Blank Canvas

By Belinda Orzada, Nonwovens Staff | December 13, 2006

nonwoven fashion apparel & accessories could become an emerging market

In 2005, we introduced a new component to the annual student fashion show at the University of Delaware. We developed a “Blank Canvas” design competition, for which each participant was given the same fabric as a starting point for his/her designs. Parameters included a maximum yardage amount and conditions on the use of additional fabrics. The first year, muslin was the blank canvas fabric. Students were very familiar with this fabric and its characteristics.  
For the 2006 Blank Canvas Competition, students in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware were challenged to develop fashion apparel utilizing a non-traditional fabric. A melt bonded polyetherester elastomeric fabric donated by TANDEC (Kimberly Clark’s Demique) for the purpose of advancing fashion solutions using nonwovens was provided to the participating students. The lightweight (approximately 30 gram) fabric was white in color.  
Thirteen students accepted the challenge and submitted garments for the Blank Canvas component of the fashion show. Students participated in this design challenge voluntarily as an outside of class, non-graded activity. They designed and constructed garments using the melt bonded elastomeric fabric. Design students were asked to document their design process, relating their inspiration and techniques.

Design Solutions

Using a nonwoven fabric, particularly one with stretch, posed a quandary for the students. Several students initially planned to participate in the challenge but were intimidated by the fragility of the fabric. Additionally, the clingy, sticky hand made cutting and construction difficult compared to woven fabrics. Both the weight and the hand combined to affect the feed of the fabric through the sewing machine and the serger.
Because the nonwoven fabric was very lightweight and sheer, all of the designers found they needed to either use several layers of the nonwoven fabric, or incorporate a second fabric, usually a knit, as an underlayer. Neither traditional construction techniques utilized for woven or knit fabrics were ideal for the elastomeric nonwoven. As with knits, straight stitch seams were not suitable for this fabric because of its elastomeric qualities: straight stitch seams have no give, thus will break when any stress is applied. A zigzag-type machine stitch designed to allow stretch within the seam was necessary.  
Many of the designers utilized color to differentiate their designs. Two distinct coloration methods were used: dyeing or painting and use of a colored fabric under layer. Acrylic dye and paints were used by several students. They noted that dyeing changed the hand of the fabric.  
Surface design or embellishment was incorporated in several garments to overcome the flat appearance of the fabric. Designers used weaving, knotting, twisting and braiding to add a three-dimensional effect to the soft fabric.
The designs presented in this preliminary work are conceptual. The number of participants and the fabric selection limited this project. One type of nonwoven fabric, a solid color, lightweight meltblown elastomeric, was used in all of the garments. Each designer developed a unique concept, focusing on a variety of target markets. Market potential was not a criterion for garments resulting from the Blank Canvas Competition.


Descriptions of the Blank Canvas Designs
“Waterfalls” by Meghan Reeves



Colors and shapes that mother earth naturally forms were the inspiration for “Waterfalls” by Meghan Reeves, an Apparel Design junior. Her dress is an asymmetrical, one-shouldered evening gown. The skirt has multiple tiers of fabric and a slight train in the back. Braided straps and fabric flowers at the back waist highlight the design.  

Draping was used as the primary patternmaking method. She found that draping the gown in the fashion fabric itself worked best. Multiple layers were cut and pinned to a dressform. Each layer was then trimmed to the appropriate length. To design the bodice, first she draped an understructure to fit close to the body and then draped the top piece of the fashion fabric over it.

To color the fabric, Ms. Reeves mixed acrylic paint and water. The fabric was dipped into the paint, and then air-dried. To obtain the different colored layers she used different shades of blue paints, as well as the same color paint with white or black added.  For the bolder colors used in the flowers on the back, she directly painted fabric strips, which were shaped into flowers after the paint dried. This provided a stiff effect to give the flowers at the back waist a more three-dimensional quality.

Basic lining fabric (woven) was used to make a lining for the skirt and the bodice. A supporting understructure for the bodice was created using two pieces of boning in order to provide the appropriate support.  She sewed the top layers together using a basic zigzag stitch and then surged any unfinished seams. For the finishing touches, Reeves braided colored strips of the fabric for the waistline and straps. A glitter craft spray was used along the edges of the skirt and the bodice.

The main problem Reeves encountered was the vibrancy of the dye color. Her first round of dying came out streaked and uneven.  She tried a second dye bath, which resulted in a more even distribution of color because she learned not to wring out the fabric after dipping it into the paint, instead allowing it to dry on a line.  She feels the color variations work perfectly for her theme of “Waterfalls.” 


“Exquisitely Intertwined” by Brenda Greene

Brenda Greene, an Apparel Design senior, designed “Exquisitely Intertwined”
. The dress features a halter neckline of woven fabric strips, a fitted waist and full-length skirt.  Ms. Greene’s design goal was to develop texture in the very lightweight fabric.  She was inspired to do a basket weaving technique from looking at the wicker coffee table in her living room. She adapted her initial idea of a strapless dress with the whole bodice out of the weaving to one with a halter-type neckline of the woven strips of nonwoven fabric. She believes this makes the dress more striking with the woven technique just around the neck with the fringe framing the neckline.  
Ms. Greene used draping as her primary design method. A white stretch fabric is used as a lining, due to the sheerness of the elastomeric nonwoven. She found the fabric’s tendency to  stick to itself a challenge, especially during the weaving process.

Because of this she couldn’t simply weave in and out. When she attempted doing this the strips would twist and move. In order to successfully accomplish the weaving, she had to pin all the strips down to a piece of cardboard. She developed a method of strip weaving: unpinning every other strip, pulling them back, laying down the perpendicular strip, and then re-pining the strips down. She repeated this process with alternate strips to finish the technique.  

“100 Day Spring” by Elizabeth Way  

Elizabeth Way, an Apparel Design junior, was inspired by the idea of rebirth as revolution, that it could be beautiful yet damaging and very fragile as she designed “100 Day Spring.” This dress features an empire style bodice with braided waist detail, shoulder straps, and a flowing calf-length skirt. Woven orange and yellow poplin was used to add subtle color to the design.
Ms. Way used a combination of draping (the bodice) and flat pattern (skirt, embellishments) to pattern this design. Cotton poplin was used to underline the bodice and line the skirt. A stiff cotton fabric underlines the petals created as embellishment. With the bodice underlined, she was able to use a straight stitch for construction because the poplin stabilized the stretchy nonwoven. The skirt was created with gathering techniques. Color was added through linings and the transparency of the nonwoven fabric.  
She focused on the challenge of stabilizing the fabric enough to use it as a strapless garment. She wanted to eliminate the dimension of stretch because the fabric was so thin but at the same time utilize the sheerness for color development. She solved this problem by underlining the nonwoven elastomeric with cotton poplin that lent its strength and color to the sheer, outer nonwoven fabric.

“Spring Break” by Caitlin Stevens

“Spring Break” by Caitlin Stevens, an Apparel Design senior, has a boat n
eckline, kimono sleeves, a fitted waist with a crossed and tied section and a short gathered skirt. Braided fabric borders the neckline and waist detail. Her inspiration for this design came from the fabric characteristics. After experimenting with the fabric, she sought to develop a design that could be worn in a normal setting, not just as wearable art. The design is simple, but accentuates the fabric and its properties.  
She used draping techniques to develop the pattern for the fashion fabric. During construction she surged and used the overlock stitch. A blue spandex lining was used to add color to the garment. The major problem she experienced concerned the delicacy of the fabric. Sometimes it was difficult for the serger to feed the fabric smoothly.

Knot Dress by Megan Foley

Megan Foley, an Apparel Design senior, was inspired by the inherent weakness of the elastomeric fabric. She sought to manipulate it in a way that would increase its strength. Knotting the fabric in various ways was part of her design solution. The result is a three-dimensional wearable art garment. She used draping to develop the pattern for the underlayer of the dress. It is a basic shift style with a low back. The underlayer shell is 100% cotton and the lining is polyester. Both fabrics are white so that it would appear that the dress was made only of the knotted fabric. The fabric is knotted, braided and woven together. In some areas, additional strips of the fabric are interwoven through the woven sections.
Ms. Foley then painted the fabric with spray paint designed specifically to bond to plastics. After experimenting, she found it was better to paint the fabric after it had been knotted, rather than trying to knot it after painting. The paint caused the fabric to stiffen and made it more difficult to knot.
All of the knots, braids and woven sections were hand sewn to the shell garment. This was a time-consuming construction process, but the only one feasible given the thickness of the knotted sections. The weight of the garment when knotted was a challenge in design and construction. Ms. Foley used about 25 yards of the fabric, so the dress is considerably heavy and she found the weight of the garment challenged the fitting process. For example, adjusting the drape of the opening in the back correctly so that the garment would hug the curves of the body required careful consideration.

“Hidden Radiance” by Meagan Edmond

Apparel Design senior Meagan Edmond’s inspiration for “Hidden R
adiance” was to take something that others deemed  too difficult to use or plain (the elastomeric fabric) and turn it into something that is beautiful. The artistic design was inspired by Hawaiian flowers and the relaxed nature of the island. She approached the design as a normal garment and wanted it to be conceived as not over the top but as something that is seen as a gorgeous piece, created out of something that is not conventionally used.   
The pattern-making and construction techniques used were structured around the normal ways of creating a dress from woven fabrics. She draped the pieces on a dress form and cut out pattern pieces. By working with four layers together and treating them as one, she effectively reduced the stretch factor, then used a woven lining. This resulted in the fabric reacting more similarly to normal construction techniques such as inserting a zipper and using straight seams. For seams she used a three-point zigzag stitch that did not catch or pull as much as a straight stitch.   
The surface embellishment consisted of painting parts of the entire garment. She created a stencil, based on the Hawaiian theme, and stenciled a flower design on the front, back and strap portion of the dress using acrylic paint. She repeated this same technique in creating diagonal stripes in the upper portion of the dress.  
Ms. Edmond’s biggest challenge with this dress was manipulating the fabric so that it would not stretch and pucker out of place. She cut four layers and carefully worked them into the seam evenly. Even though the fabric was thicker, it still had a rough texture that does not slide or give. Another challenge was in painting the garment.  She made multiple stencils and went back over the stencil free-hand because the fabric absorbed unevenly and the lines bled slightly. Overall, she found this project extremely challenging, yet very rewarding because it proved that you can make anything work if you think through the problem.

“Orchids’ Blossom” by Jennifer Cherundolo

nspiration for Apparel Design senior Jennifer Cherundolo’s design came from a trip to the Philadelphia Flower Show. There she took photos of a variety of flowers. The orchids grabbed her attention instantly. She stated that the colors and the ruffled edges of the petals drove her design the most. The result is a three-piece dress with a halter top, skirt and braided belt.  
She used draping to develop the skirt and part of the halter top and then cut large strips of fabric to prepare to weave the bodice and the belt. She made a weaving device out of wood strips and nails in order to make the belt and the bodice top look as if it had been woven. For the bodice, she tied the strips of nonwoven fabric to the nails and ran an extremely long piece, slightly twisted, back and forth. For the belt she painted the strips first, then braided them instead of weaving them. She did not use a lining mainly because after painting the fabric it was no longer sheer. For construction methods she thought that adding unnecessary hems and such would weaken the fabric even more. Because the fabric does not fray she left the edges unfinished.
The surface design on the ensemble was accomplished by painting and stamping using acrylic paint. Ms. Cherundolo achieved this by mixing one part acrylic paint with two parts medium and painted the garment pieces. After the background paint dried, she stamped on leaves and painted on abstract flowers.
Overall, the nonwoven elastic fabric was challenging to work with particularly due to its lack of strength. She found painting on it made the fabric even weaker. To overcome this challenge she handled the fabric with extreme caution and created a design that did not pull or stress any areas.  

“White Rose” by Rosa Cepeda

The petals on a white rose were the inspiration for this design by Rosa Cepeda, an Apparel Design junior. The halter-style dress features loose flowing sleeves incorporated into a cape of petals. The dress has a v-neckline, fitted waist and full-length skirt. The back waist features additional petals and a small train effect. Ms. Cepeda used floral design techniques to develop the form of the petal. Wire was first cut, molded and twisted, and then the fabric was stretched around the wire form. After making hundreds of these petals, Ms. Cepeda hand-sewed them to the upper piece of the design. The rest of the dress was draped and sewn by hand while it was still on the dress form. She found the major challenge in making this dress was getting  all the petals to blend in together while the ones on the top were smaller and the ones at the bottom a little bit bigger. Also, measuring, cutting, constructing and applying the petals to the design was time consuming. The design took over 30 hours to be completed.  


I believe we can consider the innovation-adoption curve when examining the results of the Blank Canvas design challenge. The design competition was open to all students in the apparel design major. However, only about 10% participated. Those who participated in the Blank Canvas challenge are the innovators—those willing to take risks who are eager to try new ideas and some early adopters—opinion leaders in their social systems. This is what is necessary for nonwovens to bridge into fashion uses—designers willing to move in innovative directions with new technologies and materials. Opportunities such as this one for young designers open their eyes to the potential of non-traditional fabrics and begin the adoption process.  

 Use of nonwoven fabrics in fashion apparel is a wide open market. From the success of our Blank Canvas design challenge, it is apparent that fashionable garments can be developed using nonwoven fabrics. Moving nonwoven fabrics into the fashion apparel market will require market research including wear testing and other acceptability assessments. It is important for apparel designers to work with textile firms to spur development of products that will meet the fashion needs of aesthetics and function.  

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