I love block printing. Its such a great way to print original designs on to fabric. There are lots of different ways to block print too, in fact anything that can be coated in paint and then impressed can be used. Some traditional methods include lino, woodcut and even potato prints.
Foam block printing is a relatively new process and uses craft foam to form the print surface. Unlike the other carved methods above, with foam printing you build up your printing design on top of the printing plate. The foam is good because it has a smooth, flat, waterproof surface that is slightly spongey and makes a perfect printing medium.
As promised I've made a simple tutorial to share my method for printing with foam. I recently photographed the different steps as I made and printed my Prism design for Leslie's recent Handprinted Fabric Swap.
Foam Sheets - adhesive backed craft foam (though you could glue plain foam and glue the pieces on.)
Perspex, acrylic, card or board for the printing plate (the lovely Mr F customised mine with a handle - a block of wood screwed on)
Fabric ink - I use Aquatex and Permaset water soluble inks
Fabric - I prefer natural fibres and used linen/cotton for this project. Prewash and iron for best results.
Water for dilution and cleanup.
Paint palette - flat surface for rolling out paint, perspex, glass, a plate or a piece of wood.
Sponge roller - available at paint, craft, hardware or bargain shops for a couple of dollars.
Plastic spoons, spatula, knife for moving paint around.
Spray Adhesive or other glue.
All of these tools and materials are available through local and online art, craft, bargain and hardware shops. I used google to track down the foam online, its really cheap, just look for adhesive craft foam. I used discarded acrylic frames broken in half for my printing plates and you can buy these cheaply too.
Making the Printing Block
Your design needs to allow for the printing style, remember that smaller more intricate images will be harder to cut from the foam. It also needs to work in one colour, though you could use successive plates to build up different colours layers.
Once you have your design I find the easiest way to transfer my images is to draw them as outlines and then print or copy them to size on paper. I print two copies and use one to stick on to the foam and one to use as a placement guide for positioning. You could also draw straight onto the foam sheet if you wanted.
Spray the back of your printout with light coating of spray adhesive or other glue. (Spray adhesive is a great craft glue and a can lasts a long time, just make sure to spread out newspaper in a wide area before use to contain the overspray and maybe do it outside if you're sensitive to chemically smells.)
Stick the paper onto the backing side of the foam block. (If your design has lettering or images that need to face a certain way then they will read the right way at this stage as this is the surface that sticks to the plate.)
At this stage I wrote coding on my pattern so that once it was cut up I could put the pieces back together. Even though the print has similar pieces it will fit better next to the pieces it has been cut from. You will see later too that I used the unprinting 'star' pieces (A, B, C, D etc below) as guides between the pieces when I was sticking down the design. Its easy to get confused when all those little pieces are cut and in a pile so coding is a good way to keep track.
Once you have your pattern stuck firmly to the foam cut out all the pieces, very carefully with scissors. For smaller pieces you can use nail scissors.
I printed out my pattern twice and used the spare sheet to lay my perspex sheet over. I then traced my design onto the top surface of the perspex with indelible pen. (It would probably have worked better to have my design go right up to the edge for less overprint but I'll do that next time.) This gives me both a guide for sticking on the foam but also a positioning guide for printing to line up the pattern repeat - which is why perspex or other clear material is such a handy thing to use!
If using cardboard or board try to put markings along the edge or on the upper surface of your block for lining things up later.
Carefully stick the design pieces on to the printing plate. As I mentioned before I used the inner stars as a positioning guide for my outer diamonds but left the backing on so they didn't stick. Before removing the adhesive backing have your piece oriented the right way round and then carefully put it in place. The adhesive is very strong so you are going to want to get it lined up right the first time!
Here's a picture of my design stuck down.
Here they are with the central stars removed. One thing I didn't think of until I was printing was that it would have been better to use a different colour foam to the ink colour!
When you're ready to print set up your workspace. I usually use our dining table for printing because its nice and long. Cover it first with a layer of newspapers.
Lay out your fabric. Make sure its ironed and crease-free because it will be much easier to print on. Prewash your fabric especially if its new because it can have a finish or coating on the surface. I'm using untreated linen/cotton which is ready to print.
I roll my fabric ink out on a piece of white perspex I bought as an offcut from an art supplies shop. Its nice and flat and washable at the end. One tip, if you are mixing a colour try to make sure you have plenty of it, you will be surprised at how much ink you use, and it will be hard to mix the same exact colour twice.
I find its good to wet your sponge roller before you apply paint and squeeze it out really well first, it seems to stop the roller absorbing too much paint or coating unevenly. And if you are using water-soluble inks you can thin the paint slightly with water if it seems too thick.
Cover the foam roller with ink and then coat the block. It helps to roll from a couple of directions to make sure your coverage is even. Turn the block over, line it up with the fabric and make your first print. (You could experiment with paper at this stage but I'm always too impatient!)
Using the guides line up the repeat for printing. You could also use dissolvable pen or chalk for marking guides straight onto the fabric. Between each print recoat the block with printing ink.
Remember, it doesn't have to be perfect, that's part of the charm of handprinting. Once you commit to a position though don't change because its better to be out of line than smudged, I think.
Here's a better look at my printing setup.
Its easy to change colours, just wash the old colour off the equipment and set up for a new one. The foam on the printing plate is quite hardy and can be washed carefully.
When you're finished don't forget to heat set the paint. And leave it to dry for a day first if you have time. You want to remove the water from the ink so don't use the steam setting. I have a iron press for this but you can use a domestic iron on high for a few minutes.
Happy Printing! I'd love to hear if you use the tutorial and see your designs.
Further examples of my adventures in foam block printing here and here.