Digital Weaving

by Joe Kucharski
The Lion King (c)Disney
Nala and Simba from The Lion King, with sublimated and direct fabric printed textiles. Costume designers Julie Taymor and Michael Curry

Digital printing becomes a routine tool for the costumer 

The rise of digital fabric printing technology has revolutionized the costume world in just over a decade. It has quickly gone from an innovative means to meet the needs of the demanding worlds of Broadway and themed entertainment, where incredible scale, volume, and physical demands put upon costumes is the norm, to an accessible tool of regional theatres and universities.

The Lion King is one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time. It won six Tony Awards including Best Costume Design for a Musical for Julie Taymor and Michael Curry. The costumes feature custom-woven African textiles and a whole host of hand-painted prints and motifs. The gritty, organic quality of the costumes is what made them so successful originally, and that sustained aesthetic has made them icons of the industry to this day.

Worldwide interest in the production grew like wildfire. Disney met the needs of those interested fans with international tours and a host of global companies that were mounted from the West End to the West Coast of California, on to Tokyo, and beyond. With that came increased production of the costumes and textiles to meet the needs of each new location.

Tasked with keeping the artistic integrity of the original design, associate costume designer Mary Nemecek Peterson explains, “Almost every face fabric on The Lion King was originally custom designed and then painted, dyed, or screen printed. There was very little that we could send a shopper out to purchase directly from a store. After about 4 or 5 years, and many companies into the production, we realized that some of our artisans weren’t able to keep up with the pace of our maintenance and roll-outs.”

As soon as the second and third companies, Tokyo and Osaka, were announced, Peterson and her team created a “Lion King Fabric Store” as an organizational system to ensure the large array of costume makers wouldn’t be slowed down waiting for a textile. Even still, staying ahead of production was proving difficult, and Peterson says, “our artists were working year-round just to keep up with our orders.”

As this became an increasing problem, the team began searching for different techniques to help solve the supply chain problem. “It was around 2000 when we first asked Gene Mignola to try screen printing some fabrics that had been originally created with a time consuming Shibori resist-dyeing process. It was just impractical to have that particular fabric dyed by hand for every company.”

Keeping Up Appearances

In the years that followed, Peterson has kept a close eye on maintaining the highest of artistic quality standards, while meeting the practical needs of the production where possible by “switching hand-painting to screen-printing, screening to direct printing, and more recently from direct printing to sublimation printing. But we always start with an original hand-painted or hand-dyed piece as the initial artwork in order to keep the ‘hand of the artist’ in the design. That’s very important to Julie, and to all of us, in an effort to preserve the artisanal style that we began with two decades ago.”

Originally created out of hand-painted silk crepe, Nala’s skirt and pants were recently redeveloped utilizing sublimated printing on a polyester crepe. Sublimated printing is a technique where a mirror of the design is printed onto a specialty fabric that is then heat set onto the fabric at a very high heat. This process changes the disperse dye into a gas that permeates the fabric, creating an incredibly long lasting bond. This technique is only effective on synthetics, namely polyester, but can also be used on nylon and acrylic. Peterson explains, “between the Teen Nala and Child Nala characters we have five of those skirts in each company (including the understudies), so 50 skirts in performance around the world every week. The simple logistics of painting those skirts every year would be daunting!”

Likewise, Simba’s original hand stenciled silk crepe, rayon, and nylon pieced pants have been created with direct fabric printing on the same original base textiles. Direct fabric printing is a broad term referring to inkjet style printers that roll fabric through, spraying ink directly onto the surface of a textile. This technique can be applied to a wider array of textiles than sublimation, including many natural fibers.

“We’ve been very happy with our results, and we continue to add more fabrics to the list of things that we’re choosing to print,” Peterson comments. “We’re finding the durability and color stability to be superior to that of hand-painting, dyeing or screen-printing by far. Most items are outlasting their counterparts by at least double, and in some cases the garment will wear out before the color does.” She adds, “We also get less odd color change or fading due to perspiration, dry cleaning chemicals, and bad water conditions frequently encountered on the road.”

Moths and Spiders

Cross-pollinating with other production work, Peterson also served as associate costume designer for Disney’s Tarzan and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, both productions of which made prominent use of digital fabric printing, this time in their original development. For Tarzan, she developed digital artwork in Photoshop based on research images of insects and foliage provided by costume designer Bob Crowley. It’s important to note that any print is only as successful as the base it’s printed on. A moth costume for the show was printed on a combination of nylon organza, lycra, and mesh; a thorough understanding of the underlying textiles is still critical.

Moth, Tarzan on Broadway in 2006 with fully printed costume. Costume Designer Bob CrowleyFor Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the technical challenges of creating a highly-stylized superhero suit that can stand up to bends, twists, and flying, as  well as accommodate an entire sea of performers in a large range of heights necessitated starting with digital fabric printing. And by 2011, digital textile printing and the vendors that support it had progressed to a point that made this complex design possible.

Peterson continues, “One of the biggest advantages to digital files for printing is how simply the size can be changed. That was particularly useful during Spiderman, when we needed to have nearly a dozen different performers dressed identically every night, and their heights ranged from 5’-5” to 6’-1”.”


Growing Trend

Around that same time, digital fabric printing was starting to become more accessible to regional theatre and university costume departments. This was due in large part to direct printers becoming more affordable and the rise of online print on demand services, most notably

University of California, Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of The Arts was one of the first MFA Costume Design programs to add digital fabric design to its curriculum. Professor Holly Poe Durbin purchased a Mimaki textile printer for the Department of Drama in 2009, and it quickly became an integral part of Photoshop and textile courses, as well as utilized for department productions.

For many years, Colleen Muscha has taught fabric modification, including photo silk screening at Florida State University School of Theatre. She was introduced to digital fabric printing at the 2011 USITT Conference and began exploring how to integrate it into the university. For their first production with it, FSU utilized print on demand service, before purchasing a Diva printer sold by Expand Systems, some of the same printers used by Spoonflower. “I opted to use MX fiber reactive dyes instead of textile inks, in order to keep a softer hand to the fabric. Plus, with inks, they need to be heat set, not steam set. And the industrial heat set machine was way too high of a cost and size for us,” she explains. Muscha now teaches digital textile design as part of her computer rendering course, which focuses predominately on Corel Painter, though some of her students have used Photoshop or ArtStudio (an iPad app) for creating digital print files. While Muscha is happy with the benefits of the fabric printer, she states that “it has been a long learning curve on the use of our machine both with the software and the printer itself.”


Amber Marisa Cook, assistant professor at Conservatory of Theatre and Dance at Southeast Missouri State University has been utilizing the technology in    department productions. She explains, “because we have a large production program here, I’ve found that it’s actually less time consuming for me to create custom textiles and wait on shipping and production time, rather than spend a day away from the costume shop and class to try and buy something that I often feel like I’ve settled for anyhow.”

After a few years of being taught in theatre design curriculums and featured at national conferences, this technology is being more commonly utilized in regional theatres across the country.



The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. Costume design by Sydney Lenoir Roberts. Fabric design by Jordan Jaked CarrierAssistant costume designer Jordan Jaked Carrier studied both costume and textile design, and uses those specialty skills at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. She walks us through how she worked with costume designer Sydney Lenoir Roberts to recreate a period print for a recent production. “Since vintage clothes often do not fit modern bodies, we were having a hard time sourcing a dress that would be long enough for our actress. I spent time researching vintage prints and the fiery palette the designer was interested in developing. Using the vintage floral prints as inspiration, I developed a hand-drawn motif that I scanned into the computer. I manipulated the motif in Photoshop and Illustrator. One of the benefits of creating custom fabric is choosing the direction of the print. The designer wanted the floral motif to run diagonally across the grain in order to create a radiating effect from the center of the bust line.”


And looking down the road, the benefits of digital fabric printing look to only grow. Costume designer Charlene Gross explains “I design at a company that repeats its repertory. As those shows come back up in seasons, I foresee myself spending less time trying to find a fabric that fits within the chorus, and instead printing that fabric in order to add panels and gussets to make what I have in stock expand to fit a larger size performer.”