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Digital Printing’s Impact on Fashion and Apparel


In today’s post, Madelaine Thomas, Editor of Industry Digitalisation for World Textile Information Network (WTiN) discusses the evolution of printing – from screen to digital and beyond. WTiN provides intelligence and insight into the global textile manufacturing industry.

When it comes to printing for the fashion industry, screen printing has been the primary method of production. With the ability to print with bold colours in a precise and controlled manner, screen printing – which has origins dating back as far as 960-1279 AD in China – wasn’t commercially popularised for the fashion industry until the 1960s.

During that decade the first rotatable, multicolour garment screen printing machine was developed in the US to allow logo printing on bowling uniforms. Following that, screen printing became the go-to technology for the fast-fashion movement, particularly as production moved to cheaper labour countries such as China and India.

However, as well as high screen and screen storage costs, many designers were restricted by the technology’s limitations. Barriers to print design development included the labour-intensive work required in applying ink to screen to clothing, the high-water consumption that arose from washing the screens and the inability to design complex imagery with the screens’ mesh.

A new, innovative printing technology was required to provide a solution to these issues. The industry, and particularly the consumer market for fashion and apparel, increasingly requires flexibility and the only way to achieve this and eliminate the former issues is through digital textile printing, according to many analysts.

Although screen printing remains a thriving industry as many end-consumers are attached to simple low-resolution, bright-coloured prints on their garments, digital can bring about a reduced environmental footprint, enable greater flexibility, personalisation, and has given fashion designers the flexibility to experiment with their styles by breaking down design boundaries.

The introduction of inkjet technologies for fashion and apparel applications over the years has meant that high-resolution pattern and image prints have become increasingly popular in the fashion industry – from complex florals and animal prints to detailed photorealistic visuals and repetitive, intricate brand designs.

However, as well as changing the way in which and what a designer creates, inkjet has also had a broader impact on fashion seasons, business models and the supply chain.

Changing business

Roll-to-roll digital textile printers for the fashion industry emerged in the mid-1990s but it is arguable that they only reached industrial level in the last decade. The first machine was the Stork Fashion Jet, intended only as a demonstrator and developed in conjunction with a trio of partners – German printer KBC, UK dyestuff, inkjet manufacturer Zeneca and German paper coater Schoeller. It used a continuous inkjet head, designed and manufactured by Stork itself, and printed a 1.5-metre-wide roll of fabric at up to 4 linear metres/hour with a resolution of 250 dpi.

High-speed digital printers for the fashion industry came later and now, with single-pass machines, digital has reached 90 metres a minute in high resolution, following the launch of the EFI Reggiani BOLT single-pass printer in November 2018 – the OEM’s first ever single-pass solution.

According to WTiN Intelligence: Digital Textiles, in 2018 2.57 billion sqm of fabric was digitally printed globally; 2.2 billion sqm of this output was for apparel, fashion and home textiles applications. As in previous years, China, Italy, India, Turkey and the US continued to dominate the digital textile printing market. And, despite a growing middle class in China, coupled with Beijing’s stringent environmental regulations, the country continues to dominate the fast-fashion scene. In contrast, Italy still rules the luxury fashion world.

Digital textile printing is also transforming the customary two-season fashion cycle, with companies like Zara – a subsidiary of Inditex – now utilising the technology to produce collections all year round. With inkjet technology, samples and designs can now also be tested and amended on-the-spot by the designer, or print house, which helps to lower turnaround times.

What’s more, the increasing global consumer trend for customisation can only be relieved using inkjet technology. ‘Batch size one’ has now become possible courtesy of digitalisation, which gives the power back to the individual. Previously, low minimums – let alone one-off prints – were not cost-effective via traditional printing methods. It is considered that inkjet textile printing has created a fashion and apparel industry with greater variation and individuality.

An Anna McKernan design at University of Westminster’s LFW catwalk printed using Epson digital textile printing technology

Direct-to-garment printing (DTG) is also influential when it comes to the customisation trend. DTG printing is mainly used for printing directly onto T-shirts but is increasingly being used for other garments such as dresses and jeans. OEMs, like Israeli-based Kornit Digital, are also promoting the role of DTG printing in the home textiles sector.

In this way, both roll-to-roll and DTG digital textile printing are enabling new business models to emerge and blossom throughout the textile printing industry, such as print-on-demand (POD) and web2print. In these models, orders are placed (online for web2print) and then the garment is created. Sometimes the garment is personalised online by the consumer and then created by the manufacturer locally before being delivered. Manufacturing on demand, with made-to-order production cycles, eradicates a number of compelling issues in the fashion and apparel industry. For example, it eliminates overstock and risk, reduces inventory costs and slashes lead times.

It also means that fewer items are returned. This is because if an item is created and personalised for the individual, the idea is that the consumer is more likely to be happy with it. Research has also shown that the consumer will keep customised garments for longer – elongating the lifecycle of garments and reducing the number of textiles finishing life in landfill, which at the moment is tragically high.

The success of these new business models is led by SMEs but it is expected that bigger fashion houses and brands will begin to manufacture in the same way in the near future. The sportswear and athleisure markets are already beginning to do this. For example, Nike’s ‘Nike By You’ scheme, which allows consumers to create their own customised trainers that are then created on demand. There is no reason why this process cannot be adopted by clothing manufcaturers utilising digital printing technology. The uptake of these models by brands could potentially revolutionise the industry in the future. But for it to truly succeed it is necessary that consumers demand it; the likelihood of which is growing as consumer awareness and concern for the environment intensifies. One of the biggest strengths of digital textile printing, when compared to traditional alternatives, is that it is much more sustainable, although improvements can still be made in this area.

Additionally, in 2017 Amazon secured a patent for a fully automated, on-demand manufacturing line for apparel and this incorporates the use of digital textile printers.

These new business models, made possible via digital textile printers, are assisting the re- and nearshoring movements which aim to bring garment manufacturing back to the consumer market. This is because the trend for customisation and flexibility can only be satisfied if manufacturing is done locally. Also, digitalised technologies, such as inkjet printers, are bringing down the cost of manufacturing and the environmental push from brands and consumers is also acting as a catalyst for reshoring. When it comes to nearshoring, Mexico and the rest of Central and South America are becoming popular areas for garment creation as labour remains cheap, but they are close to the US consumer market. Poland’s increasingly digital textile-oriented market is growing for the same reasons in Europe.

The future

As digital textile printing continues to proliferate in the global fashion and apparel sector, taking more of the global market share of volume of printed fabric, business models and designs will continue to evolve. With digital textile printing, the fashion and apparel markets continue to break down barriers and enable new possibilities, but there are still challenges ahead such as metallic or glitter inks and the next big focus – how to connect the supply chain in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Streamlining production workflows, connecting digital textile printers with siloed processes both up and downstream – such as the cutting process with machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and data harnessing technology – will enable a reduction in the cost of printed fashion and apparel goods for the end consumer. The proximity to the end consumer will also decrease (increasing flexibility and customisation), lead times will improve and garments will only be created once they are ordered.

Digital textile printing marked the beginning of the digital transformation in the fashion and apparel supply chain. And while it will never fully replace screen printing as mass market products will always be needed in the global marketplace, digital printing will continue to transform the industry in terms of production, rebalancing power in the industry (more to the consumer and the designer) and increasing sustainability in the garment printing space.

I look forward to seeing this future.


Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.