Designers, Welcome to the wonderful world of Digital fabric printing

“That’s the last bit of fabric.” How many times have you seen a dress that you just had to have but the designer regretfully informed you that the fabric was over? They had just enough in that design to make the runway version and one for sale. Will they get more of it? They’ll have to rely on the manufacturer for that. But what if you didn’t have to play this fabric Russian roulette? Instead of relying on what they find in the market, what if they took control of the design process right down to the look of the fabric?

Remo Gorlei - Co-owner at Imaterial explaining the digital print procedure to students. [Image: Courtesy of wtin.com]
Remo Gorlei – Co-owner at Imaterial explaining the digital print procedure to students. [Image: Courtesy of wtin.com]
The idea of printing your own fabric isn’t new. In fact, with a hand-printing version such as flat-bed, panel or screen printing, people have been printing their fabric abroad and on this continent for ages.  These were more costly than having the design woven into the fabric because the screens had to be engraved with the design by skilled artisans which would then have dyes applied to it that would run onto the fabrics a colour at a time. That means an order could take weeks to be complete.

The question is, how do you speed up the design time and ease the design process? Enter digital printing. Yup, it’s not only your power point presentation that benefits from the ever-morphing world of tech.  The same inkjet-printing tech that exists in your digital printer is being incorporated into the world of fashion. However it has developed since the original 1968 Technology patent for a result that competes with the commercially available fabric made via rotary screen-printing; which has to be several thousand yards long. As Remo Gorlei, the co-owner of Imaterial – a South African textile design and print company – expresses to wtin.com, digitally printed fabric gives designers the freedom to create more intricate prints for their fabrics that would be too complicated and costly to run as small orders, “[w]ith digital, you do not have any limit to the amount of colours you can use and you have more freedom with repeat pattern sizes. Also, realistic photo images can be digitally achieved on cotton and linen fabrics.”

Digital print with pigment inks from Imaterial [Image: Courtesy of wtin. com.]
Digital print with pigment inks from Imaterial [Image: Courtesy of wtin. com.]
The company also highlights the possibility of printing almost anything. Designs can be created with any graphic design software, such as Illustrator or Photoshop, or you can even use photographs on the fabrics as commissioned prints.  “With digital, the customer can bring any design, and it can be printed – unlike screen printing, where there can be restrictions on design, such as repeats, colour and finesse. Since we started with digital, we have rarely not been able to print a design.” International designers, Nicole and Michael Colovos of Helmut Lang used photographs they took with their iPhones to create their 2010 collection. They were able to achieve the abstract that made you study the final product like a museum piece, as opposed to the repetitive ready-to-buy patterns we’re accustomed to. Unlike previous techniques, you can have a design that fits the entire yard of fabric.

Digital printing has advanced to the point it can print on almost any fabric, from cotton and linen to silks, nylon and polyester to mention a few. Just like paper in your office printer, the fabric is fed into printers that ink applies to its surface through thousands of tiny droplets. Heat or steam is then used to finish off the process although some will require to be washed and dried.

Upholstered chairs using classy cotton digital printed fabric [Image: Courtesy of Imaterial Textile Printers]
Upholstered chairs using classy cotton digital printed fabric [Image: Courtesy of Imaterial Textile Printers]
Things to remember when using Digital Printing:

Print swatches first– just like your usual printer, you have to keep in mind the colour in the screen may not always translate the same on fabric. The fabrics texture or colour could contribute on the change of print colour. For example, thinner fabrics will make the colour appear duller than the screen tests, while shiny fabrics such as satin will make the hue lighter.  It helps to take note what mode your printer uses and then use that to select the colours you want to use.

Think of the end product – while you delve into the artistic world, creating your one of a kind print, don’t forget that it will end up as an article of clothing. You have to think about how it will drape once transformed from just a fabric to an item of clothing. Especially if it’s just a single image made to fit the fabric.

Copyright – this is the perfect opportunity to embrace your creative side and bring all your ideas to life. So you might want to protect your hard work when you’re done. That being said, it may be tempting to reproduce a print you desperately wanted to use but isn’t in production anymore. More often than not, these designs have been copyrighted by either the manufacturer or designer so consent must be sought before proceeding. And if designing the print isn’t your forte, you can always collaborate with a designer to help create the designs you’re looking for. Speaking of creativity.

Personalisation element – digital printing has given designers free reign to add all manner of customizations to their collections. You could print fabric that could make t-shirts that come numbered in sequence or even ensure it comes out in different colours.

After digital printing the design Imaterial Textile Printers added a water repellant coating for extra protection... All thier products are water based & eco friendly [Image: Courtesy of Imaterial Textile Printers]
After digital printing the design Imaterial Textile Printers added a water repellant coating for extra protection… All thier products are water based & eco friendly [Image: Courtesy of Imaterial Textile Printers]
Apart from creativity, digital printing also gives designers the gift of time. The turnaround time is much shorter than dealing with traditional printing methods; which usually have the prints released into the market a year after it was designed. Collections could easily be on trend because it would literally takes a few weeks to get from design to final product and you’d never have to worry about whether you’d ever find more of that particular design. Companies such as Imaterial in S.A have been doing digital printing with three turnaround days for small job prints and up to 10 days for larger orders. Phew! Did we mention that it’s said to be a more environmentally friendly option for print since exact dye or ink amounts are used; reducing on waste? Plus less water is used in the process! Of course, it comes at a cost, as most technological advancements do. However, as tech continues to advance it’s bound to get cheaper. (Watch here the cost of fast fashion)

Ashlea Myson's design digitally printed on Lycra [Image: Courtesy of Imaterial Textile Printers]
Ashlea Myson’s design digitally printed on Lycra [Image: Courtesy of Imaterial Textile Printers]
Designers such as Ashlea Myson and Jenni Button of Philosophy Clothing have worked with Imaterial to create ladies fashion prints done on Lycra and parts of Philosophy’s stunning Basotho blanket jackets at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week respectively. Do you know of any other African designers taking advantage of digital printing? Or other companies offering that service? Talk to us in the comment section below and let’s get digital.

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