26 March 2012

Maggie Weiss Thermofax workshop

Fabric printed with Thermofax screen.
In February, I attended a workshop led by Maggie Weiss and sponsored by my quilt guild.  We learned to print fabric using screens made by Maggie on her thermofax machine. A thermofax machine has nothing to do with contemporary faxing, or fascimile transmission, but was an early form of photocopying, predating the process perfected by Xerox.  

Every public school used to have a thermofax machine, as they were used to make transparencies for overhead projectors.  Today, textile and printmaking artists buy used machines and create screens. A high-contrast image, such as an ink toner photocopy, is run through the machine with a piece of Riso film.  Riso film is a Japanese product composed of an emulsion bonded to a screen mesh. As the image and film are heated in the thermofax machine, the carbon-based ink of the image fuses to the emulsion of the Riso film.   When the paper image is removed, the emulsion is peeled off, exposing the mesh.  The film is mounted in a frame and then fabric paint can be applied with a squeegee.  The image width is limited to 8 1/2", but the only limitation on length is manageability.

Maggie, who creates art textiles and quilts,  has been using this process for some time, and has an instructive video about it on her website (click on the thermofax menu option.)  Maggie will also make screens from your images.

Ad for ThermoFax machine, from ebay. 

My workstation.
For the workshop, we needed to bring:
Fat quarters of plain fabric
Dishpan and rags
Spray bottle of water
High-contrast images
2 Styrofoam trays (supermarket type)
Fat quarter-size felt
Plastic spoons
Fabric paint (I used opaque paints from Pro-Chem and Joann's)

Maggie provided:
Useful handout on image suitability
Duct tape
Double-sided tape
More fabric paint
Plastic frames
Squeegees - auto body scrapers from Home Depot!

Needless to say, Maggie couldn't very well lug her Thermofax machine from suburban Chicago, so she had a selection of New England-themed, pre-made screens from which we could choose.  The first screen was free and additional screens were available for purchase. Her prices are very reasonable.  I chose a brig design, below. You can see the rippling where the black ink has bonded to the film after being processed in the thermofax machine.

Brig thermofax screen, ready to frame for printing.
The first step is to bind the edges with duct tape.

Duct tape, thermofax and white plastic frame.

Duct tape binding, ready to be trimmed.

Taped screen next to black and white original.

You can faintly see the image of the brig in the thermofax, now that the paper original has been removed, taking the emulsion with it.  Next, we prepared our frames.

Plastic frame, with double-sided tape at opening.
The plastic frame has double-sided tape at the openings. This doesn't have to be perfect, just good enough to hold the duct-taped screen in place. We reserved the tape liner strips - put them back on, over the tape, when storing the frames.

Tape should overlap opening just a bit.

Screen, with duct tape adhered to frame - ready to print!

Next, we make a layered sandwich: dropcloth, felt, fabric and screen on top. I couldn't pull a print, and take a photo simultaneously (only two hands.)

From top: screen, fabric, felt and dropcloth.

Maggie pulling a squeegee across the inked screen.

In the image above, Maggie has spooned a line of purple fabric paint across the top of the screen, just below the duct tape. Holding the scraper/squeegee at a roughly 45 degree angle, she pulls the paint over the screen, then make a return pass.

Purple paint spread over screen, while rapt audience looks on.

My screen, printed and waiting in dishpan to be rinsed.     
The screen needs to be gently washed after every use.  There was often a line at the sink in the workroom, so the dishpans came in handy while we waited our turn.  With care, screens can last quite a while.

Fabric with two impressions of brig design.
By whatever process the screen is made, whether by more tradition serigraph processes or by thermofax, some of the challenges remain the same. It takes practice to use the correct amount of paint, and to squeegee it with the right amount of pressure while holding the squeegee at the correct angle.

Paint station.
Using the  thermofax machine, though, greatly simplifies the process of making a screen, when compared to making a traditional photo-silkscreen, and it's excellent for detailed images such as text.

Ideal method for text.

Would have purchased this screen in a moment!
Children's workshop product - delightful!
Maggie is a very good teacher and speaker. Once the screen is made, the printing process is very accessible to artists of all ages and experience levels, making it a good approach for children's workshops and community projects, such as the pillowcases in the image above.

Gretchen's printing at the workshop.
Everyone in our workshop seemed to be having fun and getting interesting results.

Chickadee screen ready to be printed. 

Chickadee, with remnants of Jacquard-brand paint.
Another advantage of the thermofax process is that, unlike linoleum printing, it's a direct positive image - no reversal of the original design. In addition, it's easy to flip the screen for a mirror image. I printed both brigs and chickadees facing in two directions.  I have leftover paint, so hope to experiment more with this process, now that I've had this excellent workshop on the basics.
Fabrics printed with thermofax screens.