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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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.

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The Printing Industry Exchange (PIE) staff are experienced individuals within the printing industry that are dedicated to helping and maintaining a high standard of ethics in this business. We are a privately owned company with principals in the business having a combined total of 103 years experience in the printing industry.

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Custom Printing: Fabric Printing for Small Design Shops

In an earlier blog I mentioned that among other things my fiancee and I install displays for a major cosmetics conglomerate. What that has done for my print brokering work is open my eyes to the plethora of signage options (print and digital) as well as the variety of packaging and product design options that are out there. It also has been an education in itself in cross-media marketing, given the selection of wall and floor displays, large format print banners, walls of digital signage, and screen printed cosmetic bottles.

It has also made me more conscious of fashion design, or—more specifically—printing on fabric.

Digital technology has made inroads into what had been almost exclusively a custom screen printing venue. I just read two articles about fabric printing and learned a few things.

“Technology Strikes Again: Digital Prints Invade Fashion” (El Paso Inc., 2/23/14, by Nan Napier) and “Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing” (, 6/24/10) extol the benefits of digital fabric printing, but they also show how the more flexible workflow and reduced set-up and manufacturing costs will allow more new fabric designers to enter the field.

Benefits of Low-Minimum Print Runs

Prior to the advent of digital printing, custom screen printing was the only option for decorating fabric. Since this required a new screen for each color, plus extended set-up and clean-up times, the print runs had to be long to justify the cost, the time, and the staff.

The implication of this financial hurdle and time constraint was that short print runs were not cost-effective. So new designers could not set up, print, and distribute their work. Also, it was not feasible to produce a short run of a design to test buyer interest. Nor was it possible to cost-effectively vary the design within the print run for aesthetic purposes (to make unique items or to satisfy niche markets). For rotary or flatbed custom screen printing presses, you had to commit to producing several thousand yards of fabric.

In contrast, digital custom printing on fabric is available starting at a yard or less of fabric. So you can test a design on a particular fabric—or on multiple fabrics. This is particularly useful, since the color and texture of the fabric change the ink colors, dulling them down or giving them sheen and making them pop. You could even gang up a number of designs and print them on the same fabric to test the results. Or, you could personalize every item. With custom screen printing, this is out of the question.

If you’re a small designer, your financial entry into digital printing is not insurmountable. Digital fabric printing equipment costs between $10,000 and $70,000 (according to “Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing”), plus the computer, plus the equipment for curing the ink. Once you have purchased the equipment (or have access to someone else’s equipment), you can immediately produce your fabric designs for a reasonable cost. Furthermore, electronic components quickly drop in price, so the cost of entry into the field will go down over time.

Benefits of Having No Inventory

In the days of custom screen printing, you produced a thousand or more yards of printed fabric and therefore had to maintain an inventory of unfinished and finished work. Of course, you also had to pay for storage space. Furthermore, printing the fabric and producing the garments took time, so it could take a year to bring a design to market.

In contrast, you can come up with a design and digitally print the fabric the same day. The process is far more immediate, without all of the preparation, production, and clean-up time. In addition, if a design doesn’t work, you can change it immediately and proceed with the print run. What this means is that a designer can “take advantage of current trends and even change prints or colors mid-season.” (“Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing”) Instead of taking a year to bring a product to market, with digital fabric printing you can complete a run within weeks.

Flexibility in Image Color and Placement

In most custom screen printing, only a limited number of colors are used for a particular fabric design, since each color requires a separate screen. This has kept most fabric designs to six or eight colors. (Granted, some screen printers can produce full-color work using CMYK halftone screens, but in the majority of cases fabric printers have focused on a limited color palette.)

In contrast, digital custom printing widens the color gamut to hundreds of colors, or more, as well as photo-realistic images and color gradations impossible to achieve on a flatbed or rotary screen press.

In addition, screen printers usually create a pattern that seamlessly repeats across the length of fabric. With digital printing, however, fashion designers have more control over the actual placement of the art, allowing them to position an element “at the waistline” or “across the shoulder” of a garment (“Technology Strikes Again: Digital Prints Invade Fashion”).

In this way, digital printing technology invites new designers into the field and provides a wide latitude for creative fabric design.

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