JavaScript
Article
By Hugo Giraudel

A Simple Gulp’y Workflow For Sass

By Hugo Giraudel

I have recently been in charge of optimizing the Sass side of quite a big Rails project, and one of most important things to do was to improve the compilation time. Because of the Sass architecture in place and the fact that Ruby Sass (through the Rails asset pipeline in this case) tends to be slow when dealing with a huge number of files, it could take up to 40 seconds to compile the stylesheets. Talk about a fast development process. :)

My idea was to move away from the asset pipeline and embrace the speed of LibSass. To make things easier I decided to go with a simple Gulp workflow. It was the first time I would be using Gulp, and I must say it was quite an enjoyable experience (which was not the case for Grunt as far as I am concerned).

In this short article, let’s just have a quick tour on how to set up a Gulp’y workflow to work with Sass. Here is what we will include:

  • Unsurprisingly, Sass compilation with LibSass
  • Generating sourcemaps for easier debugging
  • Prefixing CSS with Autoprefixer
  • Generating Sass documentation with SassDoc
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Compiling Sass

The first thing to do is to install the dependencies and to create a Gulpfile.js. We will need Gulp (no shit, Sherlock), but also gulp-sass to compile our stylesheets:

$ npm install gulp gulp-sass --save-dev

This line tells npm to install both gulp and gulp-sass packages as development dependencies. You can now find them in the devDependencies object of your package.json. And the Gulpfile.js:

var gulp = require('gulp');
var sass = require('gulp-sass');

Wow, that was short. What we need now is a task to run Sass (actually gulp-sass) on our stylesheets folder.

var input = './stylesheets/**/*.scss';
var output = './public/css';

gulp.task('sass', function () {
  return gulp
    // Find all `.scss` files from the `stylesheets/` folder
    .src(input)
    // Run Sass on those files
    .pipe(sass())
    // Write the resulting CSS in the output folder
    .pipe(gulp.dest(output));
});

That’s it! We can now compile our stylesheets using LibSass thanks to a very minimal Gulp task. What about that? We can pass options to gulp-sass to compile stylesheets in expanded mode and to print errors in console:

var sassOptions = {
  errLogToConsole: true,
  outputStyle: 'expanded'
};

gulp.task('sass', function () {
  return gulp
    .src(input)
    .pipe(sass(sassOptions).on('error', sass.logError))
    .pipe(gulp.dest(output));
});

Adding sourcemaps

So far, so good. Now, what about generating sourcemaps? In case you don’t know what sourcemaps are, it basically is a way to map compressed production sources with expanded development sources in order to make debugging live code easier. They are not restricted to CSS at all, sourcemaps can be used in JavaScript as well.

We have a nice article about sourcemaps here at SitePoint. Feel free to give it a read before going on if you feel a bit short on the understanding of sourcemaps.

Okay, so to add sourcemaps generation to our task, we need to install gulp-sourcemaps:

$ npm install gulp-sourcemaps --save-dev

And now let’s optimise our task:

var gulp = require('gulp');
var sass = require('gulp-sass');
var sourcemaps = require('gulp-sourcemaps');

// ... variables

gulp.task('sass', function () {
  return gulp
    .src(input)
    .pipe(sourcemaps.init())
    .pipe(sass(sassOptions).on('error', sass.logError))
    .pipe(sourcemaps.write())
    .pipe(gulp.dest(output));
});

By default, gulp-sourcemaps writes the sourcemaps inline in the compiled CSS files. Depending on the project setup, we might want to write them in separate files, in which case we can specify a path relative to the gulp.dest() destination in the sourcemaps.write()function like:

gulp.task('sass', function () {
  return gulp
    .src(input)
    .pipe(sourcemaps.init())
    .pipe(sass(sassOptions).on('error', sass.logError))
    .pipe(sourcemaps.write('./stylesheets/maps'))
    .pipe(gulp.dest(output));
});

Bringing Autoprefixer to the party

I won’t go into much detail about why using Autoprefixer is better than writing vendor by hand (or with a mixin which is basically the same thing), but roughly Autoprefixer is a post-processing step meaning it actually updates already compiled stylesheets to add relevant prefixes based on an up-to-date database and a given configuration. In other words, you tell Autoprefixer which browsers you want to support, and it adds only relevant prefixes to the stylesheets. Zero effort, perfect support (please remind me to patent this catch phrase).

To include Autoprefixer in our Gulp’y workflow, we only need it to pipe it after Sass has done its thing. Then Autoprefixer updates the stylesheets to add prefixes.

First, let’s install it (you get the gist by now):

$ npm install gulp-autoprefixer --save-dev

Then we add it to our task:

var gulp = require('gulp');
var sass = require('gulp-sass');
var sourcemaps = require('gulp-sourcemaps');
var autoprefixer = require('gulp-autoprefixer');

// ... variables

gulp.task('sass', function () {
  return gulp
    .src(input)
    .pipe(sourcemaps.init())
    .pipe(sass(sassOptions).on('error', sass.logError))
    .pipe(sourcemaps.write())
    .pipe(autoprefixer())
    .pipe(gulp.dest(output));
});

Right now, we run with the default configuration from Autoprefixer which is

  • Browsers with over 1% market share,
  • Last 2 versions of all browsers,
  • Firefox ESR,
  • Opera 12.1

We can use our own configuration like so:

var gulp = require('gulp');
var sass = require('gulp-sass');
var sourcemaps = require('gulp-sourcemaps');
var autoprefixer = require('gulp-autoprefixer');

// ... variables
var autoprefixerOptions = {
  browsers: ['last 2 versions', '> 5%', 'Firefox ESR']
};

gulp.task('sass', function () {
  return gulp
    .src(input)
    .pipe(sourcemaps.init())
    .pipe(sass(sassOptions).on('error', sass.logError))
    .pipe(sourcemaps.write())
    .pipe(autoprefixer(autoprefixerOptions))
    .pipe(gulp.dest(output));
});

Watch AtoZ: Sass

Learn Sass letter by letter

Release the docs!

The last, but not least, tool to add to our workflow, Sass documentation generation with SassDoc. SassDoc is to Sass what JSDoc is to JavaScript: a documentation tool. It parses your stylesheets looking for comment blocks documenting variables, mixins, functions and placeholders.

If your project uses SassDoc (it should!), you can add the automatic documentation generation in your Gulp workflow.

The cool thing with SassDoc is that it can be piped directly in Gulp because its API is Gulp compatible. So you don’t actually have a gulp-sassdoc plugin.

npm install sassdoc --save-dev
var gulp = require('gulp');
var sass = require('gulp-sass');
var sourcemaps = require('gulp-sourcemaps');
var autoprefixer = require('gulp-autoprefixer');
var sassdoc = require('sassdoc');

// ... variables

gulp.task('sass', function () {
  return gulp
    .src(input)
    .pipe(sourcemaps.init())
    .pipe(sass(sassOptions).on('error', sass.logError))
    .pipe(sourcemaps.write())
    .pipe(autoprefixer(autoprefixerOptions))
    .pipe(gulp.dest(output))
    .pipe(sassdoc())
    // Release the pressure back and trigger flowing mode (drain)
    // See: http://sassdoc.com/gulp/#drain-event
    .resume();
});

Note that depending on the size of your project and the number of documented items, SassDoc can take up to a few of seconds to run (rarely above 3 as far as I’ve noticed), so you might want to have a separate task for this.

gulp.task('sassdoc', function () {
  return gulp
    .src(input)
    .pipe(sassdoc())
    .resume();
});

Again, we use the default configuration but we can use our own if we want to.

var sassdocOptions = {
  dest: './public/sassdoc'
};

gulp.task('sassdoc', function () {
  return gulp
    .src(input)
    .pipe(sassdoc(sassdocOptions))
    .resume();
});

I’m watching you

There is still something we can do before leaving: creating a watch task. The point of this task would be to watch for changes in stylesheets to recompile them again. It is very convenient when working on the Sass side of the project so you don’t have to run the sass task by hand every time you save a file.

gulp.task('watch', function() {
  return gulp
    // Watch the input folder for change,
    // and run `sass` task when something happens
    .watch(input, ['sass'])
    // When there is a change,
    // log a message in the console
    .on('change', function(event) {
      console.log('File ' + event.path + ' was ' + event.type + ', running tasks...');
    });
});

Here is another reason why I recommend not including SassDoc in the sass task: you probably don’t want to regenerate the docs every time you touch a stylesheet. This is likely something you want to do on build or push, maybe with a pre-commit hook.

Adding the final touch

A last, yet important, thing to think about: running sass in the default task.

gulp.task('default', ['sass', 'watch' /*, possible other tasks... */]);

The array passed as second argument of the task(..) function is a list of dependency tasks. Basically, it tells Gulp to run those tasks before running the one specified as a third argument (if any).

Also, we could probably create a prod task that could be run right before deploying to production (maybe with a git hook). This task should:

  • Compile Sass in compressed mode
  • Prefix CSS with Autoprefixer
  • Regenerate SassDoc documentation
  • Avoid any sourcemaps
gulp.task('prod', ['sassdoc'], function () {
  return gulp
    .src(input)
    .pipe(sass({ outputStyle: 'compressed' }))
    .pipe(autoprefixer(autoprefixerOptions))
    .pipe(gulp.dest(output));
});

Final thoughts

That’s it folks! In just a couple of minutes and a few lines of JavaScript, we have managed to create a powerful little Gulp workflow. You can find the full file here. What would you add to it?

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