If your business involves design, you need to know the different printing methods available to print on fabric. And you need to know which fabric type works best with each process. All you need to know about printing on fabric and the fabric supply chain in the UK.

Here we take an in-depth look at the digital fabric production and printing process. We discuss which materials and fabric work best for this method. We also explain why we supply digital printing, and why this process works well on a particular bespoke fabric.

What is digital fabric printing?

Say you’re reproducing an image on your inkjet printer at home. That pretty much explains what the eco friendly digital fabric printing industry in the UK involves.

Digital fabric printers are effectively huge versions of your desktop printers. They have print heads for each colour that ‘jet’ the ink onto the fabric as it passes over. They do this with incredible accuracy.

This method is similar to how you reproduce an image on paper. Firstly, you take an image or file on your computer. You then print it directly onto the fabric. It’s just on a larger scale.

Fabric printing services UK has become very popular as it’s very economical, particularly if you have a minimal order.

Let's get technical about digital fabric printing

To help you start the process, let’s explain the technology involved.

People use this versatile method for reproducing detailed images and patterns, photographs and complicated designs. Additionally, it is most advantageous when designs have multiple colours and the required meter or run rate is lower.

The base fabric we use is usually white, ecru or Ivory. These shades will give the best reproduction of the design. Coloured fabrics can be digitally printed. However, like your desktop printer, one only adds the colour on top, and this may affect the overall effect.

Inks used in digital printing

Digital fabric printers print fabric with a number of inks. These range from the 4 process colours, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK) to between 8 and 12 colours. Additional colour channels add to the fabric printer's overall ‘gamut’ or colour space. This expands the range of colours that the machine is able to reproduce.

The wider the gamut, the greater the ability to reproduce fine tones, hit specific spot colours or outlying bright colours. Some printers may use Orange, Blue, Green, Red etc to improve the strength of certain shades.

They might use light colours such as Light Magento or Light Cyan to improve skin tone gradients. And then they could use greys and blacks to help with Black tones.  Some machines even allow one to add fluorescent colour channels. However, currently metallic colours cannot be printed digitally. 

This type of fabric printing digitally reproduces any design or image you want to create. It lets you use as many colours and tones as you wish, at any scale. Software called a ‘RIP’ converts the digital images to colours for each ink channel.

The 2 fabric print methods to use digitally

There are two main types of digital fabric printing – direct-to-fabric and sublimation printing using transfer paper. When designs are printed via either of these methods, we use similar machinery. Sometimes they even use the same machines that have had slight modifications.

The results are superb high-quality designs that don’t take long to print.

Remember this when you need to order smaller runs of exceptional quality custom digital printed materials. And don't forget this when you have quick turnaround times.

How sustainable is this fabric print method?

The digital process is known for its sustainability. It uses water-based inks that are eco-friendly and don’t contain chemicals.

This is one of the single most important advantages of this method. It reduces waste compared to other printing processes.

Usually, printed fabrics only becomes economical when the runs are high. But this isn’t the case with the digital process.

You can print your design on exactly the amount of fabric you need. And as you’re already printing using this type of ink, this method is very sustainable. Additionally, as you are printing the design you need, there is no compromise on design. You can also buy mass-produced fabrics.

The best fabrics to use to print digitally

We spoke about the print heads being close to the fabric during this type of printing. Because of this, you need to be careful that you order the right fabric.

Remember, those that contain numerous loose threads don’t react well to the digital method. This is because the threads could damage the heads if they came into contact with them.

At maake we print on custom fabrics such as organic cotton materials using the digital direct-to-fabric process. A lot of our customers love to use this method because of its sustainability.

They don't only print on fabrics for fashion, accessories and interiors (cushions, couches and curtains). Tea towels, napkins, tablecloths, table runners, aprons, cushions and other homeware products for sewing and manufacturing can also be printed.

Cotton fabric

We use this natural fibre, which includes 100% organic fabric, for clothing. In fact, it is used extensively in the fashion industry. It’s a very comfortable and long-lasting fabric, which is why it’s so popular to create printed cotton fabric.

At maake we use dye sublimation pigment inks on these fabrics. This way, we get the best possible results: high-quality fabric that is colour-fast. And the textile design is very clear.

Linen fabric

Printing this fabric or a blend of materials digitally will offer superb quality, whether the fabrics are medium or heavy in weight (grams per square metre).

People order this fabric for various products, such as upholstery, cushions, handbags, quilts and clothing.

The digital method of printing uses pigment ink which sticks to the fabric surface with a binding agent.

The result is superb. It looks as if one has painted the design onto the fabric.

Here’s an interesting fact: because of linen’s structure, some of the fibres may come loose during the process. This leaves a white or beige mark.

But that just adds to the fabric’s beauty and patina.

Man-made fabrics

Sublimation printing allows you to avoid many of the difficulties associated with direct fabric printing. This is particularly important if you print man-made materials like polyester and stretch lycra blends. This is because sublimation printing prints first on paper and transfers it to the fabric.

This method allows you to print on thicker, deeper pile fabrics and more delicate fabric bases. However, you can sometimes land up with a white lower pile on thicker pile materials.

This happens when the inks cannot penetrate deep enough. But sublimation printing usually does offer an excellent, class leading coverage.

Don’t order these textiles from fabric printers

We normally do not recommend mixed fabrics, (those made of two different fabrics) for digital printing. The reason? The inks used generally react with one type of fibre more than the other.

The inks don’t stick to certain mixed materials, so this could affect the colour of the design.

For instance, you cannot print on a low poly cotton fabric mix with sublimation inks. This is because the inks only bind to the synthetic fibres in the fabric.

For reactive dyes, you cannot print on fibres that are not natural. In the case of acid dyes, they will not even work on cotton fabric, only silk, wools and polyamide. In both cases, you need to specially prepare the fabric for printing.

The exception is when using digital pigment inks, which allow you use any base fabric. However, to get the best colours and fastness, we still recommend you prepare the fabric before you print.

This is the reason that maake does not often use this method on mixed materials. And when we do, we choose the selections of fabrics carefully. The result is the final product's superb printability and quality that our customers have come to expect from us.

Advantages of digitally printed materials

  • Reproduction is consistent throughout the run.
  • Detail is clear and precise.
  • This process works out relatively inexpensive compared to other printing methods.
  • Best for printing a single design on fabric, or a short run.
  • The cost doesn't change no matter how many colours you use in the process.
  • You can customise designs – including the scale, orientation and size.
  • Ability to print complex, intricate designs such as Ombre patterns with ease.
  • Reproduction quality stays the same, even if you print some fabric now and then again only a few months later.
  • You can order a fabric swatch first to see the effects and save on the printing price.

Consider the following before you print textiles

There are some disadvantages to consider before you decide to use the digital textile print method.

These include:

  • You can only use certain fabrics depending on your ink set. At maake, our digital fabric printing service involves using only some natural materials. These include cotton and linen or nylon. We do not currently print on silk or wool as these use different ink types to work.
  • You can’t reproduce the colour white within the print currently.
  • You can’t replicate Pantone colours naturally. However, maake offers a colour atlas which allows you to select from 2,500 colours to match your design.
  • Inks do not always pass through the materials well. So items like scarves need a print on the reverse to look less intense. This is unlike the print process using screens, which gives a full bleed through to the other side of the fabric.
  • You also can’t use metallics colours, and fluorescent fabrics are much harder to process.
  • More expensive for larger, simple print runs.
  • Cannot effectively print on coloured fabrics.

When you should use digitally printed textiles 

Digital fabric printing is ideal if you have a small digital print run of custom printed materials, or need to reproduce a one-off design.

It’s also great if you wish to customise a print, or use specific colours on it.

And it’s a really cost-effective method, too – you should experience a price drop.

Directory of services available at maake

maake uses the digital fabric printing process at our North London printing works.

As a fabric printing company we print on natural materials with special pigment ink, and man-made materials with our sublimation printing inks.

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