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Bucking the digital trend and doing very nicely
By Peter Kohn

An eclectic array of fashion tops, T-shirts, wall hangings and books and book covers are on display at Melbourne's Olive Grove Studios on Sydney Road, Brunswick, deep in the city's bohemian heart.

Director Roze Elizabeth runs a collective of eight designer/makers who service the local inner north east with textile items, street fashion wear and some paper-based products.

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Industrial chic. Roze Elizabeth at Olive Grove Studios holds a screen imaged with a sketch of a West Australian oil rig

Olive Grove also runs classes for the local community and provides locally produced items for sale that are made and produced by locals for the younger and designer market.

New Zealand-born Roze Elizabeth finished an apprenticeship printing self-adhesive labels 32 years ago, then "did the London trip", during which she found herself in a tiny factory printing circuit-boards ("probably one of the most boring jobs I ever had").

On returning to New Zealand, she landed a contract printing inserts for petrol pump signs displaying brand logos and types such as 'leaded' and 'unleaded'. (Later in Australia, she would work at De Neefe Signs in Melbourne, printing roadside signs for VicRoads).

She first began fabric printing during a stint in Dunedin, where she made garments and printed on them. After her sojourn across the Tasman to the bright lights of Melbourne, she eventually expanded her training with fabrics.

With the aid of a National Employment Incentive Scheme course, she later joined a small partnership that opened a studio in fashionable Chapel Street, and also worked at South Melbourne's iconic former Meat Market Craft Centre.

At the Meat Market she used assistance from the Sydney Myer Fund to start a screenprinting course  for people of different age groups and cultural backgrounds. She curated two national screenprinted textile exhibitions at the Meat Market, and served as vice-president of Multicultural Arts Victoria for a year.

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Screenprinted fabrics at Olive Grove Studios

After her time at the Meat Market, she established Olive Grove Studios in 1999. "Since then, the business has changed a lot," she reflects. "Of the eight textile makers now involved, three are screenprinters, and a couple of others are combining screenprinting with their craftmaking."

Roze offers a screenprinting beginners' class at the studio on the first Saturday of each month, which is booked out three months in advance. "I'm always surprised that people are still interested in learning to screenprint," she says. "It covers cutting and tearing techniques, using brushes and rollers - it's loosely arty, with a focus on learning the techniques."

An advanced class teaching the use of photographic stencils is also available. Photographic stencils are longer-lasting, with a life-cycle of around 2000 images, whereas basic paper stencils tend to buckle after only five images.

"Photographic stencils are especially suited to printing multiple colours, on items like T-shirts, and have a very sharp registration and the ability to retain detail, but the processing takes much longer and you have to prepare your screen more carefully."

In conjunction with consumables supplier, KraftKolour, Olive Grove also offers a short residency for a suitable graduating student from RMIT's Diploma course.

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A screenprinted canvas at Olive Grove Studios

For merchandise manufactured for sale at Olive Grove Studios, the workflow generally involves computer-generated artwork, usually tweaked in Photoshop or Illustrator, output on film, then exposed to a screen and printed onto the fabric, using either a screen table or a T-shirt carousel.

Since 1995, Roze has been teaching screenprinting at RMIT's School of Fashion, Design & Social Context, with an emphasis on screenprinting to a wide array of substrates. As someone who once suffered from industrial asthma, a condition she came down with after close encounters with toxins in an unregulated workplace, she makes a point of teaching only water-based techniques.

"The ability to achieve good film work at a reasonable price is quite amazing nowadays, especially compared to when I was a student," she states. "Having said that, screenprinting as I knew it has been decimated by digital printers, particularly the artisan-based work that I specialise in."

There is a growing trend to printing fabrics and T-shirts digitally - on large-format machines from manufacturers such as Mimaki, Mutoh and Roland. A Mutoh-engined machine can now print on stretch fabrics and deep-pile rugs.

RMIT runs a Mimaki printer that is used to teach students how to output onto polyester fabrics and is interested in adding a machine that will output to cotton fabrics.

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 Student's abstract art work. Roze Elizabeth's screenprinting courses at Olive Grove are booked out three months in advance

Other inkjet machines - that print on synthetics - can also be used to print transfers later adhered to fabrics, mostly on T-shirts, but longevity is a problem with this process.

Roze has so far resisted the temptation to jump on the digital bandwagon, apart from printing digital photo images to products like shirts and hoodies.

She sees Olive Grove Studios as a screenprinting specialist operation that caters to a very well-defined market. Many local residents have escaped skyrocketing rents in inner-city Melbourne for Brunswick. It's the sort of neighbourhood that appreciates the craft behind the products. "We've got Melbourne University down the road and RMIT at our back door, so it's an ideal location for what we do."

Olive Grove's core products are T-shirts, T-towels, chopping boards and small canvasses. It can all be mass-produced, either traditionally or digitally, in countries like China, of course. But local niches will always remain, and there will always be a market that doesn't want the bland, production-line clothing.

Those enduring qualities are sustaining screenprinting, says Roze. "The interest that's being shown in our classes indicates to me that there is still a lot of life left in screenprinting locally."