Can you explain a little about yourself and your background?
I am Alan Shaw, Industry Coordinator at the Centre for Advanced Textiles (CAT), the Glasgow School of Art. I originally came to the Glasgow School of Art from Northern Ireland as a student to study Printed Textiles (BA and MDes). Earlier in my career, I worked in the textiles industry, including four years in a print production role with Timorous Beasties. I was then involved in the formation of CAT in 2000, and I continue to manage the centre, which serves as an educational facility, an R&D centre to explore the innovative potential of digital textile printing, and a commercial service bureau that undertakes printing for companies and design practitioners.
Can you explain the project you have received Challenge Funding for?
We received Challenge Funding to work with the Alex Begg division of Moorbrook Textiles on a project with two main objectives. Firstly, to investigate how to print digitally to a very high standard onto cashmere fabric, and to test the combinations of pre-treatments, ink systems and equipment that would allow this. Secondly, to scope the feasibility of developing an online ordering system that would support bespoke, personalised designs, and (a degree of) automated production, using digital printing.
Why do you believe the textiles industry needs the project you are working on?
At CAT, we have expertise in digitally printing onto various wool fabrics for specific and niche products and markets. A company such as Alex Begg produces very high quality products in significant volumes for some of the leading brands in the world. However there still seems to be limited capacity in Scotland to provide digital printing onto high quality, luxury products at scale when working with delicate, natural fabrics such as cashmere. It is therefore often necessary to use specialised overseas suppliers for print services, including digital, which adds cost and logistical complexity, and is potentially less sustainable. In this project, we were keen to find out whether advances in digital print techniques and technology would mean that companies could feasibly undertake some of that work themselves, in-house. The second part of the project was more about developing more innovative sales channels through which to target customers directly, opening up new market segments, and keeping pace with changing consumer behaviour.
What have you managed to achieve progress on since you were awarded the Challenge Fund?
It would be fair to say that we had more success with some aspects of the project than others, but we have certainly learned a lot from the challenges of printing onto cashmere, and the pros and cons of different combinations of preparation and print processes, and intend to develop and disseminate that knowledge more fully. We received some very useful input early on from CMAC, the future manufacturing research hub at the University of Strathclyde, who helped us to gain a better understanding of the chemistry involved in different fabric pre-treatment options. It was, however, more challenging to find partners and suppliers who could provide some of those pre-treatments for us, particularly given the very small batches required for our print tests. For instance, we did not manage to source a supplier of appropriate plasma treatments in Scotland. I think this highlights the importance for textile companies of being able to access good R&D infrastructure on an ongoing basis, and it is worth considering whether higher education could do more to help in the future.
What impact has your project had, to date?
It is difficult to quantify the impact of the project at this stage, as our work to identify optimal processes and technology is ongoing. To date, we have demonstrated that with fabrics such as cashmere, it is still very challenging to match the quality of more established production methods. This is useful knowledge, which is likely to influence business and investment decisions. But further research is needed before other significant impacts can be achieved. As a result of the project, we now have an archive of samples that were produced using different combinations of treatments and inks, and we hope that might be a useful resource for the industry.
What does the future look like for your project? What are the next steps?
We would like to keep experimenting with novel techniques and technologies, to find out what we can achieve, drawing on our wealth of practical experience and design knowledge. This project has also given us a better understanding of where there are some gaps in our knowledge, and has given us an appetite to explore more collaborations with academics in other disciplines.
Alan Shaw interviewed by Kimberley White