Fabric Print Methods
Fabric Print Methods can be confusing and overwhelming if you are not familiar with the process. There are many different options to choose from and it is important to select the correct fabric print method in order for your print artwork to reflect what you want to create, your budget and production feasibility. To help you, we have summarised the most common print types, their functions, as well as the pros and cons of each. If you prefer a personalised experience to assist with your design needs, then you can book a Design Consult with one of our Senior Designers.
What to consider before you settle on your print design
The production feasibility and limitations of your printing methods are determined by such as: Background colours, number of colours, gradient, seamless repeat, borders, scale , quality, quantity, budget and minimum runs for printing production(MOQ’s).
- Ensure that your fabric + chosen print method + print work well together – You need to check that the chosen fabric, the print artwork and the print method works together. For example, screen printing don’t work well on synthetic fabrics.
- The cost – Some print methods have large set-up costs but still is the most cost-effective once in the printing process. Others have less or no set-up cost but significantly higher costs in the printing process. Some have both low set-up costs and printing process charges but require large print runs.
Some of the most commonly used fabric print methods
Digital fabric printing uses computer-controlled printers to transfer designs or images stored in digital files to fabric. This technology allows people to create intricate patterns faster and more easily.
- The print resolution is greater, giving the design clear, sharp, edges and gradients like a photograph.
- Fast process! If you are working within a tight deadline and just have to get it done, digital printing could be your best option.
- No set-up cost. If you are producing low quantities, digital printing can be more cost effective than many other print methods which requires set-up cost and larger printing runs in order to make it worth while.
- You can have as many colours as there are dyes. It’s potentially limitless.
- Without the need for screens, it also makes it possible to increase the length between repeats or even completely do without them. This gives incredible flexibility to the original artwork and allows for panoramic and/or photographic fabric print.
- Easy to revise/ change/ modify the artwork.
- The printer proof swatch is your final result, so what you hold in your hands will be recreated accurately according to your sample in the final print run.
- Can print onto most fabrics types including synthetic.
- No pollution and low energy consumption supports a green and environmental friendly production process!
- More expensive in higher quantity print runs, this is because al though there is no set-up cost, the cost per yard in the printing process is higher than most other print methods.
- Can lack saturation and fading with both time and sun, this is generally only a problem with small print suppliers.
In screen printing, each colour is applied individually on a separate screen during a single machine cycle.
Screen printing works best when printing relatively simple (e.g., geometric) shapes with a small number of colours. Each colour will occur cost as they all need their own screen / stencil to be made so you would want to consider how many colours you want your artwork to include. You can however re-use the screens to offer multiple colour-ways of your print deign using the same number of colours, just different colours.
Types of screen printing
Hand-screen printing – A layer of ink is smeared over a screen to transfer it onto a piece of fabric.
Flat screen printing – is a semi-continuous process, it is an automated version of the manually operated screen printing process. This method is most often used for printing small print runs (common process in Indonesia) or on ready-made objects (t-shirts, bags).
Rotary screen printing – Used for printing on entire rolls of fabric. Cylindrical screens are used to rotate in a fixed position with the squeegee placed within the cylindrical stencil. Rotary screen printing is continuous, unlike when silk or screen printing were first developed. This allows for higher production speeds and the minimum for printing usefully starts at 2000 yards. This process is more precise than the other screen printing options and is more cost effective to print per yard.
It is very difficult (and sometimes impossible) to perform smooth tonal transitions from one colour to the other, for example, a two-colour gradient. The closest solution to a gradient transition is to design a halftone. Halftone consist of tiny liens or dots that are gradually becoming more spaced out or closer together in order to give the illusion of a gradient. This process of halftone printing looks best when the printed ink colour is darker than the background.
- Beautiful image reproductions.
- Colour holds well, and it’s long-lasting.
- Ideal for sharp edges and solid blocks of colour.
- The actual printing itself is cost-effective for large runs or as long as you produce the right amount to make it worth while the screen / cylinder set-up fee, or if you will use the screens repeatedly (you may change colours offering multiple colour-ways).
- One colour per screen – screen printing can only use a maximum of eight colours on white garments and seven colours on darker garments.
- Does not work well for synthetic fabrics.
- Very labour-intensive and timelines can be unpredictable.
- It’s complicated and takes a relatively long time to set up for the printer, which makes it impractical for small runs.
- Not great for photos/colour gradient.
- It’s not environmentally friendly as it creates a lot of waste.
- There are set-up fees per colour as each colour needs it’s own screen / stencil made.
Discharge ink is a specific type of water-based ink that has a discharge agent in the mixture to help remove existing dye from the fabric, replacing it with the dye inside the ink. In contrast to plastisol inks that sit on top of the surface of a textile, discharge inks soak into the fabric. This results in a soft print that cannot be felt when you run your fingers across the garment and that’s essential for many projects, especially fabrics that require a natural drape without the added stiffness of a plastisol design.
Discharge printing is also great for printing on delicate fabrics like silk or linen because the ink doesn’t sit on top of these materials so you won’t have issues with cracking or flaking, which can happen with plastisol prints. Discharge inks are also easy to use because they dry quickly without any heat needed (just air drying will do).
- You can print with any color! Discharge fabric printing uses a unique process that allows you to create your own color palette or use an existing one. This means that if you have a brand color scheme in mind, you can keep it consistent throughout every piece of clothing in your line.
- It’s possible to print intricate patterns with delicate colours on deep ground colour, it can have great depth, clarity and vibrant colours.
- The best way to print on dark background with non-traditional inks.
- Very soft hand feel, barley can feel the print.
- The cost of discharge fabric printing is comparable to screen printing and other processes that require multiple steps and complicated equipment. Discharge printing only requires one step and works with any type of textile garment—you don’t need special machinery or expensive ink cartridges like some other processes do.
- You don’t need many materials or tools for this process —many printers only require water and some detergent (which is usually included).
- Can be hard to use for photographic style or process printing
- Doesn’t work well with certain types of fabrics. Only works on natural fibers, like cotton, a blend can’t be used
- It’s not very eco-friendly.
- Not shirt colours will discharge, for example, dark blue tends to not work well.
- The process can be tricky and any mistakes can lead to damages.
- Limited choice of ground and motif colours.
A stamp is created from your design to imprint with ink onto the fabric. The level of detail that you can get from stamp printing is limited, so this is not suitable for intricate designs.
- No need for machines.
- Design is always exact.
- Great for small runs.
- Not very detailed.
- Can’t make large quantities.
- Only one design per stamp.
- Quality is inconsistent.
This is a multi-step process that produces some of the best results of all the fabric printing methods. Designs are printed onto a thermal transfer paper, known as dye sublimation paper. The paper is used to print the design onto the fabric. Both heat and pressure are used to permanently bond the inks to the fibres of the fabric, leaving your fabric as soft as it was before it was printed on. The deep infusion technique penetrates special water-based inks deep into the textile, making your print permanent. Perfect for intricate details as well as colours.
- Amazing image reproduction that is permanent.
- Leaves no texture or residue on the fabric.
- Eco-friendly, water-based inks don’t fade or peel.
- Suitable for all size print runs.
- Not for use on natural fabrics, only on poly textiles.
- Requires specialist equipment and dyes.
- More expensive printing method.
- Requires in-depth knowledge and experience.
Pigment printing is one of the most popular printing techniques for use on cellulose fibres, making them ideal for use on natural fabrics. This fabric printing method can also work on synthetic materials, making it versatile. It is a localized technique that involves applying dyes to the area of fabric where you want your design to be located. The process is repeated to make the colour appear stronger on the fabric.
- Bright printing with permanent colour.
- Easy to do, good colour matching.
- Cost-effective, no high-end machinery.
- High-speed printing technique.
- Not applied directly to the fabric.
- Uses binders that leave a coating on the textile.
- Colour lessens when repeatedly used over the same material.
- Dye sits on top of the fibres rather than embeds.
Reactive printing is one of the heat-activated fabric printing methods. It is done by pre-coating the fabrics with a binder (similar to that of pigment printing) and a printing additive. It prints a dye or wax onto the fabric, and the heat reaction permanently bonds the image to the textile. It is similar to coating the fabric with the design, then steaming the fabric to create a reaction that bonds the design to the material.
- Creates a chemical bond between the ink and fabric fibres.
- Works well on natural textiles.
- Wash-fast and rub-fast.
- Outstanding colour vibrancy.
- Requires pre-treatment.
- Also requires post-treatment.
- Not particularly easy to carry out.
- Not the most cost-effective printing method.
Transfer printing can be done professionally on larger runs; however, it will leave a shiny film or surface texture on your fabric. Transfer printing is not a permanent method of fabric printing as it can crack and peel with multiple washes, and often fades.
- Can print with standard printer.
- No specialist equipment needed.
- Great for small runs.
- Easy to print and transfer.
- Leaves a surface texture/film.
- Transfers are single-use.
- Peels, cracks, and fades.
- Can suffer from low resolutions.
There are different types of fabric printing inks. Each has its own characteristics and properties, which you should consider when selecting one for your project. Here’s a brief overview of some of the most common types of fabric printing inks.
DISPERSE INKS – Is one of the most type of digital textile ink. It is ideal for printing designs onto clothing and other items because they dry quickly without leaving stains or marks on the garments. In addition to their fast drying time, disperse inks also have an excellent adhesion to a wide range of substrates (such as paper). This makes them ideal for use on textiles such as clothing or towels where they must adhere well without causing damage to the material being printed upon.
REACTIVE INKS – A type of ink that is designed to bond with cellulose fibers. The term “reactive” refers to how the ink reacts with the fabric when it is applied. Reactive inks do best on linen, rayon, nylon and other cellulosic materials.
ACID INKS – Are great for high-quality, long-lasting prints on fabric. These inks are made up of dyes that form ionic or electrostatic bonds with textiles like silk, wool, and nylon. They can also be used on synthetic fabrics such as polyester. Acid incs require pretreatment of the fabric before printing. They are applied directly to the textile then steamed to set the ink. Fabric with reactive and acid ink must be washed after transfer to remove any residue. Reactive and acid-based inks also have to be set into the fabrics with a post-processing heating procedure to permanently set the dyes.
PIGMENT INKS – Is for digital printing processes and can be applied to a wide range of natural fabrics including cotton, wool, silk, linen and more. Pigment ink is ideal for printing on textiles where vibrant colours and durability are required without sacrificing the natural feel of the fabric. Pigments can be blended to create custom colours that cannot be achieved using other types of ink technology such as sublimation or direct-to-garment printing (DTG).
Which inks are best for which fabric?
Disperse and sublimation are used on polyester, acetate rayon, poly-Lycra® and acrylics and require post-treatment heat.
Reactive dyes are best for cotton, linen, rayon, nylon and other cellulosic materials and require pre-and post-treatment.
Acid dyes work on wool, silk, polyamides, cashmere, angora and nylon and require post-treatment.
Pigment works on cotton and natural fabrics and requires post-treatment heat