Textile Printing: Methods & Equipment

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.

Paisleys and polka dots, flowers and stripes! Have you ever wondered how those fabulous, colorful images end up on fabric? In this lesson, explore some of the methods and tools used in textile printing.


Humans have worn colorful, printed textiles for thousands of years. There are many ways to print designs on fabric, and in this lesson we're going to explore a few of them. But first, you should know that all of the printing methods we will discuss require a few first steps before printing takes place. If the fabric is not going to remain its natural color, it must be dyed an overall shade. All fabrics have to be pretreated before the printing process -- the specifics depend on the type of process being used. Now, let's look at the three main categories of how printing on textiles is done and some of the tools needed.

Direct Printing

The first is direct printing, where color ink pastes are imprinted onto a fabric. This is the most straightforward method of textile printing. Examples of direct printing include block printing and roller printing.

Example of a woman block printing fabric. The textile has been dyed blue, and the ink used on the block print is white.
block printing

Block printing is one of the oldest methods used for textile printing, and we can find examples from hundreds of years ago. A design is carved onto a wooden or metal block. That block is dipped in dye paste and pressed onto the fabric's surface. It's simple and can be done with just a few tools, but this process is time-consuming and is done by hand. Roller printing, developed in England in the 1780s, allows the process to be mechanized. A design is engraved onto a copper cylinder or roller. When it's rolled over the fabric, it prints the design, repeating it with every complete roll. This method is continuous and can print great quantities of fabric. Both methods can be used to produce colorful, intricate patterns.

Discharge Printing

Another method of textile printing is discharge printing, a process that uses a water-based ink to deactivate or destroy the color dye in a fabric. This method is also sometimes called extract printing. In discharge printing methods, the ink is clear and contains a substance called an activator. When it's printed onto fabric, the inked areas turn a lighter color and look like they have been bleached. Color can also be added to the discharge ink so the lightened areas can include more than just one lighter tone. One method used to apply discharged inks is screen printing, where a stencil is applied to a mesh screen. Ink is then pushed through the screen so that the stencil image is printed onto the fabric. The process is repeated with separate screens for each desired color.

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