Digital Textile Printing: Machine & Process

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What's one of the newest methods of putting colorful designs on textiles? Here's a hint: it uses inkjet technology. In this lesson, you'll learn about digital textile printing.

What is Digital Textile Printing?

Have you ever wanted to design a piece of fabric for a special project? With digital textile printing, you can! Digital textile printing is the process of adding colorful designs to many kinds of fabric by using digital inkjet printing technology. It was patented in 1968 and popularized in the 1990s with the creation of more affordable digital printers, and in the last thirty years has opened up many new options for textile designers and artists. It tends to be more expensive than traditional textile dyeing, but it can be used to create custom textiles, is eco-friendly, and provides the capability to print detailed designs in brilliant colors.

How Is Digital Textile Printing Done?

So, how does the process work? Well, like any design project, digital textile printing begins with the art. An artist creates an image in any type of graphic design program (Adobe Illustrator, for example) and formats it as a Tagged Image File Format, otherwise known as a TIFF file. Designers use TIFF files because the format stores images without losing details (they tend to be much larger than JPEG files, which you might use when you take pictures with a digital camera). If the design is original, hand-done artwork, it's scanned and converted to digital format. Designs tend to be those without firm borders or seams so they can be repeated many times.

Here is an example of a seamless textile pattern. See how the shapes can be repeated in endless variations?

Now it's time to transfer the image to fabric. Digital textile printing uses inkjet technology and ink (in this case, dye) cartridges like a printer you may have at home, just on a much larger scale. The first step is to pretreat the fabric with liquid solutions that prepare it to accept the dye and better absorb the color. Then it's fed through the printer, which sprays the dye onto the textile with tiny droplets. The final step is fixing the fabric, a process that ensures the permanency of the design. Depending on the type of textile and type of dye, fixing may involve steam, dry heat, or pressure. Sometimes it requires a combination of two or more of those.

Example of one of many large-format digital textile printers available today

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