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The Wonderful World of Digital Fibre Printing

by Stephen Taylor (a Fredericton-based digital print designer. He can be reached at www.gicleeartprint.ca or www.taylormurray.ca)

Something wonderful occurred when technology made it possible for us to put images onto fibres and textile. People began incorporating photographs in their quilts and garments.  They printed photographs of family member, ancestors, even images of homesteads, friends, marriage licenses and diplomas and it has not stopped there. Digital fabric printing is one of the newest creative surface embellishments for quilted craft products such as pillows, wall hangings and clothing.

 The commercial process

Digital fabric printing has had an impact in textile design in 2 major directions: (1) new use of colour in design and (2) a re-adjustment of conventional printing processes. Historically, textile printing was executed by transferring media to fabrics by screens and rollers. Each pattern element was engraved onto a screen or roller and assigned a specific colour. Block printing is an even earlier example and one which greatly influenced later silkscreen printing. In block printing, the number of colours in a given design determined the number of woodblocks that were carved. Each block created a flat silhouette of the shape. A three dimensional effect of the motifs was obtained by printing several layers of flat separated shapes. So-called "traditional floral design" printed by rotary screen printers today, still retains the same look as the historical block printed designs. "Toile de Jouy design" originating from this historical printing method, has set the standard for traditional textile design, and is still a popular style in the market today.

Contemporary digital fabric printing has not only influenced visual styles, but also the concept and definition of printed textile design. The development of digital fabric printing has become more universal in its application and function. Fashion or interior designers can create their own printed fabrics. However, because of the creative freedom in which anything can be printable and anyone can be a print designer, it is critical to consider the design quality and aesthetics.

The big difference with digital printed textiles is that you can print exactly the size and colours you want. Large, cumbersome silkscreens are no longer necessary. You can save your designs and print them for a personalized, custom look.  You could, for example, have made a pattern for a window treatment and used the same design for accessories, like a pillow. You can create just one pillow if you like, and there is no wasted fabric.

 A changing technology

Unlike traditional textile printing technology, the key to digital fabric printing is in its process colour application. Photographic and tonal graphics created with millions of colours in Photoshop or similar software can be printed on fabric. Latest development of inks, colour management software and substrates enable users to produce a wider colour gamut and finer printing quality. For this reason, a new look of digitally printed fabrics is emerging in the high-end fashion design industry.

Just as silkscreen printing liberated artists and designers to experiment with multiple images on fabrics before being universally accepted into major textile printing technology, digital textile printing is adding a new freedom in the design process with colour application.

The professional artist and the hobbyist

Digital cameras and scanning offers even more possibilities for the professional artist and hobbyist. For example you have a photograph of a dress and you have designed a new pattern. You can do a draping to display your patterns in a 3D picture or photograph of a garment which means that the dress is shown now with your design. You can also print it out on paper to show your friends or relatives. Computer and ink jet printers are allowing commercial and home users new ways to discover the joys of sewing, quilting and customized design.

Digital textiles have found their way into patchwork bed coverings and garments, where vibrant colours and intricate designs allow quilters to enhance the expressive and decorative qualities of their work, as well as the textural richness. Home computers enable personal photographs and artwork to be easily transferred by using an inkjet printer, but the missing element until now has been high quality fabric that provides the right balance after printing of feel (referred to as ‘hand’), print clarity, ease of use, washability, dye fastness and durability. Knowing these are primary concerns to artists and hobbyists alike, industry responded by developing readily accessible high quality, commercially prepared fabrics for home use. Things have changed since the early days of digital fabric printing- welcome to this exciting new digital world!

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