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Custom Printing: Interpreting Fabric Printing Problems

For a number of years, a client of mine has been periodically printing a small color book (similar to a PMS swatch book) for fashion. It helps women choose colors for clothes and make up that will complement their complexions.

Recently my client has branched out into garment printing based on her proprietary color formulas. Even though these clothes will be fashionable, what will make them stand out from their competition is the specific colors my client is selling. That is, she’s really not just in the clothing business. She’s in the “color-as-fashion” business.

That said, my client has been choosing vendors to produce her garments. Many of them are online commercial printing establishments. I have been helping my client with these choices, giving her feedback and suggestions. In one case recently with a new vendor, my client sent in a color pattern for printing on a polyester chiffon fabric.

It was just for a one-off sample, but she selected the sample pattern without confirming the colors. Or, rather, she made her color decisions based on the appearance of the art on her computer screen rather than the colors in her color swatch book. Oops. The yellow scarf sample came back with a slightly greenish gold cast. My client and her financial partner were not pleased. So my client came back to me to ask what had happened.

Color Monitor vs. Color Swatch Books

The first thing I said to my client was that the problem with the scarf was “information,” not a “failure.” I remember when I learned this lesson almost thirty years ago, when a cover matchprint proof for a book had looked horrible. An associate of mine said that the proof had saved me from a printing error, and therefore it was a success. That comment had permanently changed my point of view.

So I encouraged my client to learn from the experience. I reminded her that color created with light on a computer monitor is not the same as color produced with ink. This goes for fabric custom printing as well as offset printing. Therefore, I encouraged her to send in new art for a second test (if she liked the vendor’s pricing and customer service). I asked her to use her color bridge (a Pantone product that puts PMS colors alongside their nearest CMYK match) and select a color that fit her proprietary color formula for fashion.

The Substrate and the Commercial Printing Process

I’m new to fabric printing, but I know that, in printing, the substrate always affects the colors perceived by the human eye. My client had also mentioned that polyester chiffon reduces the saturation of a color. Her dissatisfaction arose from the color’s being too much of a greenish gold rather than a true yellow. My thought was that the fabric had contributed to a problem that had started with the choice of a color on the monitor rather than from a swatch book.

Polyester chiffon is one of a number of popular synthetic fabrics. Since it is a polyester, the printing method of choice would be dye sublimation. While I am not sure of the exact cause of the problem, I wonder whether there are any color shifts, perhaps within certain color families, that can be caused by either the specific fabric or the digital printing method itself. Moreover, since the garment in the photo my client sent me (a fashion scarf) is very sheer, my next thought was that the transparency of the fabric might have contributed to the problem. After all, my client had noted that polyester chiffon reduces the saturation of a color.

The implications of these questions are twofold:

  1. For the next sample, if my client can create an art file with an acceptable color percentage build that matches her Pantone color bridge, she will be able to communicate her wishes to the fabric printer. There will be no question as to the goal. It will then be up to the vendor to match the color with the specific digital custom printing technology and the specific fabric substrate—or to explain why this cannot be done. A printed color swatch will eliminate any miscommunication or guesswork.
  2. Furthermore, a dye sublimation printed color matched to a printed swatchbook will remove the fabric substrate and the inkset and printing process as variables. If a problem arises, my client will know that the problem is not due to the equipment or fabric.

Viewing Color in Different Light

One property of color is that it looks different in different light. Fabric printing is no different from printing ink on paper. So I encouraged my client to review the printed sample (and any revised samples) under a number of different lighting conditions.

I noted the difference between incandescent light (now called the Edison light), fluorescent, LED, and sunlight. I noted that printers use 5000 Kelvin light (which is the color “temperature” of sunlight) as a standard for the pressroom and specifically for viewing booths.

I also told my client a story about my fiancee’s and my recent trip to the fabric store for felt for an art project for our autistic students. When we had chosen a bolt of a neutral white felt, it changed color slightly as we carried the fabric past each ceiling light on the way to the cutting table. For this reason, I noted that the particular color my client had chosen may have taken on a color shift due to the light, and perhaps this may have been worsened by its already being a desaturated color.

So the take-away was that my client should use standard lighting and note any color shifts.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. If your proof is not right, be grateful. It’s better than having the final printed run not match your expectations. Learn from the problem. Identify the cause by separating out all the variables.
  2. Never choose a color on the monitor. Remember that in the moment you’re creating an art file it’s easy to forget this rule. It’s human nature. So make sure you go back after you have created the design and check the colors against a printed swatch book.
  3. Keep in mind that printing ink on paper via offset lithography, printing toner on paper via digital printing (electrophotography), and printing ink or dye on fabric all share things in common. The substrate will affect the printed color. In addition, the custom printing process itself may affect the printed color. Regardless, the final arbiter is the appearance of the color itself. Does it look right to you—and perhaps a few other people as well?
  4. There is no better way for three people to agree on a color than to use a printed color swatch book. Unless you’re doing work for the Internet only (which creates color with light rather than ink), use a recently printed PMS book, CMYK build book, or PMS to CMYK bridge. Even though they’re expensive, they are well worth the price.
  5. Keep in mind that no two people will see color exactly alike. Color is a function of light and the human eye. Women see color better than men (which is true, not sexist). So, again, use a color swatch book to communicate your color needs.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: Interpreting Fabric Printing Problems”

  1. Nice answer back in return of this question with firm arguments and describing
    the whole thing regarding that.

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