The Art of Reinvention

Debra Sutherland’s wearable art

For centuries, fabric designs have been limited to what the hand could create. Now, with advancements in digital textile design, complicated patterns and colors can be instantly printed by ink jet. Thanks to these recent developments in technology, Iowa artist Debra Sutherland can take her original paintings on canvas and transform them into wearable art. 

Fashion, all art forms, jewelry, antiques, ancient ruins, architecture, textiles, woods, rocks, the sky, science and pretty much all of the cosmos inspire Sutherland’s paintings. 

Early in her career, Sutherland represented artists and sold their work on the West Coast. Her move to Iowa, however, fostered the chance to “reinvent herself” as an artist. She developed the desire to start painting again, and went back to her “original passion to create.” It was when she opened a photograph of one of her paintings in Adobe Photoshop that the idea sparked to digitally manipulate her art. 

She begins with acrylic on canvas, and imagines her painting as fabric. Several different textile designs can be derived from the same image. She photographs each painting in stages, and can create new prints from a multitude of sections of the canvas. 

From there, she takes a 35mm photo of her work of art and opens the file in Adobe Photoshop. That is when “the magic begins. The naked eye can only do so much. Digital art allows me to do things that are in my mind or imagination that I could never do with my hands.”  She digitally alters the colors and pattern, then sends a jpeg file to her printer, where the design is printed on silk, cotton or polyester. One yard of fabric is generally ordered at a time, since the cost is so high and all of her production is accomplished domestically. 

One to two weeks later her fabric arrives, and that is when she gets to see the next generation of her painting. “I fall in love with the fabric and start draping on my dress form to see where the patterns fall.” To avoid fabric waste, she works with the fabric in simple squares, triangles and rectangles. Through draping she begins to see the garment come to life. With no formal fashion design background, she uses the sewing skills learned from her mother to sew her designs. The silhouettes are simple and are meant to fall in all the right places and flatter the body. 

She creates garments that “lend themselves toward the fabric,” such as full length dresses, one shoulder dresses, halter dresses, crop tops and halter tops. Her designs are also very versatile – one dress can be worn in a variety of ways. The cloth is easy to care for, and prices are moderate.

Sutherland further uses her fabric in scarves and interior design such as pillow cases. She also has a jewelry line. She sells her work on her Etsy shop “Debra Dolores Designs,” as well as in art galleries and boutiques in Iowa City, and at private sales and trunk shows. 

In April 2014 she won the wearable art competition inspired by the Jackson Pollock painting “Mural” at the University of Iowa. Her garment received rave reviews.  In the future she is interested in a license offer for her fabric designs. Her ideas and possibilities are endless. 

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