“If you want to do the job correctly, you have to have the right tools,” was a mantra of my grandfather, who was a jewelry designer and gemologist for close to 50 years of his life.
I’ve always taken this to heart in my own design practice, as I 100% believe a good grasp on the technicalities of your medium/tool/softeware/etc will not only determine how polished your final design looks, but also how quickly you can execute it. Fabric design has always called for a general knowledge with a wide range of traditional artistic tools, but, as with everything else, fabric design for manufacturing has gone digital, and what’s followed is kind of a total mess.
Warning: this blog post is totally geared towards a super niche audience, and will get super technical, but if you’ve ever been curious about the tools and software used to design fabric for mass production, read on! For those who do not care about this and are abandoning me now (suggested), here is a cute otter and kitten gif. I will leave you with this, and thank you for stopping by.
Anyway, for the rest of you…
Lately, I’ve had a few clients ask me some questions about the textile design process and the software specific to fabric and surface design. They’re curious about workflows, and speed, and which tools do what work faster. I actually have some real opinions on this, as it’s pretty much affected my whole career. I’m definitely still (probably?) in the more formative years in my career in fashion textiles and soft goods, but seven years in I’m beginning to notice some shifts and evolutions within the industry, especially with how things get made and get done.
So far I’ve experienced workflows in three different programs: NedGraphics, Kaledo, and Adobe Creative Suite. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, and I for sure have a very opinionated take on this, having seen the back and front ends of a lot of these means of production. I’ve worked in all three. I was trained in Kaledo’s headquarters in Midtown in New York. I worked extremely briefly at NedGrahpics’ main office. And I’ve been working in Adobe since I was about thirteen. I really have reached peak levels of nerdiness about this that I never thought possible.
Okayyy, here we go.
NedGraphics is a CAD software system billed for creating prints, woven textiles, and knitted textiles. Ned breaks itself into things it calls “modules”. Each module acts like it’s own independent program that does a very specific part of the surface design process. Some parts of the software do specific knits, some do screen printed fabrics, some even project your artwork onto a 3D garment or furniture. It has about fifteen of these modules, all operating independently of each other.
The UI is a bit clunky. It lays way far outside what I would consider standard for image editors or other modern CAD softwares for print design, and it’s especially strange to me that the softwares have been pieced and parted out across all of these different interfaces. It definitely feels the most niche, and old-industry.
NedGraphics is bitmap based, meaning that the artwork you produce inside of it is pixel-based so you build your artwork in tiny little squares. This gets important later because it directly affects how artwork is scaled, and the size of what you’re designing for becomes the most important thing.
It has tools that help you manage assets accross all manners of textile design, like saving individual motifs, and saving color palettes. But what I think is especially valuable about programs like NedGraphics is how detailed you can get spec-wise for production. These programs are awesome for weave and knit production work. Like feeding-information-to-a-digital-loom or knitting machine type of production work. You can basically program your artwork to be produced en masse in this software, which is super specialized. It’s great if you want to make sure you’re controlling all aspects of your production line, or if you’re the actual means of your production. Like I imagine this type of software is necessary or awesome for factories.
Basically in these softwares you can build artwork that directly controls these machines.
The level of detail you can get in the production control is pretty nuts, but honestly a lot of modern production basically boils down to showing a picture to a factory attached to a physical fabric sample and asking, “Soooo, can you like make this for me?”
And they’ll be like “Yeah dawg,” or “Nah, son” depending on their capabilities. But, at least in my opinion, these kinds of heavy lifting softwares are usually super underutilized in a design studio unless you’re the one literally programming the loom.
NedGraphics was overall my least favorite thing to design in as a user. For what I was doing, it just felt clunky and unintuitive. There was a lot of bloat and not a lot of function or quick processing for what I needed to create at the end of the day. Their main market and user-base seems to be in the carpeting, housing, and car textile industry, and working accross so many different modules to produce one piece of artwork really interrupted my workflow. The software itself is a hulk and you can barely run more than one module at once. I can do so much more in Adobe, so much quicker, while also producing a better quality product, but that’s for later in this post.
SURFACE DESIGN NERD GRADE: D+
Oh Kaledo. I have a super soft spot in my heart for Kaledo, and like I said I was super lucky enough to have my old workplace sponsor my training at their headquarters. Maybe it’s because I thought my instructor was amazing and told me about her friend that financed her house in New Jersey by designing tacky Christmas sweaters, or how she let us have long lunches in Bryant Park where I would sit in the grass, read American Savage, and watch some weird dude take photos of some lady’s feet.
But I think it had something to do with the UI. I used to joke that Kaledo was Microsoft Paint on steroids, which, if you think about it, if it’s a bitmap-based image creation software, it probably is. I worked mainly in it’s 3 different modules – Weave, Print, and Knit.
These are seriously a joy to work in. If you’re a big Adobe person, these will feel the most familiar to you. Kaledo Weave is amazing. You can basically build the physics and properties of the fabric fiber inside the program, and it will do it’s best to render it based on weight and properties. You can control the weight, color, size, fuzziness, etc. It’s pretty amazing. With weave you’re literally building just that, a weave. I used it mostly for designing plaids and yarn dyes. Kaledo is also great for controlling how the fabric is produced. Each sample you create also automatically generates it’s own color-coded peg-board, which is an awesome bit of information to send to the factory if you’re quality-obsessed, which you definitely should be.
Kaledo Knit is also pretty amazing. Imagine having a paint brush, but instead of painting with paint, you painted with little loops of yarn. You can literally paint sweaters. It’s insanely fun. You can even stamp images into the program to make what it would look like as a sweater.
I chose in my very serious company-sponsored training to make a Drake sweater which has yet to be produced anywhere, but if you’re into it, get at me in my contact form.
It’s crazy versatile, and also produces data after the fact that helps the vendor program their machine to actually produce the garment.
Kaledo Print was awesome, and was super quick with cleaning and producing artwork for repeat. But, I have to say, this was definitely the most unnecessary program to me. The best part about it was definitely how screen separation for screen printing was an easy step, but it wasn’t anything Photoshop can’t do quickly as well. It’s also awesome to see things in live-repeat. In Kaledo print you can actually pull motiffs onto a print and see where and how the print will lie as a big design. It’s crazy awesome, but again, nothing you can’t do quickly in Illustrator or Photoshop. Print is like the loweest hanging fruit of textile and fabric design. You don’t necessarily have to program a giant machine to create or manufacture the fabric. It’s mostly either digital printing or screen printing, which is still fairly easy to do. The thing that I totally miss about Kaledo Print, though, is it’s recolor function where you could pick a certain color palette and with one button, randomize those colors to switch inside of the artwork, and produce like 10 different colorways of one design in like 2 minutes. That’s awesome and everyday I pray for Adobe to add a tool like that to illustrator. The live color comes close, but doesn’t come close.
SURFACE DESIGN NERD GRADE: B-
So all of this said about 50% of my time has always been spent creating fabrics for print, and I thought it was kind of weird to be working in this giant monolithic software where we weren’t even utilizing most of their functions. I honestly barely ever got to touch the Knit module in Kaledo because the sweater team had their own process that worked really well for them when it got to production. But to be frank, most of what I was doing in Kaledo I could deliver in Photoshop and Illustrator in half the time it took me to build in Kaledo, except when we were building yarn dyes or jacquards for the shirting department.
Creating fabric for print requires a lot of artwork creation and manipulation, and there’s nothing that beats creating and iterating digital artwork in Adobe Suite. The pen tool in both programs is like a a miracle in itself. Brushes are painstakingly developed to model real artistic tools, while in Kaledo they mostly felt like super pixelated haphazard creations. Scaling individual pieces of artwork in Kaledo or Ned also felt like the worst thing ever. In Photoshop it can be kind of a nightmare too, but nothing beats a fluid, beautiful Illustrator vector.
Adobe has better software support as well. They’re gigantic with offices in most major cities, and their data collection on all of us guinea pig users likely feeds really useful direction in R&D for the UI and future tools. There’s also a community built around showing tips and tricks to each other. A quick google search of Adobe tutorials returns like 10 million times more results than one for Kaledo or NedGraphics. The open support of the community of users really significantly speeds up work, as there’s always some new function to learn.
It’s so crazy to think of how powerful Adobe is for how little it costs. It’s like industry standard accross so many creative industries from fashion design, photography, web design and even game design. One person could use photoshop one way their entire life and never even realize it could be used for this entirely different function.
I totally sound like an Adobe shill, but I promise I still pay like $50 a month for it, which is very sad. But if Adobe would like to sponsor me in any way, I’m totally down to be a cheerleader for Creative Cloud.
SURFACE DESIGN NERD GRADE: A+
Anyway, those are my opinions. So you can totally disagree in the comments if you want, but if you have any more quesitons from me about how to find these softwares or what is industy-standard or nerdy stuff like that get at me. I love answering questions like those.
At the end of the day it really is all about the quality of the execution, so I mean if you’re actually really good in Microsoft Paint, you could probably create some pretty awesome repeats in that and send it directly to Spoonflower. There really is no right answer for these things.
Anyway, happy designing!