Part of the problem for workrooms is that many designers have not been educated in fabrication techniques and have never had the opportunity to experience fabrication firsthand, so they do not understand the limitations of certain prints. This is why it is so important for designers and workrooms to work closely as a team. For a designer who does not have a strong background in identifying and working with print problems, it is always the best idea to get the workroom's OK even before selling the fabric to the customer.
Another part of the problem is that fabric companies don't quite give us all the information we need in the beginning and, in many cases, they don't understand our problems and can't answer our questions. If you have ever called a fabric company to ask if a print is a straight-across or half-drop match, you know what I mean. They understand the question as well as they would if you were talking Martian.
The more the designer and the workroom understand about the fabric and its limitations, the better the chances are of avoiding problems with prints. And by the way, it has been my experience that the more expensive the fabric, the greater the potential for problems.
Understanding Repeat Size
Every print fabric in a swatch book, memo or hanging sample will have its width and vertical repeat listed on it-maybe its horizontal repeat as well. Understanding what these numbers tell you and don't tell you is so important.
Don't make the mistake of thinking these numbers are true and accurate. First of all, it's very likely the fabric width is inaccurate. In most cases that is not important, but there are a few instances in which that would be critical. Fifty-four-inch-wide fabric is a category of fabric width. The actual measurement might be 52 1/2, or maybe 55, or maybe 55 3/4 inches, etc. Many come in exact 54-inch widths, but not always. And, of course, you never know if it's the fabric itself, from selvage to selvage, or the print that is supposed to be the ideal 54 inches.
The fabric repeat numbers are no more accurate than the fabric width numbers-and this can really get us into deep trouble. The horizontal repeat, i.e. the size of the print repeat across the width of the fabric, will not be accurate if the fabric width is not accurate. Ideally, the horizontal repeat, or a multiple of the repeat, should be just a little shy of the actual width of the print because you need a little extra print to match in a seam.
There are some prints that are exact, which means you have a butt match. As long as you have some selvage beyond that for your seam allowance, this print will work beautifully. Unfortunately, I have seen prints that are exact multiples of the horizontal repeat and include the selvage in that measurement! In this case, you cannot get a perfect match in a seam. There also are prints that have several inches more, maybe up to six inches or more, than the multiple of the horizontal repeat. This means, in order to match the print you will have to waste (cut off) all those extra inches. It also means some extra work for the workroom.
I want to warn you that there is a possibility of another problem when it comes to matching prints. One time I received a fabric that, due to the design of the print, was impossible to match. There was nothing that could be done because the supplier's complete stock was printed the same way. I hope this never happens again, but you never know . . .
With all the possibilities of horizontal inaccuracy, you can expect the vertical repeat number not to be accurate either. This repeat is critical because it is how we compute yardage. There are so many times when extra effort is made to compute yardage by working repeat to repeat so no fabric is wasted. Even a half-inch discrepancy in a repeat, which is not unusual, can throw a cut into another unplanned repeat.
In my early years in business, I did not check the yardage calculations of my wholesale designers before I cut the fabric. In one particular job, the repeat was shy by about half an inch. By the time I laid out a cut of what should have been five repeats I was short 1 1/2 inches so I went into the next repeat for a total of six. I did not know the designer had calculated repeat-to-repeat yardage for five repeats. Of course, I ended up without enough fabric and the designer had to order more. The really sad part was, had I known, I could have made do with five repeats by reducing the hem. (By the way, from then on I checked repeat and yardage before I cut!)
If you are trying to calculate yardage repeat to repeat, be sure you have some flexibility in your cut so you can reduce the heading or the hem if necessary to accommodate a shorter repeat. Doing this still may not help. I recently heard of an instance where the listed repeat was two inches short of what was listed in the book!
Understanding Repeat Position
The size of the repeat is only part of the story. The position of the repeat in the width of the fabric is the rest. The horizontal repeat size appears to tell you if there is one, two, four or whatever number of repeats across the width. This is critical information if you are centering prints in your window treatments, e.g. box pleat valances. Knowing the number of usable repeats across the width of the fabric may be crucial to your yardage calculations.
However, again we have to look at what this number does not tell us. A horizontal repeat that appears to be one repeat across the width of the fabric actually may have one main design in the middle of the width or it may be a zigzag repeat. A dominant motif in the left half width may drop down and repeat below a different motif in the adjacent right half width. If fabricating treatments where a centered design will be the focal point, you must know what the whole width looks like in order to calculate yardage correctly.
Another bit of information the horizontal repeat size doesn't tell you is whether the design is balanced or centered in the width. There may be a total of four repeats across the width, but in reality there may be only three whole repeats and two halves. That means the fourth repeat would have a seam down the middle and not be usable for centering in your treatment. Or, maybe there is only one repeat across the width, but it is not centered in the middle. When it is seamed to the next width, the seam will be off balance, which will be very obvious in a flat window treatment design.
Another very important nugget that the standard repeat information does not tell you is whether the pattern is a straight-across match, which is normal, or a half-drop match. In a half-drop match the design on one selvage will not match the selvage straight across on the other side. You must drop down half the repeat to match it. This requires more yardage and must be known at the very beginning when the proposal is presented to the customer or you may lose quite a bit of money paying for extra yardage you didn't know you needed. From what I'm hearing, half-drop prints are becoming more prevalent.
Is the print straight and square? This should be the first question every workroom asks when it opens a print fabric to inspect it. If the print is square, then the print on the left selvage will line up straight across to match the print on the right selvage in a straight-across match. Lay the fabric on the table with the selvage edge flush with the edge of the table. Use a T-square against the table edge and lay it across the width. If the print on the left selvage against the T-square matches perfectly with the print on the right selvage against the T-square, then the print is a square match. If one side is lower than the other, then it is not square and you have a drift.
If you are dealing with a half-drop match, then the measurement on the opposite selvage from the T-square should be exactly half of the whole repeat from that point to the point where it would match on that side. If it isn't exactly half, you have a drift.
Another possible problem would be if the design in the center of the width bows and is not in a straight line across. This could happen whether it drifts or not. If you are dealing with a distinct horizontal line in your print, this bow will be a major problem. It's also a problem that usually is not correctable.
Prints are delightful to design with and can do wonders for a room setting. Most of the time they do not present major problems, but there are a lot of potential problems that could develop. Understanding these challenges will alert you to take extra caution when it is merited.
The very best way to be sure the print is what you think and hope it is would be to invest in a piece of fabric that is two repeats by one whole width wide. Be sure to order two repeats not one, because whoever cuts the piece that is sent to you doesn't care if they cut right through the middle of the design. For this same reason, order an extra repeat after calculating the needed yardage.
Also, reserve the yardage you need from the same piece of fabric your sample was cut. This is the best way to know what your fabric will be like, although even a large sample may not reveal all. I have known prints to change somewhat within the same piece. Definitely beware if you have to purchase your yardage in more than one piece.
If you find problems with the sample, or if you didn't get a sample and you want to return the fabric and replace it, discuss the problem with your supplier. With hope, you can find someone at the company knowledgeable enough to understand your dilemma. They actually may have to take measurements on the stock they have. Don't just send the yardage back and request a different piece because all the inventory the supplier has may be the same. Be prepared to make the decision to choose another fabric or make do with what you have.
If enough workrooms keep asking the same questions, maybe the suppliers will provide more information-and more accurate information where possible-right from the beginning. Wouldn't it be great if there were photographs available, even black and white photos, of complete widths of all prints?
Don't be discouraged by this discussion from selling and fabricating prints. They can be a challenge, but most of us are in the workroom business because we thrive on challenges. Some of my sweetest successes were being able to manipulate prints to achieve dynamite designs. Besides, being a custom workroom, your overall pricing structure should reflect the additional time and knowledge prints demand. So enjoy and conquer!
Kitty Stein, WCAA, is a 20-year veteran of the drapery workroom field, having owned and operated her own business for 18 years and having taught classes on window treatment construction. Until 1990, Stein and a partner owned a workroom with nine employees. She since has opened her own smaller workroom, Workroom Concepts, that has just one employee. She also does workroom consulting, seminar speaking and is the author of Order in the Workroom available through Draperies & Window Coverings.