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Creatives are Redefining Fabrics in Digital Textile Printing

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In her latest piece for WhichPLM, resident digital printing expert, Debbie McKeegan, explores how creative are redefining fabrics. “The digital market is expanding at a rapid pace and it’s a tribute to the creativity of both the print and design industry working together that we are witnessing the removal of boundaries for designers.”

Digital print technology has unlocked a whole host of new and exciting creative opportunities for designers. It’s now possible to print just one metre of fabric in minutes, direct from the computer to the print machine. Digital print is affordable, fast and efficient, making sampling and product creation, simpler and achievable for all.

Web to print companies have facilitated new methods of production for many large and small brands. Once only available for cottons, using fast pigment printed methods, many companies now offer a vast selection of fabric for online sampling at low meterage. It has taken some time, but as always, as demand has grown, so has the availability of low volume access to technical fabrics which are available from specialist printers. But the results vary between suppliers and every part of the print process must be carefully managed.

Textile technology is now also essential practice to facilitate consistent, digital fabric production. Each fabric will react differently to the digital process; Ink sets, print method, fabric type, chemistry, preparation and post finishing are all essential components to the final fabric in order to ensure that it meets the client’s expectations for the finished garment or final product.

How is the final fabric going to be used? There are vast differences between the specifications of a polyester to be used in a Fashion garment for example, or Home Furnishing. The end product will define the fabrics essential properties. Colour Gamut, drape and handle, rub fastness, wearability, stretch, washability (and so on) all must be taken into account by the designer at the onset.

But it’s not only fashion and Furnishing designers that buy digital print. Print Designers who once sold their designs as flat painted paper prints or painted artwork will now sell from custom printed swatches. Displaying their designs as fabrics immediately demonstrates to the targeted buyer the suitability of the design for end use, building confidence and speeding up the buying process.

Print sampling has finally become cost effective and we see many clients pushing the boundaries of what was once an expensive part of design origination. For the creative community a whole new generation of products has emerged, born by the free access to digital fabrics.

We see many fabric crossing industries. Who would have thought that Neoprene and Scuba, once highly technical Aqua fabrics, would become a mainstay on the world’s fashion catwalks?

The same can be said for the Cotton family! Some Cottons once only used for Home Furnishings are now essential fabrics for fashion brands. Cotton Drill – a heavy, durable fabric – might be used for Homeware, Cushions, Curtains or Upholstery. However, Drill is also now used in Luxury garments by apparel designers. As a polyester, Bridal Satin is another example. It’s just as likely to be used as a Furnishing fabric for a sofa or residential window dressing as it is to be used in the manufacture of high street Bomber jackets for mainstream retailers. Here, the properties of both fabrics are suitable for multiple applications. And if needed they can also be fine-tuned by the Textile technologist. Utilising specialist finishing techniques and traditional manufacturing methods, the printed fabric can be altered post print by chemical means to improve handle and light fastness if required.

The expanse in the number of different textile substrates now available for customised print is vast – and continues to grow to meet the demands of the infinite bespoke marketplace. The most common fabrics groups are; Cotton, Polyester, Wool, Fire Resistant, Sports and Active wear and Silk.

But having chosen your fabric, how do you select the correct ink set and print process? There is a huge disparity in the knowledge base at the heart of digital print. This applies to both print providers who must learn to understand the needs of their clients, and our clients who must now communicate with their print provider to facilitate best practice. Therefore, it is every manufacturer’s duty to provide accurate information to aid their client’s choice. I come across this issue daily. For print professionals the use of technical jargon is an everyday occurrence but for our customers, how many of them really understand the difference in the properties of a pigment print compared to a reactive print, for example? Most print buyers do, but sadly many of our graduates have little or no exposure to the technical methodology of print in the education sector, and it’s only through the collaboration of the print and creative industries that knowledge can be shared.

Equally as digital print technology bridges new industries we now have clients buying print who would have previously bought off the shelf fabrics from trade companies. The Design community, be they fashion or Interior based, now have the confidence to commission customised bespoke print and they need professional guidance.

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Making an informed choice is vital, as is the access to informative data via the print industry, which is now essential.

Digital fabric print is witnessing a huge surge in innovation. As with all markets it’s the creative mind that will drive the next turning point. Specialist fabrics with multiple uses bridge the gap between Fashion and Home Furnishings and, for the creative, they offer a unique opportunity for growth and entrepreneurism.

Emerging markets, facilitated in part by online sales, are redefining the application of Digital fabric print. We have seen and will continue to witness huge growth in all sectors of Fashion, Homeware, Sports and Active wear, alongside the innovation and use of technical fabrics for Industrial and Commercial applications. Mass customisation is now accepted as an exciting growth area for Home Furnishings and Specialist Décor.

The availability of both affordable print and diverse media has brought about a sea of change across multiple Industries. Where we go to next is only limited by the imagination of our vibrant design professionals, whilst working alongside print innovators and manufacturers to facilitate creativity.

Before you embrace the creative freedom offered by Digital technology, do your research. Choose your print partner wisely. Get to know your substrates and if your print partner cannot provide accurate information go somewhere else, or else the relationship will be doomed from the start. Get advice from a knowledgeable textile specialist. Often the fabric suppliers will help provide the information needed to make your informed choice. Samples are essential, prior to print. Commission a small printed sample for testing, if your finished print needs to meet legal specifications/requirements for your preferred end use.

Colour Management is critical and a huge topic. Be aware that it’s impossible to expect your printer to perfectly match an image viewed on your unique computer screen. Yes, it’s possible to calibrate a CAD screen in a production environment for perfect colour matching in a studio, but if you need precise colour use Pantone references or commission a pre-print proof.

The digital market is expanding at a rapid pace and it’s a tribute to the creativity of both the print and design industry working together that we are witnessing the removal of boundaries for designers.

Creativity is at the heart of our print industry, which thrives on collaboration. Both creatives and the print providers must continue to be encouraged to work together, to challenge boundaries and forge innovation.

If we can achieve that, who knows what exciting opportunities the future has in store…

*All images within this piece are provided by, and property of, www.debbiemckeegan.com

Debbie McKeegan Award winning British designer, Debbie McKeegan, began her digital journey almost two decades ago – pre-Photoshop, and pre-digital print. With a manufacturing background, a vast knowledge of traditional textiles (from both a design and production perspective), and an interest in CAD from its onset, today Debbie serves as an expert in the world of digital print.With her partner, she founded the Digetex Group in 2004 – specialising in Textiles and Wallpapers for a multitude of industries worldwide. Debbie has developed many new digital production practices, and speaks as an authority on digital design and print worldwide. As a WhichPLM contributor, she is able to pass on her wisdom as a digital pioneer; embracing the creative freedom offered with the advancement of new technology, she looks forward to sharing her knowledge.