Fabric printing refers to creating beautiful designs and patterns on textile surfaces.
The beautiful swirls of patterns and designs on that pretty fabric you just bought from the fabric store – it all looks so seamless, effortless & easy. But fabric printing is anything but easy. It is very difficult to achieve precision and perfection and durable fast colours on the surface of fabrics.
In the production process of textiles the printing of patterns and designs comes somewhat in the final stages. The printing process when you read about it is simple enough – dyes or pigments are used to make those designs. But to make them stick there, separately without a mess, yard after yard – that is the difficult part.
The three most important types of textile printing methods are Direct printing, discharge printing and resist printing. Direct printing involves printing directly on to the surface of the fabric with dyes/ pigments. Discharge printing involves removing colours from specific areas from an already dyed fabric by applying appropriate chemicals .Resist printing involves applying a special resist paste on the fabric in patterns and then dyeing the fabric so that the paste applied areas will resist dyeing and will appear as the base colour.Batik and tie and dye are examples of this type of fabric printing.
Printing onto fabric is done in a variety of specific methods involving different processes; some important ones are described below
Textile/Fabric Printing Techniques
1 Engraved Roller printing
This refers to the fabric printing in which dye is applied to fabric which is passed through design engraved rollers in the printing machine. This is how most of the printed fabric is made – rolls of fabric you buy to make clothes . The advantage of this printing is that the same high quality print is made throughout the whole lot the same way. A separate roller is used for different colours . The fabric after it is printed is passed through processes of drying and steaming to set the dye.
2 Screen printing
Screen printing is a hand method of direct fabric printing in which screens / mesh/ films are used to transfer patterns on to the fabric. It involves the use of a porous mesh screen which is stretched over a frame.In screen printing a stencil of the design is made out of porous nylon fabric. The areas which does not have prints are covered and then the screens are placed on the fabric and a wooden squeegee is used to work the colour through the porous screen on to the fabric
There are two types of screen printing – flat bed screen printing and rotary screen printing. Flat bed screen printing is expensive . Rotary screen printing is a mechanised version of flat screen printing and is the most commonly used textile printing techniue commercially
An advantage of screen printing over thermal printing is that you can print on light colours as well as dark coloured fabrics with the same intensity.Also you can make very large patterns with soft outlines like the one you have seen in silk scarves with this method
The main disadvantage of screen printing is that it is a labour intensive method and hence printing small lots are not cost effective with screen printing. The setting up cost of each job is slightly high but once that is set up you can make a lot of prints at a very cost effective way. If you have a business where you need to print a lot of fabric pieces screen printing is a viable option .
Some people have a problem with screen printing because of the method used and the waste it produces
3. Stencil printing
This printing involves use of stencils cut in the shape of the designs . The stencils are made of metal wood paper or plastic. The dye / colour is applied on the spaces cut inside the stencil. This is a very easy method of printing on fabric which can be done even by a kid. But the disadvantage is that it is labour intensive and takes a long time to print. It is mostly used for single use purposes
This is the method of creating prints with a block of wood, copper or other material bearing a design .Metal or wooden blocks are carved in the design and dye is applied on the carved design . This is then pressed and applied on the face of the fabric. Checkout the post on diy block printing for more details
5 Spray printing
As the name suggests controlled spraying using specialised sprayers is used to transfer dye on to the fabric . A spray gun is used to force the colour on to the fabric through screens
6. Heat transfer or thermal transfer printing
This method involves a printing machine and a heat press machine to transfer designs on fabric . This is one of the most inexpensive methods used in garment printing business – think thousands of t-shirts printed this way with logos and messages.
In this printing process the printing is done on paper first and then this design on the paper is transferred to the fabric surface by passing the paper and fabric through hot rollers.
There are some problems inherent in this method though. The main problem with this method is that the dye doesnot penetrate the fabric deep enough and the fabric may show through the design. Sometimes the colours fade after a wash and at times the transfer may peel or crack. Sometimes the fabric feels rough after the printing is done. At times the outline of transfer paper becomes visible on the fabric surface
But because of the beautiful and clear cut designs made with this printing technique this is used by many designers.
7. Direct to garment digital printing (DTG)
This is process in which a special inkjet printer with special ink is used to print directly on fabric from the computer directly.The artwork and the dye is heat set with a heat press or tunnel dryer. The advantage of direct to garment digital printing is that you can make any number of prints, even small lots at low cost and you get realistic looking pictures printed on to the fabric . The disadvantage is that the effect may wear off with repeated washes. But the fast and easy application and versatility makes this a favourite method of printing especially for making samples
8 Printing with inkjet printers
This is a homemade version of the direct to garment printing. An ordinary inkjet printer is used to print on fabric pieces. Checkout the post on inkjet printing on fabric for more details.
9. Sublimation transfer printing.
This method involves a sublimation dye which is transferred to the fabric with heat.You need inkjet or colour laser printer, sublimation ink and a heat press machine for this printing technique
This method is definitely costlier than the thermal transfer method as the ink is very costly. But the resultant prints are very vivid and attractive
A major disadvantage of this method is that it is not possible to print onto to cotton fabrics ( the best fabrics are synthetic or 100% polyester) and if you want to use this method for printing onto cotton fabric you will have to apply an appropriate coating on cotton fabric surface .
Though sublimation printing is supposed to be very durable and lasts a long long time it may wear off with exposure to direct sunlight.
10 Photo Printing
In this type of printing the fabric is coated with a chemical ( Liquid photo emulsion) that is sensitive to light and then any photograph may be printed on it. Checkout this tutorial on doing this printing yourself