Virtual Fabric Comes into its Own

Virtual fabric is not a new idea. It has been around for a few years as an adjunct to quilt and other textile design programs. It can be seen everywhere on the Web, of course, illustrating the growing number of online fabric shops such as Pinetree Quiltworks and eQuilter.com.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a strange idea. I mean, what the heck good is it? You can’t make a *real* quilt out of it; it won’t keep you warm in the wintertime. It doesn’t have the nice feel of a real bolt as you slip a few inches of it through your fingers. It’s hard to imagine that 10 years ago the corporate board of Benartex foresaw a time when they would be striking deals with software companies to reproduce their lines in pixels!

And yet that’s exactly what has happened as we have inexorably continued our quest to reproduce everything in the “real” world in the virtual world of the computer. Up to now, virtual fabric swatches have been add-ons to quilt design programs. They were the “paint” the designer used to create her virtual quilt on the screen, and as the programs and their users have become more sophisticated, they have had less patience with generic representations of fabric. They want the real thing! So QuiltSOFT, Quilt-Pro and Electric Quilt began to make designer fabrics a part of their software libraries.

With the introduction of STASH, though, The Electric Quilt Company has taken virtual fabric to a whole new level. This CD for Windows, which boasts more than 2,000 fabrics (it’s actually more than 3,000 if you include those it duplicates from Electric Quilt 4), is a standalone program. It allows you to view, organize, print, save, and export fabric swatches from the latest lines of fifteen of the world’s greatest fabric designers. And it doesn’t take up any space in your sewing room!

STASH has a relatively simple interface similar to that used in the company’s Sew Precise disks, with an expanding table of contents on the left side of the screen (alphabetical by manufacturer) and a window to display swatches on the right. You can customize the display to show more or fewer swatches (from 4 at a time to 25 at a time). A button bar at the top gives access to the program’s few basic functions.

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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