A Memorable Fabric

After my visit in May to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, I was fascinated by the lattice structure of ferrite core memory. I thought it would make a great fabric pattern that was abstract enough to appeal to regular folk, but had a higher level of techno-geek meaning to it.

Read on for the story of how I went from the rough concept sketch above to a finished design printed by Spoonflower, an online service offering on-demand fabric printing.

The first order of business was getting a good image to base the pattern on. The one I’d taken at the museum wasn’t strong enough, so I turned to Google image search and found a photo of Univac memory that gave me a starting point.

The design started in Adobe Illustrator, where I set out the pattern of wires, then drew rings over the intersections. I used the 3D Extrude & Bevel tool to give the cores some depth and rotate them into the right alignment.

When they were done I moved over to Photoshop for the mind-numbing exercise of carefully erasing the wires where they had to pass through each core. Each of the four directions of wire needed two layers, with one for the segment that went into the front face of the core and one that came out of the back face of the core. I ended up with a PSD containing a dozen layers with names like Upper Diagonal Up, Upper Diagonal Down, Lower Horizontal, Core Highlight, & Core Shadow.

With that done came the work of testing the pattern itself to make sure it repeated well. To create a pattern in Photoshop, select the area you want repeated, then choose “Define Pattern…” from the “Edit” menu. Name the pattern and save it. Then open a new, larger document and choose “Fill…” from the “Edit” menu.

It turned out that I’d missed some pieces at the corner that didn’t show up until I repeated the pattern across the screen. After cleaning those up, I printed up some color copies at two different sizes and with different background colors, and stuck them on the fridge to glance at over the next few days.

I found that when I focused too hard on the pattern, sitting in front of it trying to decide what would look best, I couldn’t come to a decision. But when I stuck it up where it would catch my eye in passing, it was easier to make a judgement. This makes some sense because that passing glance is how it would be seen most often in a finished product. Through this process I realized that the larger pattern was the best.

Here’s the file I sent off:

That’s it.  Just those sixteen cores. They would be repeated across and down the fabric automatically.

And here’s the 8×8 inch sample that came back six days later:

Pretty cool! And only five bucks!  I was psyched, and spent a few days folding it into different shapes — neckties, headbands, bags — to imagine how it would look in a finished design. Eventually I came to realize that the design was too literal. The highlights and shading detracted from it by taking it out of the realm of pattern and into that of a more concrete picture.

For my second stab at it, I used the same basic design but went with a simplified two-color core: one color for the face color and for the edge. The wires became thicker and solid red, and all of the elements had a white border applied to set them off from the background.

Now that pops!

I was confident enough in the pattern that I ordered a larger quarter-yard piece of sateen for something like a necktie and an 8″x8″ sample of a heavyweight upholstery fabric that I planned to eventually order more of to use in an iPad or Kindle case.

The fabric arrived about a week later, but the sateen had some printing problems that caused the bottom half of it to be blurry. The photo below has the good half folded over on top of the bad half. It’s especially evident in the white lines (or lack thereof) bordering the red.

I emailed SpoonFlower and to their credit they were quick to respond and reprinted it without any hassle. They even sent the replacement fabric via FedEx 2nd day air, which wasn’t necessary but was much appreciated.

Stick around for some photos of a couple of finished pieces I made. I’ll try to post those in the next few days.

If you want to order this fabric and make something for yourself, you can do so here through SpoonFlower. I’m currently adding a few background color variations, but have to order test swatches before I can sell those. If you order some and make something, please share a picture or link.

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