Design inspiration

APR 5, 2008 updated May 30, 2016

I’ve been stewing for the past week about fabric design, as in how the heck do I come up with my own?  I definitely know what I like, but there are just so many ways to go when I consider the prospect of making up something from scratch.  I have a good friend who’s been running a vintage thrift shop here in Chapel Hill, Time After TIme, for the last 30 years.  When I told her about Spoonflower, she told me about a customer of hers, a fabric designer, who used to come in every few months or so to buy up enormous stacks of ’30’s era print dresses.  The condition of the dress didn’t matter–holes, tears, and armpit stains were all fine.  This customer was buying them to copy their prints.  Huh.  Research on the whole issue of vintage print copyright has led me to understand that this is a pretty common practice.  Amy Butler did it, right? 

I do love me some vintage prints and, as friend to someone who can give me access to LOTS of them, I could have all the inspiration I needed pretty easily.  But is this a legitimate thing to do?  I still can’t decide…

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  • Hi–Where are you located?
    I am a student here:
    and of you want to learn to design textiles (or any surface pattern desig—like fabrics, wallpaper, dishwares etc) –both by handpainting and on the computer,—including learning to create repeats of your design, weighed in color ways and so on…I highly recommend this school!
    I am almost finished with this program…if you want to know more, e-mail me.
    aurora at morningstarbooks dot com

  • I used to shop vintage for design ideas. Professionally, I am a textile designer for men’s boxers… so I needed a lot of paisley, medallions and tie prints. You don’t have to copy something completely to make it look like what you’ve bought. Just use the prints as a springboard for creativity. Since I started in the biz over 15 years ago, there are many books which highlight a lot of these older patters and it’s become less and less necessary to shop. Honestly, how many paisley do you need? After a while, they all start to look the same- change the color, scale or spacing and you’ve got yourself a whole new print.

  • Well said, Kim! I find all the copyright stuff confusing, too, and I’m interested to hear that there is such a thing as a vintage swatch document house that can research the public domain status of an old textile. I would be unsure how to go about investigating such a highly visual thing as a fabric pattern on my own. I certainly have no interest in lifting someone else’s work and calling it mine, however unlikely it is that I’d get caught. I think we can all agree that this is a lowdown, unethical thing to do.
    I guess I feel like where to draw the line between inspiration and copyright violation can be tricky. When I was a professional baker, the usual rule of recipe creation was that if you changed three significant things about an existing recipe, you could legitimately call it your own. Is there some sort of similar rule with design?
    As a hypothetical example, I’m not the greatest at drawing freehand, so what if I take an existing small-scale vintage floral print, enlarge the red rose in it by 200%, change the other roses from pink and blue to lime and lavender, and then add a scattered dot over the whole thing. Is this my copyrightable design now? Or not? That’s where I’m not sure, either legally or ethically.

  • I have researched this topic quite a bit, and from what I can tell, it is absolutely NOT legit to copy designs from vintage textiles unless you have permission from the original copyright owner or have confirmed that the designs are in the public domain. In reading about the Copyright Extension Act of 1998, I get confused about the exact length of copyright terms for various types of work. But it’s pretty clear that for the designs we’re most interested in — those from the 1930s-70s — it is legally and ethically wrong, wrong, wrong. Just because the original designer/manufacturer may be difficult or impossible to locate does not make it legal or ethical to re-create a design.
    There are vintage swatch document houses that research designs and ensure they are in the public domain. Amy Butler has stated publicly that she works with such houses to procure some of her designs, then re-colors and re-works them.
    A few folks in the fashion and fabric industries, however, that say it is common practice to rip off old textile designs. I would bet that the chances of getting caught and prosecuted are slim to none. That, of course, doesn’t make it legal or right.
    We all wish that there were more midcentury reproductions on the market, and this desire is at odds with our obligation to respect other peoples’ intellectual property. But: color combinations are free for the taking. Inspiration is free for the taking. Most classic motifs (e.g. polka dots) are in the public domain. Take these, mix and match, and make something you can confidently say is your own creation.

  • Many of the vintage scottie fabrics have been redone. I would really like to have some of my own original scottie fabric made but don’t have the ability to get it done. Maybe if I can figure out how to do a sample thing you might be my ticket. Some of us older folks don’t learn as fast as others.