Somethings Wonderful This Way Came

Somethings Wonderful This Way Came
1970's Vintage Caftan in At Play

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Exploring the Details of Design

During last week, I was able to photograph all of the wonderful fabrics given to me by Joan, Harwood and Sophie's niece.  I focused on capturing details of some of the different designs.  There are so many.  One fabric may contain nearly a hundred design elements, each linked and placed harmoniously with its neighbors.  A great example is Seven Cities of Cibola.  I think this was one of Joan's favorites.  When she was pulling out the treasured Steiger examples from her black chest, the striking lime green base color of the fabric overwhelmed me, and I had to exclaim, What a fantastic sixties color!  And, it is.  Beyond the color of the fabric, one immediately begins to note the complex design of the silk screening.  Joan told me that this was a particularly difficult design to print.  I believe her.

The printing process was not particularly difficult in and of itself.  The fabrics would be rolled out on a very long table and then the screen would be placed, inked and moved to its next location, skipping space in a leap frog fashion so that the inks would not smudge until they dried.  Then, Harwood would come back and fill in the empty spaces, leap frogging again until the entire bolt was printed.  The problem comes in with strictly maintaining registration.  The Seven Cities of Cibola design, complex and intricate, was difficult to maintain registration exactly.  Steiger, being a perfectionist, would not sell the fabric that was not perfect.  But, also being a thrifty person, could not afford to discard the fabric.  An ingenious solution was created.  On these imperfect printing runs, Harwood would overprint another complimentary design, hiding the imperfections of the first print.  I had seen some overprint fabrics, but had wrongly assumed that these were an effort to introduce variations following Harwood's death.  Joan just laughed when I told her this.  No, Uncle Harwood and Aunt Sophie just couldn't afford to waste any fabric.  It was the most expensive part of the studio process

It wasn't until Joan gave me this beautiful green example of Seven Cities of Cibola that I was able to examine it closely.  In reviewing the photos, I just shake my head in wonder and appreciation of its divine dimension and energy.  Undoubtedly, Harwood Steiger was a collector of native symbols and a creator of interpretations of the things seen and found in the desert.  He was clearly a keen observer of desert life including all plants and many animals (the most whimsical ones, surely).  All these he gathered into his designs. 

The stencils were all hand cut.  Harwood would work out the designs while summering in New York.  One of Joan's earliest jobs as a young child while visiting Uncle Harwood and Aunt Sohpie in Red Neck, was sweeping up all the little pieces cut from the stencils.  That was such a hard job!  All those damned little pieces, Joan complained nearly sixty years later.  It really must have been a hard job, indeed.  Joan is still frustrated by the task. 

In looking at the fabric design, I'm unable to determine where one stencil ended and another one begins.  Such is the talent of this persnickitty printer.  Joan tells me that the stencils were only about 18 inches long.  This amazing attention to minute details is what makes Steiger such an exceptional artist and separates him from other silk screeners of his era.  Where most silk screeners of the mid century worked in big, bold graphical designs, Harwood Steiger's work was highly detailed, almost delicate in comparison. 

My husband often chuckles when he finds me petting my fabric.  Almost daily (and usually when he's not at home) I take out a piece from my Harwood Steiger collection and just look at it.  I find something new in each piece every time.  Sometimes I'll hang it on my quilt design wall so I can study it in its entirety.  Also, I can examine design elements easily and study how they all fit and work together to create a lovely, and may I say fascinating, fabric.  I guess I have become mesmerized by my addiction.  I hope I'll never find a 12 step program to cure me of it.

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