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3 Digital Fabric Printing Techniques: Advantages and Disadvantages

November 21, 2017
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Picture of a printing press used for quality prints
In this new entry, we'll be discussing three different digital fabric printing techniques, their benefits, and drawbacks.

Even though we find it hard to conceive of a world without technology and its overwhelmingly quick progress, most of the technology that we know as "digital" today was not originally done using a computer, and fabric printing is no exception.

The late 20th century and early 21st century marked the beginning of a technological revolution that saw the creation of cutting-edge printing technology that laid the foundation for digital fabric printing.

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.

There are different types of printing and printing techniques, and depending on what you want to achieve, each one has its advantages and disadvantages.

These techniques can be used for fashion textiles, garments, soft signage, banners, flags, and more.

Here Are the Most Common Fabric Printing Techniques

The most frequently used fabric printing methods nowadays are screen printing, inkjet printing, and dye sublimation.

Screen printing is an analog fabric printing method that has been around for a long time. As we explained before, it is the process of smearing a layer of ink over a screen to transfer it onto a piece of fabric.

This screen is also called a stencil, and a different stencil needs to be made for each design.

In the past, a large number of prints needed to be made for the process to be cost-effective. However, technology has given way to more cost-effective, versatile screen printing processes.

Now, there are two types of screen printing: rotary and flatbed.

Flatbed screen printing is a semi-continuous process, which in other words, means that it is an automated version of the manually operated screen printing process of the 18th century.

On the other hand, rotary screen printing uses cylindrical screens that rotate in a fixed position with the squeegee placed within the cylindrical stencil.

The fabric moves at a constant speed between the screen (or screens) and an impression roller that is located below the screen.

Rotary screen printing is continuous, unlike when silk or screen printing were first developed. This allows for higher production speeds, and thus, reduced costs.

Picture of a screen printing process

Pros of Screen Printing:

  • It's cost-effective for large runs.
  • Design placement is adaptable.
  • Produces clean-cut lines and detailed images.
  • Ink infiltrates the fabric
  • Color holds well, and it's long-lasting.

Cons of Screen Printing:

  • It's not cost-effective for multiple colors runs
  • Only simple shapes can be printed.
  • It's complicated and takes a relatively long time to set up the printer, which makes it impractical for single runs or printing just one item.
  • It's not environmentally friendly.

Did you know that…

Screen printing is an early fabric printing technique that can be traced back to the Song Dynasty, which ruled China from around 960 to 1279 AD.

Originally, this technique involved the use of a stencil drawn on a porous screen while a special spatula was used to spread ink through the stencil and onto the fabric. Each color had to be applied with a different stencil.

Direct-to-fabric printing is a technique where the printer transfers ink directly onto fabric using inkjet technology. The most detailed designs can be printed using this method, and the color palette is virtually endless.

Pros of Direct Printing:

  • It allows for single pieces and mid- and long-run productions.
  • It can be used for printing different types of fabric, such as cotton, nylon, and silk.
  • It has extensive color choices.
  • It is easy to customize designs.

Cons of Direct Printing:

  • It's not cost-effective for very large runs.
  • There's a limitation as to where designs can be placed.
  • Inks are delicate.
  • The quality of the results is limited.

Dye sublimation is one of the most modern fabric printing techniques.

Through this process, heat and pressure are applied to turn dyes into a gas. The gas then permeates the surface and attaches to polymer-based fibers, resulting in permanent, high-quality imaging.

Picture of the Dye Sublimation process
We have covered this process more extensively in a previous blog post that you can read here.

Pros of Dye Sublimation:

  • It's easy to set up.
  • The color palette is virtually unlimited.
  • Colors don't need to be separated.
  • It works very well for short runs (small or single batches).
  • There is no difference between the image and the fabric. as the dye is merged into the fabric.
  • It allows for highly detailed designs.
  • The image can be printed all the way to the edge of an item.
  • Continuous tones can be achieved, resulting in a photograph-like finish without using special techniques, such as half-screen printing.

Cons of Dye Sublimation

The disadvantages of using dye sublimation for fabric imaging are few, but here they are:

  • It doesn't become more cost-effective as production volume increases.
  • It can only be used with polyester, which is a donor material.

Direct-to-Fabric or Direct Disperse Dye Sublimation

More recently, a direct-to-fabric, dye-sublimation technique has been developed. However, it is still in its early stages.

This method eliminates the need for transfer paper, but it still requires the printed material to be run through a heat press to fix the dyes to the fabric, and the fabric needs to be pre-treated in order for the equipment to print directly onto it.

Picture of a screen printer

Pros of Direct-to-Fabric Dye Sublimation

  • It's easy to set up.
  • It allows for two-sided printing.
  • It removes one step from the production chain by eliminating the need for transfer paper.

Cons of Direct-to-Fabric Dye Sublimation

  • There is a high chance of color bleeding.
  • The fabric needs to be pre-treated.
  • The final product needs to be washed if used outdoors.
  • The resulting colors are not as bright and crisp.

Depending on what you need your fabric for, one method may work better than the others.

Screen printing and direct-to-fabric inkjet printing are more suitable for fabric that will be printed to create garments or to print already-made garments. Dye sublimation, on the other hand, is more commonly used for wide-format printing.

However, dye sublimation can also be used for printing garments, as well as other materials such as mugs, shoes, bags, metal and glass products, and more — provided that they are coated or treated with a polymer base.

Picture of Auditorium Banner by Southern Tailors
At Southern Tailors Fabric Imaging, we combine the most advanced technology with expert professionals to ensure a top-quality final product that fulfills all our clients' expectations.

We produce banners, flags, backdrops, and custom orders that suit your fabric imaging needs. Give us a call at (404) 367-8660 or send us a message through the contact us form to let us know what you need done.

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