Learning How to Buy New Kinds of Printing for the First Time
I’ve been going to school on digital fabric printing recently for a client who will be printing on several kinds of garments, including women’s shirts, scarves, dresses, and cardigan sweaters. The more I study, the more questions I have.
You may be in a similar situation, just learning about a particular kind of printing for a job you’re designing. Maybe you’re producing a stand-up point-of-purchase display, but until now you’ve only designed books and brochures. Maybe you need to print logos on vinyl beach balls. Or maybe you need to print labels in small batches for bottles that will be in the refrigerator (and that can’t have the labels come off when they’re brought into room temperature and water condenses on them).
In all of these situations, the question is how to proceed. How do you learn a new process within the printing arena without ending up with printed products that don’t pass muster?
The Fabric Printing Example
In my case, after reading enough to have a cursory understanding of the options for decorating fabric, I had my client specify the end products, the print colors, the press runs, and the fabrics.
The process of decorating garments involves physical requirements. Let’s start with the scarves. The fabric must be soft and sheer. It must also accept detailed printing.
Moreover, it must tolerate washing, oils from the wearer’s hands, sunlight, and rain, to name a few potential threats.
But the bottom line is that the more articulate I and my client can be about the physical requirements for the fabric, based on the specific intended use, the better.
Then I can find vendors who are more knowledgeable than I in this particular kind of printing, request printed samples, and start talking costs, schedules, color options, etc.
Now a scarf does not take the same kind of abuse that a women’s shirt does, and a dress can’t be made of shirt material and still have a feel (known as the "hand") of opulence. So determining what kinds of garments my client will need will be of paramount importance.
Therefore, once my client had developed a list of garments she wanted, I asked her to focus on materials. Through visiting online fabric printers’ websites, my client found a rayon/lycra blend that appealed to her for shirts and scarves, as well as a thicker ponte that would be appropriate for the dress material.
She also specified that the ink used to dye the shirts would need to color both sides of the fabric (both the inside, facing the wearer, and the outside, facing everyone else). Whether this will be possible, and how, we haven’t yet determined. (At the moment it looks unlikely.)
Bolts of Fabric vs. Direct to Garment
Another question is whether to print on bolts of fabric or directly on the garment. (The former is called "direct-to-fabric" printing; the latter is called "direct-to-garment" printing.) If my client wanted shirts with images on just the front of the garment, she might print on already fabricated shirts. But since she wants to completely dye the shirts in a wide range of single colors, printing the bolts of fabric and then manufacturing the shirts from the printed material will probably be the better way to go.
For the scarves, my client would have the same choices to consider. And since the scarves are essentially printed strips cut from a large sheet of fabric and then hemmed, it may be wise for her to print roll-to-roll rather than to print on completed scarves.
In all of these cases, she will have to weigh the desired goal against the cost and potential profit.
Will my client need 500 yards of fabric or 50,000 yards? For her initial crowd-funding effort through Kickstarter, my client will need only a limited amount of printed fabric. If her business gets off the ground, she may then need a huge amount of fabric for a reprint. In the first case, it will be wise for her to use inkjet or dye-sublimation equipment. But when the run lengths get past a certain point, it may be more economically sound to use the older method of screen printing. This process requires a lot of set-up work and is therefore not feasible for short runs. However, for longer runs it is more cost-effective than digital printing.
Likewise for the solid-color shirts. For a short run, digital is better, but for long runs it may be prudent to consider the older approach of coloring the fabric in boiling vats of plant dye.
The takeaway is that the press run can affect the choice of printing technology. Only your printer can know for sure when one technology will become less cost-effective and the other will become more cost-effective.
How You Can Apply This Approach to Your Own Print Buying
This approach can apply to almost any printed product. For instance, if you’re printing on corrugated board and you have a short press run (ask your printer for the specific number based on your finished product), you’ll use digital technology (i.e., inkjet printing directly on the cardboard). If your print run is in the hundreds of thousands, you will probably offset print rolls of "liner" paper, which you will then laminate (glue) to the interior fluting of the corrugated board (ie., you’ll print on flat paper from rolls and then glue the paper to the top and bottom of the corrugated ribbing material).
But what does this mean for regular printing jobs, particularly if they’re new to you? Here are some things to consider:
1. Find a printer who does the kind of work that’s new to you. Ask for references and samples. If you like what you see, that’s a good starting point (i.e., make your decisions based on actual printed products). For my new fabric printing work, I also uploaded my job specifications to the PIE website and started getting calls from fabric printers. I didn’t have a complete idea of what I wanted, but I had enough information to give the vendors a starting point for discussion and bidding.
2. For printed products with physical requirements (i.e., printed shirts need to be colorfast, and point-of-purchase displays need to be durable so they will hold lots of product without caving in), test them physically. Ask for a sample of the printed fabric and wash it. Request a sample point-of-purchase display and put weight on it.
3. Determine the press runs. Be specific (this may lead you to one technology over another).
4. Determine the materials. Be specific (this may lead you to one technology over another).
5. Read everything you can find on the technology that’s new to you. It will help you find new vendors and understand what they say when you find them.
6. Don’t make assumptions. Printing banners and flags, for instance, is not the same as printing on garments. Banners will not need to feel soft to your hand. Scarves will need to be soft and sheer. UV and latex inks may be more appropriate for flags and banners (these inks sit up on the surface of the fabric); dye-based inks may be more appropriate for scarves and shirts.
7. When in doubt, find someone who knows more than you do about your products. Make sure they’re trustworthy. Ideally, you can find new vendors by word of mouth (from your trusted current print vendors). Failing that, check for new vendors online. The more you learn, the better able you will be to separate those who can do your work from those who cannot.
[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]