
I should've got a picture of me and Barley travelling back to Hackney on the overground with six foot long rolls of paper! But I was too busy concentrating on not taking anyone out with a cardboard tube.
It was an incredible day and wonderful to have my eyes opened to this hidden resource right under my nose. Thanks to Tree for discovering such a gem. I would encourage anyone thinking about custom printing fabric to look at Contrado. They've set up a new website that is dedicated to the fabric printing side of their business. Especially for UK sewists who are often hit with custom charges when buying from Spoonflower, this offers an incredible alternative and actually has so many more fabric possibilities than it's US equivalent.
I haven't blogged for a while (a really long while) as life got very busy, but this got me so excited I had to share, and no doubt I'll be back soon to update you all on what I made with fabric : )