The story goes that Lilly Pulitzer first got into the dress business by accident. She worked at a juice stand in Palm Beach, just off Worth Avenue, and quickly realized that the bright citrus stains did not wash out from her clothes. So she created dresses that hid them. Pretty soon, the dresses drew more interest than the juice. Even Jackie Kennedy wore one that Lilly created from kitchen curtain fabric. From that point on, Lilly was in the dress business.
The main ingredient in Lilly Pulitzer's fashion line was her signature fabrics. They were works of art unto themselves in brilliant Floridian hues with flowers and novelty motifs like jungle animals. Often her name was artfully curliqued amidst the print.
Behind the Pulitzer name was another business, Key West Hand Prints, that supplied Lilly with these wonderful screen-printed fabrics. For decades, its establishment on Key West was a mainstay for the island economy.
This 1973 brochure from Key West Hand Prints factory shows step-by-step how their original screen-printed fabrics were made.
From the brochure:
- The first step in the life of a Key West Hand Print Fabric is in the selection of a subject matter for a design. When this has been decided upon, the artist creates an original design suitable for printing on a textile.
- When the design is completed it goes to another artist who does color separations of the design onto heavy plastic acetate.
- When the color separations are done, they are palced separately upon a glass topped light table. Then a wooden frame tightly stretched with man-made fibers (the silk screen) is coated with a light sensitive photographic emulsion. When the emulsion has dried it is placed over the acetate and exposed to light. After a short exposure the screen is washed with a pressure hose. Where the light has not struck the emulsion, it washes out leaving the design stencil.
- The Color is poured into the screen and by the application of a long wooden board, a squeegee, the paint is forced through the stencil onto the fabric.
- The fabric is rolled onto padded tables, carefully pinned and is now ready to be printed.
- The printed fabric is removed from the tables and threaded through an oven and cured under intense heat for a short period. This curing process alters the chemicals in the colors, and bonds them to the fabric.
- The fabric is then rolled onto tubes and is ready for use on the consumer level in fabrics for dressmaking and decorating... His and Her ready-to-wear fabric fashions... and the Custom Styles of Vanda... The Lilly... Accessories such as scarves, ties, beach towels, aprons... For the home, place mats, recipe towels, unique wall hangings, and fascinating Ends and Odds.
The demand for Lilly Pulitzer designs kept the Key West fabric industry humming through the mid-1980s, when Pulitzer's business filed for bankruptcy. But the fabrics (and Lilly's legacy) live on, in vintage stashes across the world.