Textile Printing: How Does It Work?

15 January 2020

Do you want to open a fabric store? Or maybe you want to go after your dream and launch a clothing line? Have you been thinking for a long time about opening an on-demand online T-short store? If you have thought about working with fabric, it is only a matter of time when you will have to think about textile printing and how you need to go about it.


For the people that know little about the industry, it might feel like magic. All you need to have a T-shirt with your favorite character is enter the right store, and there you have it — dozens of choices, waiting for you to buy then. But, as with almost anything, things are not as simple as they seem.


The history of printing is centuries old, and so is textile printing. People have been looking for more efficient ways to print on fabrics, for decades; it’s story is full of drama, mystery, and craftsmanship. We will not talk about it today, but what we will explore is how those floral patterns you love come to life. And yes, you’re right, it’s pure magic.


If you have ever wondered how your favorite clothes are produced and what you need to know to bring them to life yourself, you will find our article enlightening.


1. Choose a Fabric 


Carefully organized colorful rolls of textile


After you determine why you need to print on clothes, it’s time to move on to the fabric.


The modern technologies allow printing on almost any kind of fabric, including 100% synthetics and natural fibers. The most common choices you have for textile printing are cotton, silk, polyester, nylon, and wool, but of course, this list isn’t comprehensive.


2. Now to the Ink 


Red textile printing ink


The ink you chose will depend on the type of material you work with and the method of printing you want to use. Mainly there are three types of ink used in textile printing.


  • For natural and synthetic materials — Pigment Ink


Marketed towards more professional users and printing houses, pigment ink is a perfect solution for printing on both natural and synthetic materials. The water-based ink is often used in printing on high-end furnishings, decorations, and clothes because it provides a wide range of color gamut. When printing with pigment ink, no pretreatment is necessary.


  • For natural materials — Acid and Reactive Ink.


These types of ink are the most common types of dye-based inks. While the result is rich in colors and has a wide color gamut, the process is labor-intensive. Typically, for the ink to penetrate the fabric, it needs to be pretreated, heat, cleaned, and steamed.


  • Synthetic materials (polyester, lycra, and spandex) — Disperse Dye Ink.


Disperse Dye Ink, also known as Sublimation Ink, is used for printing of flags, banners, signs, other commercial printing materials, and sportswear. In other words, in the industries that rely heavily on synthetic materials. The colors are bright and don’t wash off. This type of ink is typically used when using a sublimation printing method, which you can read more about below.


3. Types of printing 


Different colorful textiles with prints placed on a table


Textile printing is a delicate art that involves many variables, all of which need to be accounted for. We have already talked about the fabric and the ink, no we need to understand arguably the most important of them all — printing type. The type of textile you choose will determine what you print will look like and what its properties will be.


There are three types of printing most often used in the modern textile printing industry. If you have to print fabric, you will most likely encounter the following types of printing, with their respective subtypes.


  • Direct printing


Just as the name says, it involved applying the colors right on the surface of the fabric.


  • Discharge printing


Unlike direct printing, discharge printing involves removing colors from the textile, using special chemicals.


  • Resist printing


In this method, a special paste is applied in areas that need not change their color during dyeing, resulting in patterns around those resistant areas.


4. Methods of printing 


Now, when you’re familiar with different types of printing, we have to talk about textile printing methods. Of course, there are many more types we haven’t talked about. Each of them has its pros and cons, and it is better for one kind of work and not the other one.


Here is the variety of the methods available and what you can do with them:


I. Block printing


A person creating a floral print on a fabric using block printing method


In block printing, the prints are created with the pre-made woos or metal carves and applied against the material like a large stamp.


The blocks are often handcrafted and pressed by hand against the surface. It is a time-consuming process that demands a lot of attention to details and craftsmanship. That’s why with the cheaper alternatives available, the textile printing type will likely turn into an old-fashioned one pretty soon. However, people in many parts of the world, especially in Eastern-Asia still use it.


II. Screen printing 


Green color screen printing


A popular type of printing the use of which has increased enormously in the last years because of the versatility of the method. It allows printing on a wide variety of materials, producing bright patterns and images with depth.


There are two main types of screen printing: flat-screen printing and rotary screen printing.


Much like its regular printing brother is known as offset printing, rotary screen printing allows for the printing of continuous patterns and is performed automatically. Flat-screen printing is performed manually and has a lower production rate.


The drawback is its relatively high costs. To rotary screen print, you need special technologies and special professionals who will supervise the whole process. Flat-screen printing, on its turn, is expensive if many colors are applied because of how labor-intensive it is.


So, screen printing might not be the option if you are looking for one item printing. In large runs, however, it is productive and flexible printing used across industries.


III. Digital Printing 


Using digital textile printing to print sunflower on a cotton material


The direct printing has gained a lot of popularity recently thanks to its ease and accessibility.


The process isn’t much different from regular printing. The prints are made using a special printer that transfers digital images on to the surface of the fabric.


If detailed images and small runs are what you are working with, then digital printing is the method for you. It allows us to produce vibrant images in small amounts pretty quickly.


The costs, however, increases with the volume. Another drawback is its durability — the prints might ware off because they do not penetrate the fabric deeply.


IV. Thermal-transfer printing 


Transferring a funny image on a T-shirt using thermo printing


Most of the logos, images, and patterns on your T-shirt have been transferred on the surface of the fabric using high temperatures, aka thermal printing. It’s the easiest, most common, and affordable textile printing methods today.


The prints are initially made on a piece of paper. The paper is pressed against the textile, then heated, and transferred on to the fabric.


The biggest con of the method is the quality of the print. Since the colors don’t penetrate the fabric and just sit on its surface, the prints can easily wash off, become stiff, or even pill off. The color range is also limited, and recreating depth might now be as easy as it would’ve been with other types.


V. Sublimation printing  


Example of sublimation printing on a sportswear


While other types of printing have been around for at least a couple of decades, sublimation is a relatively new technique. It thanks to this technique, your sportswear never wears off, and the promotional banners you order can last for years even when exposed to wind, sun, and water.


Similar to thermal printing, sublimation printers use heat to transfer the image on to the surface of a fabric. The biggest difference between the two is that instead of just laying on the surface of the clothes, sublimation ink becomes from a liquid to gas. That allows us to ‘piece’ the material and penetrate the fabric completely.


Many benefits of the printing method are because of that. The quality of prints is significantly better than done using regular thermal printing. Prints are more durable and vivid.


The biggest drawbacks are its relatively high price and the limited choice of materials. It’s only possible to print on synthetic material using this method.


5. Fixation methods 

 Butterfly pattern on a screen used for textile printing


After the printing is complete, the colors need to be fixed and solidified to make sure it can withstand washings and is nice to touch.


There are mainly three types of fixation methods, known as thermo-fixation, super-heated, and high-pressure steaming. The first type doesn’t use steam and is high in productivity. It leads to 10-15% color loss, making shades duller. The biggest perk of the method is its productivity — it is a continuous process done without interruptions.


Super-heated steaming is a process of continuous dye fixation, considered being the best of the three methods we mentioned. There is no loss of color and offers a higher productivity rate.


And the last method known as high-pressure steaming is lower in its productivity because it is a discontinuous process. The fixation of the dye is done with high-pressure steam. The colors, however, end up having more depth, brightness, and smoothness.


That’s how textile printing makes magic happen


Clothes with different colorful patterns


You might not think about it, never notice it, but it doesn’t change the fact that the clothes you wear, the furniture you use, and the posters you see on your way to work, were easy to make. Textile printing consists of many steps and asks for a remarkable level of expertise and attention to detail.


So, the next time you pick up your favorite dress with prints and see an astonishing piece of furniture, spend a minute to appreciate all the work that went into it to produce it.

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