Color Reducing a Design — What is it and Why Bother?

Most printed commercial fabrics today are made using some form of screen printing technique.  This requires a separate screen for each color which will be printed.  More colors mean more screens and higher manufacturing costs.  To keep costs down, designs may be color reduced to use fewer colors in the final manufacturing set up.

Printed commercial fabrics will often show the colors used in the printing process as numbered circles along the selvage of the fabric.  Shown below are two colorways of the same design from Timeless Treasures.  Each fabric was printed using the same screens, but 8 different colors, and the end results are different, with more contrast in the first fabric.

The design process for a commercial fabric might start with a hand-drawn or hand-painted design which is then scanned into a computer where the design and its repeat are finished.  However, scanning an image is likely to result in thousands of colors–way too many for screen printing.  A big part of the computer side of the design process is to reduce the number of colors to a manageable number–often less than a dozen–without sacrificing the quality of the original artwork.  Once the “color reduction” is done, it’s a simple matter  to change the colors to generate different colorways of the same design.

Digital printing technology allows anyone to print on fabric with virtually an unlimited number of colors.  For many situations, there’s absolutely no need to color reduce a design before printing it with either your own inkjet printer or through one of the on-demand printing services  (see here for some places to print your fabric).

Even though digital printers print with a huge range of colors, there are still some situations when color reducing a design is useful.

Color matching–When printing fabric on an inkjet printer, the colors you see on your computer screen are not always the colors you get on your fabric out of the printer.  This can be frustrating and expensive.

A way to minimize this issue is to create your design using colors which you know how they will print on fabric.  Most of the on-demand printing services offer color swatches and the corresponding digital file so you can see the printed color on fabric compared to the color on your computer screen–here’s an example of Spoonflower’s color guide.  If you’re printing on your own inkjet, you can create and print your own color guide.  When you use colors in your design from your color guide, you can be confident how the colors will print on fabric.

When you start your design with a photo or a scanned image, you might have colors in your design that you aren’t sure how they will look printed on fabric.  Using Photoshop Elements (or other digital editing tools) you can replace colors in the design with known colors from your color guide.  However a photo or scanned image might have thousands of colors, so to make color replacement manageable, the design first needs to be color reduced to a much smaller number of colors.

Colorways and color palettesTwo more reasons to color reduce a design are to create the design in different colorways or to create designs using a common color palette.  I used these techniques in creating the designs for my Echinacea collection.

I started with the ‘focus fabric’ shown below.  This design was color reduced to 64 colors.

Using Photoshop, I selected from the 64 colors in the design to create separate color palettes of blues, pinks and oranges.  Then I replaced all the colors in the design with the blues to get the blue version of the coneflowers (below).  Using this version of the design (now with about 10 colors rather than 64) I replaced the blues with pinks and then with oranges to get the different colorways.

I used the same color palettes to create the stripe fabrics to coordinate with the floral prints.  You can see more fabric designs using these colors here.

In upcoming posts I’ll discuss how to use Photoshop Elements to color reduce a design.  An example is below–the original photo is on the left, the color reduced design is in the middle, and a recolored version is on the right (zoom in to see the differences).

Dorothy:  What kind of a horse is that?  I’ve never seen a horse like that before! 
Cabby:  No, and never will again, I fancy!  There’s only one of him, and he’s it.  He’s the Horse of a Different Color you’ve heard tell about! 
–from the Wizard of Oz

[looking for a certain type of flower]   Blue flower, red thorns. Blue flower, red thorns. Blue flower, red thorns. Man, this would be so much easier if I wasn’t COLOR-BLIND!
–Donkey in Shrek

A New Fabric Contest Entry

The theme for this week’s fabric design contest at is Paisley.

Paisleys aren’t my usual area of design, so I did a bit of background research and learned that the paisley design dates back many centuries to India and the Middle East.  It’s still popular in Iran and in South and Central Asian countries, which explains the Azerbaijani pants at the 2010 Winter Olympics. The western name comes from the town of Paisley in Scotland.

Here’s my modern take on Paisley (believe it or not, this is simplified from my original versions).  You can see all the entries and vote for your favorites here.

One More Fabric Comparison

Someone reminded me today of another fabric “experiment” that I did–one that looked at the affect of sunlight on the fabric.  I again used the three samples — one an inkjet print on glossy photo paper, one a Spoonflower sample, and one printed on fabric using my Epson printer.  These are the samples before exposure to the sun.

I taped three swatches to a sunny south-facing window for 4 months.  Here are the results.  (Note that the Spoonflower swatch below is different from the swatch above, but the colors are very similar.  The other two swatches are the same ones in both photos.)

The Spoonflower fabric held up quite well to the sun exposure, but the ink jet prints faded significantly.

Echinacea Fabric – Comparing Designs to Fabric

I just received the fabric swatches of each of the designs I made for the Echinacea collection–very exciting!  Up to this point, the designs only existed on my computer monitor, but now I have them in real fabric.  Here’s a photo of the fabric with the 24 swatches (it definitely looks better in person).

To get an idea of the difference between seeing the design on a computer monitor and the design printed on fabric, here’s a picture that includes the digital design on the left and a photo of the actual fabric on the right.  I tried to get the colors of the photo as close as possible to the actual fabric colors, but the fabric background is a bit bluer than this photo shows.  You can see all the digital designs on my fabric page.

After seeing the fabric, I made a few minor adjustments to some of the designs.  I’m not sure how the blue flowers in the upper left swatch got so gigantic, but I changed the size to an 8 inch by 8 inch repeat — the same repeat size as the other flowers.  I also changed the size of the multi-colored flowers (row 4, second from left) to also be 8 by 8 inches — this swatch shows it at 12 by 12 inches.  I modified the stripe colors in the pink, blue and orange striped fabrics in row 2.  In each of these samples I didn’t think there was quite enough contrast between the stripes.  I think this was mostly an issue of some of the colors being “out of gamut” for the printers that Spoonflower uses — basically the colors I saw on my computer monitor weren’t printed the same way by Spoonflower.  This photo below shows this issue with the orange stripe design.  On the left is the original design with an arrow pointing to some of the bright orange that was out of gamut.  In the middle is the fabric with the arrow pointing to the same part of the fabric, but the orange color is not as vibrant and the contrast between the stripes is too low.  On the right is the design with the corrected colors — the orange is a bit darker now and there’s more contrast.

My Early Experiments with On-Demand Fabric Printing

I started making my own fabric designs in 2009, partly because I discovered a company (Spoonflower) that would take your digital image and print it on fabric.  Prior to that time, I’d done some printing on fabric using my own ink jet printer.  However, I never got results that I was satisfied with when printing on fabric.  I had color-calibrated my computer monitor, and when I printed on good quality ink-jet paper the results were fine, but I could never get that to translate to good colors on the fabric.  Combined with the potential for the inkjet prints to fade over time, and the high cost of ink, using the inkjet printer wasn’t a good option for me.

I decided to give one of the print-on-demand services a try.  I thought I’d make a quilt for my nephew using a few photos he’d taken – photos of dramatic clouds, a close-up shot of a rusty grill, and a photo of a leaf.

I made various kaleidoscopic images using Photoshop and a free plug-in (available here).  I then laid out all these kaleidoscopic images into one file that corresponded to one yard of fabric (i.e. 42 inches wide by 36 inches long).  I uploaded the file to Spoonflower and waited for my fabric.  It was really exciting when the fabric arrived—there’s something very cool about seeing a yard of your own fabric design.  I had rushed through the design part in my impatience to get the fabric, so not all the squares are the same size and not all are exactly square, but I loved the fabric and I was hooked.  This picture shows the yard of fabric, and you can view the resulting quilt here.

With all the fun I had making kaleidoscopes from photos, I designed another yard of fabric, this time with 132 different 2.5 inch square kaleidoscopes, made using flower photos I’d taken.  From this fabric, I’ve made a few small quilts for the Alzheimer’s Art Quilt Initiative, and you can see a couple of them here or here.  Following this, I designed another yard of fabric with kaleidoscopic images — this time based on photos of Chicago architecture I took while on a river cruise (you can see one of the Chicago quilts here), and then another yard using photos of a lake and lily pads.  I still have quite a few of these squares left 😉

For holiday gifts a year ago, I printed some photos on fabric, using Spoonflower, and made one small whole cloth quilt (here) and a couple small quilts where I fused the photo onto a larger piece of fabric (here and here).

This photo compares the same image printed 3 different ways — on the left is the image printed with an ink jet printer on glossy photo paper; in the middle is the Spoonflower fabric sample; on the right is the image printed with the ink jet printer onto fabric.  Each of these samples is 2.5 inches square.  Compared to the print on photo paper, the Spoonflower swatch has colors which are fairly true and the detail is quite crisp.  The swatch printed with the ink jet on fabric has colors which are quite washed out.  This comparison shows why I’m hooked on printing fabrics using Spoonflower.

Note:  while I only have experience with Spoonflower, there are other on-demand printing services, including Fabric On Demand, Karma Kraft and Eye Candey.