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Backing Textiles Innovation

05/13/2014

As one of two winners of a 2014 Rhode Island Innovation Fellowship, Providence-based designer Amy Bernhardt 95 PR will use her $300,000 grant to launch Colorfast, a state-of-the-art research and manufacturing facility for designing and producing digitally printed textiles. Made possible through the generosity of John and Letitia Carter, the Innovation Fellowship – which is managed by the Rhode Island Foundation – provides seed funding over the course of three years to support strong ideas with “the potential of dramatically improving any area of life in Rhode Island.” Bernhardt’s proposal rose to the top – out of more than 300 submissions – due to its innovative approach and potential impact on the state’s economy.

Bernhardt’s enthusiasm for the project is infectious. “Textiles is a trillion-dollar industry, and Rhode Island has been doing this for 100 years,” she says. “Coming back to Providence from New York in 2003, I was struck by the huge, under-utilized pool of designers and techs coming out of RISD and other local colleges. I think that digital printing will become the industry standard within the next 10 years, and we’ll be at the center of it.”

After graduating with a degree in Printmaking, Bernhardt went on to work in digital photography and graphic design –both of which tap in to her passion for process. “I love experimentation,” she says. “I was always the messiest kid in the Printmaking department!”

To celebrate her 40th birthday last year, Bernhardt treated herself to a great gift: Digitally Printed Fabrics, a RISD Continuing Ed class taught by Zoe Latta. “The class was incredible,” she says. “It touched on fashion, pattern, multiples and repeats. It felt like a lot of the things I’ve worked on over the years were finally coming together. And I just fell in love with the process.”

To design a pattern, Bernhardt typically starts with watercolors and collage, then scans the images she creates into her computer and uses Photoshop to manipulate them. The beautiful patterns that result are then printed directly onto fabric via a digital printer that’s about the size of a sofa.

“There are only a handful of schools across the country that own these printers and are teaching people to use them,” says Bernhardt. “And the process is much greener than other forms of textile printing. It uses 60% less water and 30% less energy, and you end up wasting a lot less material and ink. The huge silkscreen mills [currently used in the fashion industry] just aren’t sustainable.”

Bernhardt intends to launch Colorfast as a pilot, with experimentation and process mapping central to the program. “I see a European-style collective where design and manufacturing inform each other and we can try new things and push the technology,” she explains. She plans to start with sample machines that can print approximately 100 meters of fabric per day – versus the 6,000 meters per day of full-scale production printers – and focus on small runs, sampling for bigger factories and some pattern design. “My plan by the end of three years is to have hired four to six full-time designers and two techs,” she says with matter-of-fact optimism.

Bernhardt envisions holding workshops at Colorfast and developing an internship program in collaboration with Textiles Department Head Brooks Hagan MFA 02 TX, who has been incredibly supportive of her plans. “Zoe and Brooks have both been a huge help,” she says. “Brooks is encouraging me to develop a curriculum for interns that will make the experience mutually beneficial. If we can work with the incredible bunch of designers and smart people we have here, we can build a model for digital printing and make Rhode Island the place to be for people who want to learn how to do this.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: alumni, technology, digital, entrepreneurship, innovation, Textiles

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The men in this 1903 portrait class were serious about the business at hand.