Next time you visit a clothing store or a place that sells home furnishings, take a closer look at the colourful, vividly decorated fabrics.
How did those designs get there? Most likely they were created using fabric printing techniques.
Printing on fabric creates decorations that last years. There are many ways to print on fabric, some going back hundreds of years, while others use new technologies.
There are four main types of fabric printing. These are:
- block printing
- roller printing
- screen printing
- digital fabric printing
In each of these methods, the application of the colour, usually as a thickened paste, is followed by fixation, usually by steaming or heating. Finally, excess colour is removed by washing.
Choosing the right fabric printing method
If you print on fabrics or plan on trying, it’s important to choose the method that best matches your needs. The two main categories are:
- analogue fabric printing
- digital fabric printing
One of the oldest direct printing techniques is block printing. You can find examples dating back thousands of years.
In block printing, a design is carved into a hard substance such as wood. Then, the fabric is laid out flat, and the block is dipped in dye and pressed onto the fabric.
Block printing doesn’t require many tools and can be done manually. The process is simply repeated until the desired effect is reached. Some printing blocks can be quite intricate, as depicted in the image above.
Engraved roller printing
This is similar to block printing but is larger and more industrial in scale. A large copper cylinder is engraved with designs that are then printed on fabric as it is fed through a machine. The design repeats as many times as needed. Many fabrics printed in factories in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were created with this process.
Screen printing is one of the best examples of an analogue fabric print method. Screen printing has been around since the early 20th century and is used for printing fabrics, wood, glass and signage.
The image is transferred to a fine mesh and areas to be left blank are covered with a substrate. The printing process involves pushing ink through the openings in the mesh onto the material.
Screen printing can be performed manually (the paint is then squeezed manually through the screen) or with a machine (the paint is automatically pressed by the machine through the screen).
In the screen printing process, one colour is printed at a time as each colour is a separate layer. This is why screen printing is not particularly recommended for multicolour prints. In such cases, digital fabric printing will work much better.
Screen printing works best when printing simple shapes with a small number of colours. It’s virtually impossible to print pictures that require detailed shading and tonal transitions.
Types of screen printing
- Flat-screen printing: printing on ready-made objects such as t-shirts and bags
- Rotary screen printing: used for printing on entire rolls of fabric
- Hand-screen printing: adopted by independent artists who often screen print manually in their workshops using homemade constructions
Some limitations of screen printing
- High cost of entry (preparing printing screens is expensive)
- Each colour requires the preparation of a separate screen
- A limited number of colours
- The number of colours used has a significant impact on the cost of printing
- Not suitable for printing individual pieces and small volumes
- Not possible to perform a sample print
Screen printing will be ideal if your project has an uncomplicated design and you require large volumes.
Digital fabric printing
As in the case of digital printing on paper, digital printing on fabric allows you to make even a single print without the start-up costs, such as a printing screen.
Basically, digital printing on fabric is very similar to printing on paper with an inkjet printer at home.
There are almost no limitations with this method of printing. You can print any graphic on the fabric, without restrictions on the number of colours or tonal transitions between the colours.
However, one limitation of digital printing is that it offers narrow possibilities of using special colours such as metallics or fluorescents.
Digital printing on fabric works perfectly for printing photos, detailed patterns, tonal transitions and graphically complex designs.
Digital fabric printing is friendly to the environment because it uses only a minimum amount of ink. The fabric must then be heated or steamed to set the design and make it permanent.
Benefits of digital fabric printing:
- No printing screens mean no start-up costs
- The ability to print even a single copy
- No colour limitations
- The number of colours and the appearance of the print do not affect the cost of manufacturing
- The economy of scale: printing the first and the hundredth-metre costs basically the same
- Ability to perform a sample print
The division into analogue and digital printing is the basic categorisation of printing on fabric. However, there are also other divisions, such as
- DTG printing (direct to garment)
- Roll-to-roll printing (fabric on a roll)
Printing directly onto clothing (DTG)
DTG means “directly on clothing”. It is a printing method whereby patterns and colours are applied directly to the base, in other words, a finished garment. DTG is ideal for printing on items such as t-shirts, polo shirts, sweatshirts and bags.
DTG print carries a certain number of limitations. For example, if the colour of the substrate is any colour but white this will have an impact on the final cost as a white surface will have to be printed underneath the pattern.
Printing fabric in bolts (rolls)
Printing on fabrics using the roll-to-roll method may be a way to overcome the limitations of DTG printing.
A printer is fitted with a bolt of clean, unprinted fabric. The printheads then apply the inks (dyes) to the fabric surface in the printing process, as in the image above.
Digital printing on fabric enables you to sew from the fabric that is printed over the entire width of the bolt, printing in running metres and cutting out the sewing patterns from fabric only after printing.
In this way, you are not limited in shape. From curtains to table runners and sofa cushion covers, you can sew anything from the printed fabric.
So, next time you leave a boutique or a home decor shop, you’ll have a better idea of what fabric printing technique was used to achieve all of those colourful products.
- If you’re looking for a professional fabric printer, contact us.