For all this talk about the possibility of a New Aesthetic in fashion – digital glitch patterns, superior digital printing, video projections on garments – there's no taking away from the fact that there's the inevitable counter-digital movement. Digital print has come a long way with people like Mary Katrantzou and Peter Pilotto really paving the way and setting an example for vivid and brilliant prints that are almost iconic. However in their blazing trail, they've also inspired a whole host of very poor examples of digital print by people who thought that bunging a lazily Photoshopped file through a printer on to a silk scarf was innovative. For every fine example of digital printing, there's probably about twenty very rubbish prints that prove digital print's escalated popularity.
Gavin Insley and Mika Nash five years ago noticed a gap where traditional lo-fi screen printing could play a role within London's fashion scene. They wanted to provide short run screenprinting for designers to try out interesting textiles techniques that involved devore, flocking, metallic foil or printing bright neon or special effects inks. Gavin and Mika were Ravensbourne fashion graduates and went on to specialise in textiles and then became screenprint technicians. Mika then worked with Zandra Rhodes and Gavin became a trend forecaster. Throughout that time, they accumulated their equipment to then start up Insley & Nash. Initially they moved to an artist's studio in Greenwich and late last year, they found their tunnel hole in the depths of Deptford which I visited last week to see their screen printing set-up.
There really aren't that many screenprinters based in London that specialise in fashion and Insley & Nash are also specifically doing small runs that would service the London fashion designer community with catwalk samples. That's what makes their portfolio of work so exciting because they can afford to be extremely experimental as exemplified here. "We have a creative approach to the way we work and it would really ring true with designers," explains Gavin.
In particular, they've been working with fashion students to help realise their screenprinting needs in their final collections because screenprinting equipment is slowly being fazed out at universities up and down the country, replaced by digital printing facilities. Gavin spoke of a legendary screenprinting technician at Ravensbourne college who had to switch to becoming a digital printing technician instead, just to keep his job. It's likely that the new generation of fashion and textiles graduates won't really get to learn and understand the process of screenprinting.
This quiet and contemplative video illustrates the hands-on joy that Gavin and Mika experience on a daily basis.
Still, the current crop of designers in London are definitely showing an interest in creating prints that aren't necessarily digital. There may even be some sort of a digital backlash when suddenly their skills become in demand again. Take J.W. Anderson's resort 2013 and menswear S/S 13 collection, which features Insley & Nash's screenprinting paint dab pattern in both solid colour and a clear foil that results in this subtle shimmer bouncing off the white silk.
New menswear designer Joseph Turvey, who made quite an impact with his printed face MA collection from London College of Fashion also turned to Insley & Nash for his S/S 13 collection, which features palm tree leaves that are screenprinted over his digitally printed faces. Look closely as the leaves also disappear and fade away as the ink reacts with heat, something that Insley & Nash are super excited about designers getting into since the Hyper Global colour days of the nineties.
It's this combined prowess of digital and analogue that intrigues Gavin and Mika. "We're not anti-digital printing. Digital has had such a boom and that is completely understandable. The amount of print that is happening at the moment is because it is so easy to take a photo and get it printed straight away. Then they might be thinking 'What's the next thing we can do?' and so they might come to us and see if we can add foils, do different things and add a different texture."
Whilst digital printing is restricted to non-stretch fabrics like silks and cottons, screenprinting has a bit more flexibility and Kit Neale's latex printed t-shirts here prove that as well as demonstrating the high intricacy of pattern that can be achieved.
Insley & Nash have also worked with Giles Deacon for a while, providing a hand dyeing service which they've applied to feathers in a few of Giles' last collections. Mika is a dab hand at hand dyeing and again underlines the experimental nature of this textiles duo especially when showpieces in catwalk collections are concerned.
You can see what I mean by texture via printing as here are a few samples that they also produced for Richard Nicoll but they never made it into any final collections. A piece of PVC printed with flocking looked quite exciting. That's a call out to Simone Rocha there if she wants to reuse clear PVC again. They also experimented with gradiated coloured flocking that also looked really interesting.
Gavin and Mika took me through the process of screenprinting by first taking the screen and getting the pattern exposed on to it in an exposing unit that looked like a Mr Freeze cabinet. Once the screen is painted with light sensitive emulsion, it's laid down onto the sheet of acetate printed with the pattern and then UV light exposes the print on to the screen.
The emulsion is then washed off in this wash out bay leaving the nylon mesh screen with the pattern ready for screen printing.
Back upstairs, I had to photograph all the fun stuff that shows us how hands-on a screen printing process is… the magic inks and potions…
The roils of metallic foils that can result in some brilliant effects…
The handwhisk used to mix up inks and solutions splattered with colour. I noticed that Gavin and Mika's set-up at the studio was actually surprisingly low-key. "Screenprinting is lo-fi!" says Mika and Gavin as they point out the hand heaters they installed on rails to use as a dryer, the laundry racks used to dry the fabrics and then this kitchen whisk used to mix up solutions. It goes to show that expensive equipment does not necessarily faciliate the process and tinkering with process.
Paint splattered aprons and workwear are fascinating all by themselves and Mika's apron here is from Japan and is one of her favourites.
You can just about see J.W. Anderson's resort paint dab pattern on the acetates here…
Gavin and Mika showed me the process of devore which is where a silk viscose is burnt through with a pattern using an aluminium sulphate solution. The solution is spread all over the screen using the screenprinting squeegee back and ford. Does anyone else think this is a ridulous word? Sadly there is no other technical term for this bit of apparatus, so squeegee motion it is.
The fabric is then left to dry and then placed under the heat press. The parts with the solution on it are therefore burnt through and once washed off leave behind the thinned-out silk and the parts where the solution weren't applied are raised and retain the texture of the viscose. This is a lovely tactile technique that is especially effective with velvet where the velvet provides a more raised surface.
Gavin and Mika also gave me the opportunity to have a go having set up a grey cotton jersey scarf Blue Peter style. They said I was in for a surprise and once I had perfected my back-and-forth squeegee technique and the seemingly blue ink was on and drying underneath the heat, the colour miraculously started fading away. This was a heat reactive ink that Gavin and Mika had made up. The possibilities are endless as you can get inks that react under different temperatures and different speeds as well as being water reactive as well. For a performance-inspired designer such as Christopher Raeburn, these type of special effect printing techniques could be extremely effective. Plus, I love the fact that heat reactive inks, after getting a bit of a bad rep in the nineties with the Hyper Global fad, could potentially make a comeback.
Unlike my crap Hyper Colour tee, these inks will survive washes and once the heat was off the scarf, the colour quickly returned.
We finished up the afternoon flicking through a book of Insley & Nash's samples showcasing even more possibilities that really get you excited. I looked at the rainbow gradiated patterns, devore and metallic foiling and thought of Louise Gray and what she could do with these effects. Mary Katrantzou could create some amazing textures with the puff effects which could add some raised surfaces to her digital print. Brightly coloured flocking and matte coloured and clear foils for a designer like Christopher Kane would be like letting a kid loose in a candy shop. These techniques do exist elsewhere of course but Insley & Nash's experimental and positive way of working certainly means the process of developing interesting samples would be a lot more fun and varied. Digital printing may be dominant now but thinking of how bespoke screenprinting and photo quality prints can be combined is a mind boggling prospect, one that London's equally experimental set of designers could benefit from.