textile printing - machines, techniques, and design
This week in textiles 101 we deep dive into everything textile printing. From the different dyes and techniques, to machines used, we cover everything you could ever need to know about the art of textile printing.
What is textile printing?
Textile printing is fabric dying but, in a very controlled way that creates patterns. The same dyes and pigments that we use in fabric dying are also used for textile printing, but they are thickened with gums or starches to create a print paste. By creating a print paste the color, when being applied will stay in place and ensure clean designs and crisp lines.
dye vs pigment
The key difference between dye and pigment prints is that dye prints penetrate the fiber, and pigment prints sit on top of the fiber.
How do you tell which is which?
One of the easiest ways to tell if a fabric was dyed with dyes or pigments is how it feels. Pigment print fabrics will have a much stiffer hand feel then dye fabrics.
Why is textile printing important to fashion?
Prints are one of the only things that can be copy written. Diane Von Fürstenberg’s signature wrap dress? It’s considered public domain. The controversial term of the use kimono, technically, legally, anyone can use it. Silhouettes, in general, are free for anyone to use. And, that’s why many brands design entire lines by going out shopping, buying items in stores they like the fit of, and then knock them off overseas in factories.
The art of the silhouette knock off is rooted in fashion history. Back in the day, the 1970’s to be exact, Elie Tahari, was known as the king of the suit. Specifically, as the legend goes, pants. Tahari had mastered the art and fit of pants so perfectly that every brand out there bought a pair and knocked them of. It sounds unfair, but, it was, and still is totally legal.
So, what’s a brand got to do to not get knocked off? Fashion’s answer is prints. Prints can be copy written and considered intellectual property. But, don’t get too excited. Not all prints are eligible. Simple geometrics like dots, stripes, plaids, etc, are all considered public domain and can not be copywritten.
The only brand that has ever been successful at copywriting a plaid is Burberry. Their signature print is theirs and theirs alone, and anyone that uses it without permission (read license) is subject to a lawsuit.
So, in a world where fashion is becoming faster and faster, and brands cross the line between “inspired by” and straight-up copying (thanks diet-prada), prints offer some protection.
How to create an original print
In the industry we tend to say that for a print to be inspired by and not copied there should be at least 7 differences.
So while Diane can’t copyright and make exclusive the dress that made her famous, she can copy write the prints that she puts on it, this way her exact designs and overall look are non-replicable.
textile printing can save brands money
Aside from protecting brands from having their designs completely knocked off, prints are a cheap and easy way to add style to commodity fabrics.
Fabric MOQ's and prints
There are some fabrics that mills run ALL THE TIME like literally the machines never stop running 24/7. These are called commodity fabrics. In India cambric for wovens, and jersey for knits are the most common commodities. Sorry, brands out to save the world (or use greenwashing to sell more product) this excess fabric are not deadstock being saved from a landfill. It’s just really popular, and often very cheap stuff that mills know will sell.
So, if an entire fashion line was made with just one fabric it would look pretty boring. But, at the same time, it’s financially beneficial for a brand to buy as much fabric as they can in order to get the best pricing possible. Because, in the world of fashion manufacturing the more you buy, the cheaper the prices.
But, as I said, a line of all the same fabric isn't very exciting. Hello, prints. By using different textile prints the brand can use 1 or 2 fabrics throughout their entire line and make every style look different, maybe one is a dark flower, another a bright spot, you get the idea. And, they can buy fabric for not just one season, but for the entire year! Simply by producing new prints each season, they create a totally new look, and get the benefits of bulk pricing on their fabric order.
H&M is notorious for this. If you shop that store, pay attention, the same fabric is used season after season, while the silhouettes, colors, and print designs change.
Why is sustainable fashion anti-prints?
Fast fashion loves prints because it allows them to take the same old thing and re-sell it as something new season after season.
And, this fact is also one of the reasons that sustainable fashion tends to be anti prints. Because prints are used to add freshness every season, they are designed to go out of style, and not stand the test of time. For that reason, prints and slow fashion are kind of an oxymoron. But, sometimes if you wait long enough, like 20 years, a print will come back around again and be considered retro. That slinky leopard skirt that you saw on literally everyone and their mom this summer, is designed to be replaced by a new trend next year.
But, recently I have been seeing more and more sustainable brands introducing prints into their lines. I think we are all starting to get a little bored in the sustainable fashion community with the color blocking of neutral color stories. Generally, the prints sustainable brands are choosing are classic and will not go out of styles like checks, dots, and neutral flowers.
Think about that… prints can be used for good or evil.
So, even though prints might be part of the fast fashion system to buy more, and the print you just bought is basically already out of style, it is still important to understand them. And, they can still be a handy trick for small brands who are just getting started and don't have unlimited design budgets to use to add variation.
Here is everything a textile expert (soon to be you) needs to know about textile printing
Before we get started, check out this video.
types of textile printing machines
There are lots of different types of fabric printing machines. And, all of them are not equal. Let’s break them down.
I have written a lot about artisan block printing, so I won't get into it here. To recap it involves taking a wooden block, carving a design, then using the block as a stamp to print fabric. If you are interested to learn all about it try reading this article all about behind the seams block printing.
this is me block printing in bagru :)
In screen printing a fine mesh screen made of polyester, nylon, or sometimes metal is stretched over a flat wooden frame, that looks a lot like a picture frame. Or, sometimes the mesh is rolled onto a metal cylinder.
A design is then drawn onto the screen. Let’s say we want to make a polka dot. The fabric we are printing is white. And, the design we want is a white background with a black dot printed on. Everywhere we did not want the black ink on the fabric would be painted on the screen with a thick barrier paint. Only the black dots would remain mesh.
how is the artwork transferred onto the screen?
Today, screens are treated with a photosensitive finish. The reverse (or negative if you're into old school photography) of the design is printed out and placed on the screen (this is important). A giant UV machine, much like a photocopier, but way bigger, then flashes a UV light and the paint that is exposed to the light dissolves, leaving the mesh visible. So for the same dot, we mentioned above we would want to print out the white portion of the print. This way when the UV light flashes only the black dot areas will be eaten away exposing the mesh.
Sound confusing? Here is a graphic to help explain it.
hand screen printing
Hand screen printing is probably the type of textile printing that most of you are familiar with. You might have tried it at camp, or maybe a grade school art class. Ink is pressed through a screen, that has a pattern cut into it, and then onto a fabric. Pretty simple.
Commercial screen printing, by hand
me and all the screens
But, screen printing on textiles commercially works a little differently. Fabric is rolled out onto a table that stretches up to 60 yards in length. Artisans then use large screens to print a section of the fabric, they lift up the screen, walk down to the next section of fabric that needs to be printed, and then, repeat the process. When the entire 60 yards of fabric is printed, the next screen which is used for a different color starts from the beginning of the fabric and the process is repeated.
There needs to be a bit of time between each color to allow for the print paste to dry. But, because the process is being done by people, there is enough time that as soon as the artisans reach the end fo the 60-yard table with one screen they can walk back up to the top and start with the next.
These screens are so big it takes two artisans to operate them!
me and a t-shirt printing machine
T-shirt printing can be done by hand or on a special machine like this one.
The way the machine works is that the shirts are rotated around while the screen stays in place and move up and down. That glowing orange light? That is a heat lamp that will cure, (dry) the ink between screens.
Garment printing in fast fashion
Garment screen printing is a specialized niche in the manufacturing industry. Screen printing techniques are popular on already cut garments in fast fashion, because it's a great way for brands to save cash. This is because brands are able to produce a ton of one product for a cheap price. They can then see what colors/prints are selling the best that season and quickly print that onto the ready-made garments.
Watch out for fast fashion screen prints!
Fast fashion plastisol inks often contain carcinogenic and toxic ingredients called phthalates. In my time in the industry, especially working in children's clothing, special care and attention to testing was required to ensure we were using high-quality inks that did not contain toxins, specifically phthalates. Don't get me wrong these things have lots of other toxins but, phthalates are one of the only chemicals that currently have restrictions in the US.
but, garment printing is also great for small brands
An added bonus of hand screen printing is that generally, minimums are very low. This makes small runs and exclusive custom prints possible. And, it's great for startups who are having trouble with minimums but want variety in their designs.
automatic screen printing
Automatic screen printing is also known as flatbed printing. In automatic printing, instead of the screens moving down the fabric, the fabric moves down a conveyor belt and as it passes a screen lowers, prints the fabric, and then the fabric is pulled down to the next screen. Automatic screen printing machines can produce about 500 yards per hour of printed fabric. It is not possible to automatic screen print on garments, this method is only good for textile yardage.
I was joking around with this guy and popped over to take a selfie while he was adding more ink to the machine. Poor guy, he didn't know if he should keep working on pose.
rotary screen printing
Rotary screen printing is similar to automatic screen printing in that the fabric is moving down a belt while the screens stay in place. The difference is, instead of using a flat-screen, cylinders print the fabric. The cylinder spins as the fabric moves down the belt printing the fabric continuously. Rotary screen printing is the fastest type of screen printing. Rotary ranges are known to produce 3500 yards or more per hour.
fast fashion is easy
I have mentioned before in my blog posts that part of the problem of fast fashion and the push for us as consumers to buy more is that we are too good at making things. We can produce fabric and garments much too quickly, and because it's so cheap to pump out more, we have found ourselves in a never-ending cycle of consumption.
If these machines were not so good at their jobs and could not produce at breakneck speeds maybe the fashion industry would not be one of the leading contributors to pollution that it is today.
Whoever thought that being efficient would be a problem?
If you thought rotary screen printing was fast, roller printing is even faster. Roller printers are able to make more than 6,000 yards per hour of printed fabric. In roller printing, copper engraved cylinders are used to roll the pattern onto the fabric. A benefit of roller printing and using copper cylinders is that very fine details are possible. Traditionally this method has been reserved for very detailed designs like Paisley's. The downside is creating copper screens is extremely expensive. For this reason, this technique is only used for prints that are constantly being made or for brands that have committed to extremely high minimums. Just like screen printing, each color in a print requires its own copper cylinder, therefor making prints with more colors becomes more expensive.
Print mills generally like to specialize in one thing and do that thing really well. Did you know that bandanas are a special kind of print? There are factories in the world that are set up to exclusively print only bandanas. Crazy right?
how does the color stay on in a print
Once a fabric is printed it's not simply done, or ready to be made into a garment. There are more processes like aging and curing that need to take place in order to ensure quality and that prints do not fade over time.
The first process a printed fabric must, well… really should (fast fashion is always skipping steps), undergo is aging. Aging is basically a super hot steam bath for the fabric. After the fabric shvitzes in the world's hottest steam room, it is then washed in soapy water to remove any excess thickeners or by-products in the print paste. Finally, the fabric is dried. There are many methods of drying fabric which I will get into in a future blog post.
The process I just described is for dye prints. But, remember there are also pigment prints. And, pigment prints require a special treatment called curing. In the curing process, the fabric sits in dry heat, think sauna, that reaches up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. This heat basically bakes in the resin adhesive and colors and will prevent them from coming off during home laundry.
dry vs wet printing
If you're becoming a real industry geek the term for dye prints is called wet printing and the term for pigment prints is known as dry printing.
These terms probably do not make much sense to you. All prints are wet at first, right?
Well, we got the names from the finishing process - ie aging or curing. Steam is wet so dye prints that go through aging are wet prints. And, curing requires dry heat, so pigment prints are dry prints.
heat transfer printing
Heat transfer printing is also known as thermal transfer printing. First, a design is printed onto a special type of paper, called a transfer paper. The ink used on these papers is disperse dyes. When the fabric is ready to be printed the paper is placed on top of the fabric and then exposed to high heat reaching 400 degrees Fahrenheit. When the dyes on the paper get this hot, they sublimate, meaning transfer onto the fabric. The great thing about heat transfer printing is that no other wash or dry processes are necessary.
Is it eco-friendly?
Many companies claim heat transfer printing is a more sustainable option because there is no post-print wash process. The thing is, disperse dyes can only react with man-made, petroleum fibers like nylon, polyester, acetate, acrylic, etc. And, as we know those petroleum fibers are not the most eco-friendly.
Another positive of heat transfer printing is that the paper can be checked before it is transferred onto the fabric. This means that errors and poor quality prints are rare in heat transfer fabrics. That is, as long as the factory is doing due diligence and checking the paper first. Again, this makes heat transfer printing a more sustainable option if it can prevent the fabric from having quality issues and becoming deadstock.
Great for small businesses
Heat transfer printing is a great option for small local printers who will print logos or custom artwork onto t-shirts and other promotional items. That is because it is a quick and easy process that requires only heat and the right kind of ink.
digital textile printing
The industry solution to the need for low minimums and quick and easy fabric turn around times is digital printing. Digital printing is also known as inkjet printing. You are probably accustomed to inkjet printing from you're at home computer printer. The way inkjet printing works is micro drops of liquid ink are applied to the fabric. IDK why I always think of the song liquid dreams when anyone says liquid ink.
The interesting thing about digital printing on fabric is that all colors are printed at the same time unlike the other methods of printing we discussed earlier. The amazing thing about inkjet printing is that only four to six different ink cartridges can combine to make almost unlimited colors.
Many people in the fashion community have claimed that digital printing is a sustainable option. It is not. At first glance it looks like all that needs to be done is passing the fabric through an oversized office printer, but there is much more involved than that. Fabrics must be pretreated and undergo special chemical processing that requires large amounts of water. And, these treatments happen both before and after the actual digital printing is done.
In New York City I work with local digital printers, and the fumes that come out of the fabrics during the post-print process are considered so toxic that they must treat the fabrics at night when no one is in the facility.
The real use of digital printing is not sustainability. It's in making small runs and samples of custom printed fabric. Small runs allow brands to make one sample for a fashion show or test a market with a new idea and not have to commit to large minimums. The reason inkjet printing onto fabric is not popular in production is because the process is extremely slow, and not cost-effective. We're talking really slow, like one meter per minute, that's 60 meters per hour. Remember, a rotary screen printing range can print 50 meters in just one minute.
printing techniques for different looks
I feel like so far I made this process of printing and printing technology sound pretty easy. But it gets way more complicated and eventually becomes more of an art than a science. A good print designer is able to take a print and only use three colors but make the finished product look like it has six or maybe even seven. How is this possible?
wet on dry printing method
Wet on dry printing is a print technique where a second color is printed over a fully dry first color. In wet on dry printing, only the second color will be visible. How is this technique useful? Generally, the finest lines of a print design are printed last and sit on top of all the other colors this way they appear crisp and clean.
wet on wet printing
Wet on wet printing is the process of printing a second color on top of a first color that is still wet and has not had time to dry. In this process, the two colors mixed together. So, if you print red and then immediately print yellow on top you will get orange. The creation of a third color with this print method is also known as fall-on.
Using wet on wet printing techniques to create third colors is a smart way for brands to save money. This is because each color requires its own screen, and as I mentioned print houses charge per screen. And, each additional screen in a range makes the entire process of printing the fabric take longer. As we know, in fashion the longer something takes, generally the more expensive it is. So, instead of three screens, only two are needed or instead of 6 maybe only four are needed.
The halftone technique uses one color that is either shaded lighter or darker to give the effect that more than one color is being used. Halftone effect can only be achieved using rotary screen and roller printing. The effect is not possible on flat screens or heat transfers.
On a rotary and roller screens, the density of the holes in which the ink passes through is controlled to either allow more or less. The more ink the deeper and more saturated the color. The less ink that can pass the lighter and more washed out the color will look.
different types of prints
Here is a list of different types of prints on fabrics, whose techniques can be mixed and matched to create unique effects.
Direct printing is also known as an application print. In direct printing the design prints directly onto a white piece of fabric. The design is also able to be printed on to a previously dyed fabric. In the case of the fabric being dyed beforehand the technique is called an overcurrent.
A tip to keep in mind is that the color being printed over a dyed fabric should always be darker than the fabric. For example black dots are easy to print on a light pink fabric but, if you want to print light pink dots over a black fabric there will be visible black showing through distorting the color of the dot. It's easy to spot direct prints because they are generally small with large amounts of fabric showing.
How can you tell if a fabric was dye first? Flip it over and look at the back. If the back of the fabric is white or a very muted shade of the ground color, it was printed. If the back of the fabric is fully saturated with color, it was dyed.
Discharge printing is a two-step process. Step one. The fabric is dyed one single color. Step two. The fabric pattern is printed onto the fabric. But, this isn't your average print paste. Something special happens. Instead of colors in the print paste, bleach is used. The bleach will remove the color from the dyed fabric leaving behind white.
This technique is great if you want to print white on a black background. But what if you want color? There is another technique called color discharge. This is when the bleach and a dye are mixed together in the print paste. The bleach will remove color while the dye adds color. This would allow for our first example of a light pink dot on a black background.
The discharge method is one of the more costly methods of printing. But the overall quality of the fabric is superior to many other techniques, especially when you are trying to print light colors on top of darker grounds.
Maybe you are familiar with resist printing from one of my past blog posts about dabu mud printing. If not check out the article here. This is another two-step process, but it's kind of the opposite of a discharge print.
First, the fabric is printed with wax, batik, or in the case of dabu with mud. The wax or mud will prevent the fabric from absorbing the dye color. The entire fabric is then dyed. After the dye process, the wax or mud is removed exposing the white fabric underneath. The process of resist printing is typically not economical and is more popular in the world of artisan manufacturing.
A blotch print descripes a print where the background color was printed on. Not dyed. That's it, it's that simple. In terms of quality, this is the lowest.
One of the problems with printing backgrounds is the dye general does not take evenly creating a splotchy effect. Literally making the fabric look blotchy. I don't know if that is how this type of prints got its name, but it's how I remember it.
Flock printing is also known as flocking. The process is when very tiny fibers called flock which are about 1/10 to 1/4 inch long are stuck on to fabric with resin or glue.
The process of flocking is two-fold. First, the resin or glue is printed onto the fabric. Then flock is exposed to the fabric and only sticks to wear the glue have been printed. There are two ways of applying the flocking to the fabric. They are mechanical and electric static. In mechanical, a machine will make the fabric vibrate. The mechanical vibrations help the flock to evenly distribute on the fabric. The second application is electrostatic flocking. This method gives the flock particles an electric charge that is attracted to the glue. The electrostatic flocking process is much slower and much more expensive than mechanical but, the results are much nicer and tend to last longer.
Flocking kind of looks like a velvet pattern on top of the fabric, Unfortuily, flocked fabrics only last up to 10 standard washes before the flock starts to fall off.
Flocking can also be done all over a fabric. One of the most popular uses for all over flocked fabric is cheaper velvet alternatives. I bet you have bought something with flocked fabric. Most jewelry boxes are actually flocked fabric. Traditionally velvet was used to show jewelry because it is extremely good at absorbing light making whatever gift you are giving appear to sparkle even more. But, velvet can be expensive and that is why flocked fabric is now used, it gives the jewelry the same extra sparkly effect for a fraction of the cost.
An example of a warp print is an ikat. If you're interested in ikat printing check out one of my previous blog post about an ikat mill I visited in Mallorca. That's right even when I'm on vacation I still make time to go and see how textiles are made.
Prints designs are made by printing a design on warp yarns before the weaving process. Traditionally, this technique is extremely expensive because it is artisanal, time-consuming, and difficult. But, with today's new technologies dedicated to producing fashions faster and cheaper these special fabrics can now be mass-produced. In my opinion I much prefer the old traditional ways of everything being done by hand.
burn out prints
Burnout prints require some of the most toxic chemicals in the industry, for that reason I generally do not allow any of my clients to use this technique. To create a burnout print, a chemical substance that will destroy the fiber is printed onto the fabric. The chemical slowly eats through the fabric creating a hole or a sheer area if removed quickly enough.
One of the most popular uses of burnout printing is to create eyelet fabric knockoffs. Traditionally eyelet fabric was embroidered and cut. The cheap way of doing this is to burnout a hole and then print what looks like stitches around the hole. This was one of my go-to moves during spring-summer seasons in fast fashion when I needed to cut and knock of more expensive embroidered fabrics.
Burnout fabrics can also be used on fiber blends. Specific chemicals can be chosen to eat away only one of the fibers leaving the other fibers intact and creating a much more dimensional fabric.
Duplex prints are fabrics that are printed on both sides. They are reversible, let's not make the definition any more complicated than it needs to be.
Here are a few pictures of engineered prints. Basically, an engineered print is placed on a specific part of a garment. Generally, engineered prints are made using digital printing.
How to design a print
Now that you know all about the different kinds of prints, it's time to design your own.
First, you need to decide your brands' limitations. Do you want to print unlimited colors that look like a real photo or are you limited to only using two to three colors. That will determine if you should go with more expensive digital prints or cheaper hand screen options. Once you know the type of technique you would like to use you can speak with a graphic artist to help you create your print.
One of the most important parts of designing a fabric print is color separation. This means that each color it's distinctly called out on the computer-aided design (CAD). Even if you have a blue screen and a red screen mixing to create purple that purple must be carefully called out. The difference between a well-designed and color separated print artwork and one that was not well-thought-out makes a huge difference in the quality of the print. Always work with a pro.
strike-off and color matching
After you have your print design you will send it to the factory and they will create a strike off. A strike-off is important because it shows what your print will look like in real life, not just on a computer. It is also an opportunity for the factory to color match and for you to give approvals and comments on how the colors came out.
Colors take differently on different fabrics. Always make sure the print house is making your strike off on the same fabric you will use in production.
Once your strike-off is approved your fabric will move into production. But, you aren't done with approvals. It is important to ask for a cutting from the first few meters of the production. This will ensure that all of your colors match, and the screens are registered and everything else that could possibly go wrong has not. Never, I repeat never allow a factory to start cutting your fabric before you have approved your production lot.
Here are some problems to look out for when approving printed fabrics
When the color is smudged before it has time to dry.
This is just what it sounds like, splatters of color that don't belong there.
A fuzzy pattern is when the edges of a print pattern are not sharp and lines look fuzzy and blurred.
In an off-register print, the different screens that make up the design are not aligned properly, so the print looks trippy.
Sometimes a print machine needs to stop. Maybe the power went out, or maybe maintenance needs to be done. When this happens there can be a clear line distinction of the moment that the fabric stopped.
A tender spot is a weak spot in the fabric caused during the printing process. An example of a tender spot would be a discharge print. The process of bleach generally makes the fabric a little bit weaker. The discharge printing sections will be tender spots. It is important to note tender spots because while an entire fabric may pass quality control there is still the possibility of these tender spots causing problems during the garment sewing process.
Colorfastness and testing
Unless you are printing on a very thin fabric like chiffon, print ink generally does not penetrate from the face of the fabric all the way to the back. As fabrics are worn and undergo washing and drying machines the surface of the fabric will begin to wear and the textile print ink will fade, showing the white fabric underneath. For this reason, testing is extremely important.
For a quality product, it is important to test for colorfastness and how a color will fade over time in different conditions. These conditions include washing and drying, sunlight and UV light, and for swim styles chlorine.