Fabric Printing Techniques

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.

Have you ever wanted to print personalized designs on a shirt or flag? How does fabric get its colorful designs? In this lesson, learn the basics about several fabric printing techniques.

Why Print on Fabric?

Next time you visit a clothing store or a place that sells home furnishings, look around at the colorful vividly decorated fabrics. How did those designs get there? Most likely they were created using fabric printing techniques. Printing creates decorations on fabrics that last over time. There are many ways to print on fabric, some going back hundreds of years, and others taking advantage of new technologies.

First Steps in Fabric Printing

Most fabrics are washed before any printing process begins to remove any finishing chemicals or sizing agents, substances added to fabric near the end of the manufacturing process that can impede the dye's ability to work well.

Then, the coloring agent is prepared. Most fabrics are colored and decorated by dyes, usually thickened to a paste-like consistency so they stay where they are printed and don't bleed onto other areas of the fabric. Why dye? Unlike paints, which stay on the surface, dyes penetrate into fabric fibers, making them more permanent.

Methods for Fabric Printing

There are two basic printing methods, direct printing and resist printing.

Direct Printing

Direct printing is where a dye is used to add color directly to fabric.

Block printing

One of the oldest direct printing techniques is block printing. You can find examples dating back thousands of years. In block printing, a design is carved into a hard substance like wood. Then, fabric is laid out flat, and the block is dipped in dye and pressed onto the fabric. Here's an image of a man using special printing blocks to decorate a type of traditional fabric from Ghana known as Adinkra cloth.

Example of block printing. This man is using special blocks to create a traditional fabric from Ghana known as Adinkra cloth.
Man printing Adinkra cloth

As the image illustrates, block printing doesn't require many tools and can be done manually. The process is simply repeated until the desired effect is reached. Some printing blocks can be quite intricate, as in these examples of patterns used on fabrics from India.

Examples of designs from block prints for Indian fabrics, ca. 1924.
Examples of block prints

Engraved roller printing

Similar to block printing but taking the idea to a much more industrial level is engraved roller printing. A large copper cylinder is engraved with designs that are then printed on fabric as it is fed through a machine. The design repeats as many times as needed. Many fabrics printed in factories in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were created with this process.

Examples of fabrics printed by the Old Pacific Print Works. These are wool prints from a sample book, ca. 1871.
Examples of printed fabrics

Screen printing

Screen printing uses a pattern or template with gaps in it for the design, which is burned onto a screen with an exposure light. Ink is pushed into the pattern, leaving color on the fabric through the gaps in the pattern. Screen printing can be done flat or on a rotary printing press. A separate screen must be used for each color.

Digital fabric printing

One of the newest methods is digital fabric printing, done with ink jet technology (yes, just like your home printer). It uses inks formulated for specific kinds of fabrics. The fabric is fed through a printer, which applies the design through thousands of tiny ink drops. This method isn't cheap, but it can produce small amounts of very personalized fabrics. It's also friendly to the environment because it uses only a minimum amount of ink. The fabric must then be heated or steamed to set the design and make it permanent.

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