Textile Printing Methods that Every Designer Should Know: A Fabric Series

textile printing methods, fabric printing

The 4 Textile Printing Methods that Dominate the Fashion Industry

Fabric printing! One of the best ways to make a design your own! If you’re a small one-off designer then maybe you’d prefer more artisanal methods of batik or block-printing.  But if you’re trying to grow a scalable fashion business then you’ll want to learn all about screen printing, digital (DTG), heat transfer, and sublimation textile printing methods!

Screen-printing

Screen-printing is a printing method where screens and mesh are used to create a design on fabric. First, a stencil version of a design is made out of a nylon mesh screen. The fabric is placed underneath the mesh screen that’s stretched over a frame. Next, the ink/dye is applied one color at a time with a squeegee and pressed firmly into the fabric. There are two types of screen printing- flat bed screen printing and rotary screen printing- but rotary screen printing is the most cost-efficient.

Best Used For:

Since one color is applied at a time, this method is most viable for designs with a few solid, flat colors.

This is also a great method for designs with special details like prints with crisp, thin lines. Special inks can be used to add different textures and surfaces like metallic or foiling finishes.

Affordability

  • Screen printing is costly for designs with several colors– a different screen has to be made for each color in the print.
  • The high-preparations costs make this method cost effective for large, repetitive orders, but it isn’t feasible for small, one-off orders.

Pros:

  • The setup cost is high, but once the screens and stencils are made, you can produce several prints for a great price!  
  • Fabric choice is unlimited! The direct application completely permeates the fabric- yielding bright, intense results that are just as visible on light and dark colored fabrics.
  • As far as color vibrance, intensity, and permeance– screen-printing reigns supreme. The inks penetrate deeply into the fabric, holding better and longer than other forms of printing.

Cons:

  • Photographic, tonal and gradient prints won’t work as there are just too many colors. Screen printing is typically limited to 8-12 screens/colors.
  • The design has to fit within the screen measurements so it’s not ideal for allover prints or continuous designs.
  • Sample prints are too costly because the costs just to create the screens is too high.

Digital (Direct-to-Garment) Printing

Digital Printing and (direct-to-garment) is done with a special printer and water-soluble ink. The designs are printed directly from the computer file either on a garment or fabric roll similar to how your inkjet printer at home prints on paper. Finally, the artwork is heat set with a heat press or tunnel dryer.

Best Used For:

This method prints exactly what’s on the computer screen. So it’s great for highly detailed, sophisticated prints with photographic, tonal or gradated colors.

Affordability:

  • Much more affordable than screen printing when it comes to printing a small amount of yardage.

Pros:

  • Inks are designed specifically for each type of fabric, allowing for limitless fabric options!
  • This method is great for small quantities because the less you print, the less it costs.
  • Maximum design detail, precision, and consistency!

Cons:

  • The ink doesn’t penetrate very deeply, and it can start to wear off after repeated washes.
  • Since the ink doesn’t penetrate well, this method isn’t suitable for dark colored garments.
  • The color is flat- not as textural and bold as screen-prints.

Heat Transfer/ Thermal Printing

This process mainly involves a printer and a heat press machine. The printing is done on transfer paper first and then the design is transferred onto fabric as the fabric and paper are passed through hot rollers or a heat press.

Best Used For:

This is a great method for simplistic, redundant print jobs like logos or graphic t-shirts.

Affordability:

  • The heat transfer method is one of the most common, inexpensive textile printing methods in the industry. It’s cost-effective for one-offs and bulk orders alike.

Pros:

  • This is a quick way to print full color images on both light and dark fabrics. Colors remain bold and vibrant.

Cons:

  • Since vinyl transfer paper is used instead of ink, the print never penetrates. It sits on top of the fabric instead.
  • This means that prints can fade easily, and the hand-feel isn’t the best. Since the vinyl forms another layer on top if the fabric, the printed area of the garment may feel hard and stiff. The print may peel or crack over time especially after several washes.
  • Your design is limited as the colors can’t overlap. Tonal and gradated designs won’t pan out well.

Sublimation Printing

Sublimation printing is one of the newest techniques in the industry. Sublimation printers use heat to transfer dye onto paper which is then transferred either on fabric or the garment itself. The method is very similar to the heat transfer method, but there is one crucial difference. The heat sublimation ink transforms from a liquid to gas before totally disintegrating into the fabric. The ink’s gaseous state allows the ink to penetrate the fabric completely instead of sitting on top of the fabric.

Best Used For:

Sublimation printing is great for all-over/seam-to-seam printing. It is also good for placement prints which would be hard to engineer on fabric by the yard. The process results in bold, vivid artwork.

Affordability:

  • While the quality is better, this process is much more costly than the heat transfer method because of the cost of the equipment/ink costs.

Pros:

  • Since the gaseous ink dissolves completely into the fabrics, the cloth remains soft to the touch.
  • The quality lasts longer than heat transfer or digital printing methods making it a great option for activewear and swimwear which get a lot of wear as well as exposure to sun/chlorine.
  • Great for designs that need detail and precision.

Cons:

  • Fabric options are limited- sublimation inks only work on synthetics fibers, mainly polyester or poly blends.

As you know, textile printing is just one of the many elements of design. If you’re needing more guidance on design and development, check out our Source, Design, and Create Course to learn about EVERY step of the process!

Want to see how these methods work in person? Join us on our next Manufacturing tour in NYC, LA, or Miami. We often visit printing facilities so you can see this in action!

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