Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing
Digital fabric printing is a relatively new technology with tons of applications. I just completed my first line of digitally printed fabric earlier this year and I’d like to share a little bit about the technology, design process and possibilities.
Most commercially available fabric is rotary screen printed; each print the run is typically several thousand yards. The high minimums are due to the cost and time required to prepare a unique set of screens, with each color in a design requiring a separate screen. The main advantage of digital printing is the ability to do very small runs of each design (even less than 1 yard) because there are no screens to prepare.
The inkjet printing technology used in digital printing was first patented in 1968. In the 1990s, inkjet printers became widely available for paper printing applications – you might even have one on your desk right now! The technology has continued to develop and there are now specialized wide-format printers which can handle a variety of substrates – everything from paper to canvas to vinyl, and of course, fabric.
The inks used in digital printing are formulated specifically for each type of fiber (cotton, silk, polyester, nylon, etc). During the printing process, the fabric is fed through the printer using rollers and ink is applied to the surface in the form of thousands of tiny droplets. The fabric is then finished using heat and/or steam to cure the ink (some inks also require washing and drying). Digitally printed fabric will wash and wear the same as any other fabric, although with some types of ink you may see some initial fading in the first wash.
Designs can be created digitally with almost any graphic design software (Photoshop and Illustrator are the most popular). Alternatively, existing artwork or photographs can be scanned and then digitally manipulated to make a pattern. Usually, designs are created as a seamless pattern that is repeated (tiled) across the fabric. You can also create a design that fills an entire yard without repeating, but you may run into issues if the size of the file is too large for the printing service to process.