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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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Custom Printing: More on My Client’s Fabric Printing Saga

Photo purchased from …

Aside from being a writer I am also a commercial printing broker. I’m a bit like a “tracker,” one who tracks animals in the wild, since I find the best custom printing supplier for a particular client’s job needs. I also make connections (like fascia tissue in the body). I make sure the communications between the printer and the client are accurate and understood by both parties. And I make sure my client is happy with the product, or I work with the printer (and client) to make things right.

That said, success hinges on finding the right equipment at the right vendor. The latter pertains to price, quality, and schedule, among other things, whereas the former pertains to the kind of work the vendor can actually do.

I have written blog posts about this before, but one of my long-time clients has printed color swatch books for fashion for about seven years. Her proprietary color system helps her clients choose make-up and clothing based on their complexion. Now she is branching out and looking to print scarves and dresses based on this color scheme. Given the fast-growing nature (an understatement) of digital fabric printing at the present moment for both apparel and interior design, I think my client is on the crest of a huge wave.

In that context, I am looking for the proper digital printing equipment. Not just the proper vendor. In fact, not necessarily the vendor first and the equipment second. I have in fact been approaching Mimaki, Mutoh, Epson, and Kornit sales managers to find out to whom they have sold their dye-sub (for polyester) and inkjet (for cotton) large-format printing equipment, so I can approach these vendors directly and then do my due diligence (prices, samples, references, etc.).

This has been the ongoing process (as noted in prior blogs), but this is how this process may pertain to you if you buy not just fabric printing but any kind of specialty commercial printing. In your own case, if it seems relevant, consider not just uploading your custom printing specs to the PIE online printing server (which is a marvelous idea as well) but also identifying the equipment you need and then finding it in the United States.

Counter-Intuitive Approach

I know this is counter-intuitive. Usually I choose a printer (or three) and have them provide bids and then produce my clients’ jobs. Prior to this stage I will have closely reviewed samples and checked references. But for specialty work like fabric printing, which is new, not every printer even knows other vendors doing quality, cutting-edge work. Starting with the equipment and finding who has purchased it usually narrows the field to a few qualified vendors.

I also have opened the search to the entire United States. After all, my client’s fabric printing press runs will initially be small, so the cost to ship finished garments from anywhere in the country to my client will be marginal (particularly compared to shipping print book jobs, since books are heavy and therefore more expensive to ship).

What I’ve Done So Far

When I last wrote about this process, I had contacted Kornit and had found two small large-format inkjet print shops. I had called them, and I had gotten a sense of their approach to their work. Both responded immediately. One, however, had bought the equipment but not yet opened his doors. (I will not rule him out, but I will want to wait a bit until he has established himself. I will also definitely want to see samples.)

The other is more established. I read some articles about this small printer and also called her to discuss my client’s needs. I liked that she and her husband had set up a small cottage business. Being small, she would be interested in my client’s initially small press runs (one to five units produced from two patterns). She also was knowledgeable, discussing digital patterns with me as well as requesting a description of the placement of the designs on my client’s scarves and dresses. In addition, she offered cut-and-sew capabilities and said she would be willing to use my client’s fabric rather than her own fabric.

So far, all of this looks good. For the newer of the two printers, I will go through a similar vetting process, later when he has set up shop and has completed some work. But in both cases, the vendors are small enough and hungry enough to need not only my client’s work but also her satisfaction with their work (which is not necessarily true for all large vendors).

The Newest Part of the Process

Since I wrote the first installation of this blog-post saga, I have contacted three more vendors. These manufacture dye-sublimation large-format printing equipment. The first, Kornit, seems to focus more on inkjet equipment. Since my client’s scarves will be polyester, I will need dye-sub custom printing capabilities for their production as well as inkjet printing capabilities for the (presumably) cotton dresses.

Another OEM (original equipment manufacturer), Mimaki, was also especially responsive, probably because I had sent an email describing my client’s goals and the vendors she had approached so far. The email presumably established my client’s and my seriousness and provided an opportunity for Mimaki to promote its brand.

The other two OEMs have not yet replied, but that is ok. One out of three is fine.

In the interim I had found through my online research a consultancy that sold Mimaki equipment (a “VAR,” a value-added reseller) and also helped clients set up fabric printing businesses. (I thought I had hit paydirt. This was even better than one printer with one Mimaki.) I called, discussed the work, and sent emails to the owner of the business.

Then I received a call from Mimaki. The Mimaki rep knew of the fabric printing consultancy I had just contacted as well as the small cottage-industry vendor I had been dealing with for the inkjet work. Providing him with not only the business names but also the names of the principals I had contacted gave me credibility in his eyes. He suggested that I contact the remaining two principals of the fabric printing consultancy and use his name. He also gave me their phone numbers and his personal cell phone number, and said he would call them directly on my behalf.

So doing the research, understanding the fabric printing processes, and backing up my questions with company names and the names of employees this Mimaki dealer had also contacted won me his support.

We’ll see what happens next. For the moment, I have a large-format inkjet printer (the cottage-industry vendor ), one other new printer, and the fabric-printing consultancy. This is a good place to be, since my client is just beginning to gear up for garment production.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

    1. Consider this approach if you’re doing something not everybody else is doing or something involving new technology. Maybe you’re looking into direct-to-object printing, like printing directly on a football or a thermos. Maybe you want to do screen printing and instead of printing flat colors you want to find a skilled printer who can screen print 4-color halftone images.


    1. Start early. Make sure you’re not in a rush.


    1. Read everything you can on the subject first. Your knowledge base and your ability to articulate your needs will establish your credibility. This in turn will elicit the help of those who know more than you (the consultants and vendors themselves). And it really does seem to me that people are happy to help you when they know you’re serious and you’ve been trying to do some of the research yourself.


    1. Unless you’re printing heavy goods (print books, for instance), consider vendors from all regions of the United States. Personally, I’m less excited about going outside the country’s borders, since this is more complex (import/export laws and fees that you have to research), although I have done this as well. If you are shipping something heavy like books, just research the cost of both shipping and manufacturing in comparing one printer’s location to another.


    1. Contact any vendors the OEMs give you. In my case, my client slowed down this last week. Instead of just letting the two vendors I had recently approached wonder what was happening, I sent each a short email noting the status of the job and saying we were interested but it might be a little while until we want to proceed. (I wanted them to stay interested and not forget us.)


  1. Print buying is about relationships. People will do business with other people they like. Being honest and respectful with vendors will go a long way in eliciting their help. And for specialty printing like fabric printing, direct-to-object printing, screen printing, and probably many other niche printing venues, it helps to have friends.

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