Virtual Fabric Comes into its Own

The concept of virtual fabric is not brand new. It has been utilised as a supplementary component in quilt and other textile design applications for a period of time now. It is possible to find it pretty much anywhere on the Internet, which is a testament to the proliferation of online fabric stores like Pinetree Quiltworks and eQuilter.com., amongst others.

When you give it some thought, it’s not exactly the most rational proposition. What the heck is the point of that, anyway? It is not possible to build a “genuine” quilt out of it, and using it throughout the winter will not help you stay warm. When you slide a few inches of it through your fingers, it does not have the satisfying feel of a real bolt. It is difficult to believe that the corporate board of Benartex envisioned a period ten years ago when they would be making deals with software companies to duplicate their lines in pixels!

And yet, this very thing has taken place as we have steadily maintained our mission to recreate everything that exists in the “actual” world in the “virtual” world that exists on computers. Virtual fabric swatches have, up to this point, only been available as add-ons to quilt design software. As the programmes and their users have become more sophisticated, they have had less patience with generic representations of cloth. They were the “paint” that the designer used to build her virtual quilt on the screen. They are looking for the genuine article! This resulted in QuiltSOFT, Quilt-Pro, and Electric Quilt beginning to incorporate designer fabrics into their own software libraries.

The Electric Quilt Company, on the other hand, has brought the concept of virtual fabric to an entirely new level with the release of STASH. A standalone application, this CD for Windows claims more than 2,000 different fabrics; if you include those that it duplicates from Electric Quilt 4, the total number of available fabrics is actually greater than 3,000. It gives you the ability to examine, organise, print, store, and export fabric swatches from the most recent lines of fifteen of the most well-known fabric designers in the world. Additionally, it won’t take up any area in your sewing studio at all!

An expanding table of contents can be found on the left side of the screen (organised alphabetically by manufacturer), and a window to display swatches can be found on the right. STASH’s user interface is relatively straightforward and is very similar to the one used in the company’s Sew Precise discs. You have the ability to change the display to show a greater or lesser number of swatches (from 4 at a time to 25 at a time). Access to the program’s few fundamental features is granted via a button bar located at the very top of the interface.

It’s kind of fun to imagine the dialogue that might have taken place when this program began to take shape and its central metaphor was developed:

“So we scan a bunch of fabrics into the program, but what should you be able to do with them?”

“Well, what do people do with REAL fabric?”

“Look at it. Touch it. Sew with it.”

“No, I mean what do they REALLY do with it?”

 “BUY it and stick it in a chest!”

And so STASH was born, and the main actions that can be taken in it all involve a shopping bag. You can create a shopping bag, put swatches in a shopping bag, save, print, and view a shopping bag. You can have as many bags as you want, each saved in a file with the file extension of (what else?) .bag. It’s the virtual equivalent of visiting the fabric store.

And after you put it in the bag? Some of the stash actually gets used eventually, doesn’t it? Well, you can export it in bitmap form into a variety of other applications. You can use it as a background for your web page, or decorate letters to your friends. You can send it by e-mail to somebody you wish to share it with, including perhaps one of those online fabric stores to see if they have it in stock.

When I first started playing with STASH, I became mesmerized by the beauty of the fabrics. In some ways it’s a better way to view fabrics than to see them in a fabric store. Many quilt stores organize their fabrics by color, which makes sense if you’re shopping that way, but having them laid out in complete sets by designer lets you appreciate them in new ways. You can see the same design in several different colorways and you can easily see the creative influence of a single sensibility. The designer lines in the program run the gamut from Thimbleberries and Debbie Mumm to Kona Bay’s luscious Asian influences and Kaffe Fassett’s bright bold Madras plaids. If you’re a person who gets inspiration for your quilts from seeing fabric you like, then this program will be a big boost to your creativity.

Many quilting teachers teach the “theme fabric” method for choosing colors for a quilt. You find a fabric you like with a number of colors in it, and you then choose other fabrics to complement it. STASH creates a new way to do that by providing a wonderful utility that allows you to search the entire CD library by color. It will find every fabric in every designer library with the color you choose. While you will still need to go and look at the fabrics “in the flesh,” this gives you a good start and suggests combinations and possibilities you probably hadn’t thought of.

The ultimate use of this fabric library, of course, is with a quilt design program. STASH is part of the Electric Quilt Company suite of programs and adds a major new dimension for users of Electric Quilt 4, the company’s flagship product. By putting the STASH CD in your computer’s drive, you effectively expand EQ’s fabric library by some 2,000 designer fabrics. All the old familiar favorites are there, on the new disk (no need to do any switching with the EQ4 disk), along with the STASH libraries, clearly labeled and ready to go. These can be saved into your project files and used in the design of your quilts seamlessly (no pun intended) and with no fuss.

Like so many things virtual which seem silly or frivolous at first (what possible serious use can there be for chat?), STASH reveals new ways to enhance our creativity each time we play with it. Even real fabric, after all, is primarily an aesthetic experience. Plain old gray wool would do to keep us warm, but the beauty and appeal of fabric design is as old as civilization. STASH gives us another way to enjoy it as well as put it to practical use.

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