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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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Archive for the ‘Fabric Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Fabric Printing for Small Design Shops

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

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.

Custom Printing: Options for Garment Decoration

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

In my summer travels to Ocean City, I’ve been paying close attention to improvements in fabric printing. During numerous trips to clothing stores with my fiancee in search of bathing suits, I have become aware of new developments in garment decoration. Trips to the Ocean City boardwalk have also sparked my interest in fabric printing as I have seen similar improvements in t-shirt printing.

Let me be more specific. I have seen images printed in vibrant colors on bikinis with almost continuous tone photographic quality. I have also seen thick, rubberized, single color custom screen printing on everything from t-shirts to soda can cooling sleeves.

In all cases I’ve asked myself how the effect was accomplished, and unable to answer completely, I have done some online research.

Inkjet vs. Dye Sublimation

Both inkjet and dye sublimation technologies can be used to decorate garments. The determining factor seems to be the substrate. A cotton garment would be ideally suited for direct-to-garment custom printing via inkjet technology, whereas a polyester garment would be better suited to dye sublimation custom printing.

For inkjet garment printing, the printheads of the inkjet equipment make a pass across the t-shirt (for example), which is mounted flat on a platen (a garment holder). The printheads spray the ink onto the surface of the cotton fabric. With today’s inkjet equipment, this can be done at very high resolution, hence the photographic quality images.

In contrast, for printing on polyester garments, inkjet equipment is used to print special sublimation dyes onto a carrier sheet called “dye sublimation transfer paper.” This paper is then laid over the garment, and the heat and pressure of a “heat press” cause the dyes to turn from a solid directly into a gas (skipping the interim liquid state and therefore called “sublimation”). The gas dye molecules enter the actual fabric (instead of staying on top of the fabric, as do inkjet inks). When the garment is cooled and the dye sublimation transfer paper is removed, you have a vibrant image that won’t fade or peel, and that will withstand repeated washings.

What About Blended Fabrics?

So if you have a cotton or polyester garment to work with, you know what technology to choose. But what about blended fabrics? From my research I’ve learned that both inkjet and dye sublimation will work with blended fabrics, but that the coloration may be faded or washed out. What I find interesting about this is that the images printed on the swimsuits in the Ocean City stores were blindingly bright, crisp, and fully saturated.

So What Was I looking At?

Based on my research, I would take an educated guess that the swimsuits, being a polyester product, had been decorated using dye sublimation technology. Furthermore, I would say that the intensity of the custom printing dyes support this educated guess.

Rubber Inks

The thick, single colors of ink printed on the hats, some shirts, and the foam rubber soda can cooling sleeves I saw on the boardwalk seemed to be the products of an altogether different process.

The inks were thick, solid colors. And the artwork was simple line art. My first thought was that these had been samples of custom screen printing. But the ink on the t-shirts was much more flexible than I had remembered from prior years. It seemed to be almost rubberized, much softer and more pliable than the screen printing inks I was used to. (I even checked a screen printed messenger bag I had at home, and the screen printed logo was much rougher than the screen printed ink on the products at the beach.)

I thought the inks might be latex based, but in my research I learned that latex inks are really more of an environmentally friendly alternative to solvent based inkjet printing inks. Ostensibly, these would also have more of a plastic surface than a rubberized surface.

So I did some more research and found that rubber based inks do in fact exist. They are used for textile custom printing, and they give the texture of rubber, coat evenly, and are opaque. Given my findings, I would make another educated guess: that the new products in Ocean City had been screen printed with rubberized inks. (The product literature for the rubberized inks discussed types of squeegies and referenced the thickness of the ink—both items or qualities indicative of custom screen printing.)

Do I know for sure? No, since there were no commercial fabric printers on-site in the stores, but I’ll still stand by my guess.

Why You Should Care

Large format fabric printing (inkjet, dye-sub, and screen printing) seems to be growing and becoming more technologically sophisticated in an era when other types of custom printing are waning. Designers and printers may want to take note.

Large Format Printing: Printing Bikinis and Houses

Monday, February 18th, 2013

In the last PIE Printing Blog article, I discussed novel uses for 3D custom printing, including the specifications Nokia has made available to enable phone owners to 3D-print their own phone cases, and a stem-cell 3D printing firm called Modern Meadow that 3D prints hamburgers.

Tonight’s articles of note include “RELLECIGA Bomb You with the Latest Stylish Digital Print & Lace Bikinis” (Sacramento Bee, 1/28/13) and “Architect to build home using 3D printer” (CNN, Doug Gross, 1/23/13). Both articles extend the notion of custom printing just a little further.

“Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”

I reviewed the lyrics for Brian Hyland’s song released in 1960 about a girl in a bikini. I didn’t see any references to inkjet printing, but it actually seems to be a good way to print this fabric, if you read RELLECIGA’s promotional material.

In prior years, fabric printing had been the domain of rotary screen presses, with each print job comprising several thousand yards of fabric. Considering the time and cost involved in preparing screens for multiple colors, custom screen printing runs have had to be long (in much the same way as time, effort, and capital must go into make-ready for an offset printing run, with unit costs dropping as the run lengths increase).

The first half of the article, “RELLECIGA Bomb You with the Latest Stylish Digital Print & Lace Bikinis,” sounds like most fashion marketing collateral, with references to the “beauty of its design, its intricate handiwork, and the dignified taste of the wearer,” but the tone quickly shifts, and RELLECIGA begins to explain the benefits of inkjet printing the bolts of bikini fabric compared to custom screen printing the fabric.

These benefits include small batch printing, customization, prototyping, and experimenting. The article also notes that “RELLECIGA Digital Fabric Printing Process can reproduce unlimited colors and shades” and that this “reflects the beautiful intricacy made possible by digital printing.” And when there are no screens to prepare for printing, you can print as little as one yard of fabric economically (rather than thousands).

Interestingly enough, as fabric custom printing technology improves (whether it be inkjet or dye sublimation), digital printing is becoming the preferred technology in many cases. With manufacturers producing inks that can maintain color contrast on various fabrics and that are formulated for each type of fiber, and with designers becoming adept at the post-press operations used to cure the ink (such as applying heat or steam, or washing and drying), inkjet printed fabrics can withstand multiple washings and day-to-day wear.

Finally, the article notes that the technology is priced within reach of the “average illustrator.” When technology is inexpensive enough, manufacturing processes can migrate from the factories back into small shops, where quality and uniqueness can prosper.

Print My House

No, really? All it takes is a large 3D printer. The CNN article “Architect to build home using 3D printer” references architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars’ “Landscape House,” comprising “one surface folded in an endless Mobius band.” Basically, when you walk through the house, you can “seamlessly merge indoors and outdoors.”

The house doesn’t come cheap. It will cost between $5 and $6 million to construct. However, there’s already a market for this architect’s work (including museums and individuals).

The crowning achievement will be to produce this house using 3D custom printing technology. Janjaap Ruijssenaars has found a huge aluminum 3D printer that uses sand, which it forms into a solid material similar to marble.

Ruijssenaars will use the 3D printer to produce solid blocks that are approximately 20 feet by 30 feet. He will add fiberglass and concrete reinforcements as he constructs the “Landscape House” from these large blocks. He plans to complete the first house in 2014.


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