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The Dawn of Digital Print


WPLM - SkeenaS- fashion - wallpaper shot

In her first guest article with WhichPLM, Debbie McKeegan, writes about the evolution of digital printing. Debbie is well averse in this world, and sits on WhichPLM’s Expert Board as a pioneer in digital print. As someone who entered the industry decades ago, Debbie has a lot to share.

I began my career at the advent of CAD technology entering the market, in the mid to late 1980s. And I was immediately hooked. A design world pre-Adobe Photoshop, where designers used drawing boards and (now redundant, if not forgotten) colour photocopiers were seen as an innovative, valued design tool. Every pattern was hand painted using ink, gouache or watercolour techniques. Vast design studios operated throughout Europe and the US employing thousands of people; design budgets were huge, and travel linked to trend and inspiration was excessive.

Creating a textile design could take weeks, and UK stylists bought in designs from across the globe. Every colourway of every pattern, be it for Home Furnishings or Fashion, would generally have at least four alternate colourways, and each would be painstakingly re-mastered, all colours mixed and painted by hand. Where the designer was not the originator great skill was needed to replicate the original in its native style. We would use a vast selection of painterly skills to create extra colours using half tones and “fall-ons” – a terminology that’s lost on the digital generation.These drawing skills, once needed to create co-ordinates and eventually colour separations, have now largely been lost.

Printing Limitations

Working within the limitations of analogue print, the designer would create patterns in repeat, the repeat being set by the screens circumference. Every colour carried great cost, and would require great skill to ensure no more than ten to twelve colours were used (more only if budget allowed). Once created, the design would then pass onto the colour separation artist. These highly skilled workers would separate each colour and paint them, by hand, into a transparency. The art was to create a set of separations that were an exact interpretation of the original artist’s style. Screens needed for every colour would cost upwards of £600 each or, back then, around $1,200 (US).

Beyond this there were then mini screens, used to print colourways onto cloth for approval, then onto pre-production bulk sampling. All taking a great deal of time and a vast amount of consumables (and therefore money). Finally, almost 3 months later, printed design collections would then be presented to the buyers, sometimes alongside hand painted roomsets, but many buyers demanded a finished product.

The buyer carried great power and was feared by the design team. Volumes in these days were huge and a best selling design could easily print one million meters or more.  Range selections would take place for Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. Remember, the cycle from design to manufacture and onto store would take three to four months. There was a different pace to that of today’s modern life.

Designers would create a collection in months, not hours, and without today’s pressures of speed and quantity. Pre-production sampling took weeks to get a design from the drawing board through production, then sewing, and onto product photography and packaging.

This was mass production and, as previously stated, a good selling design sold a million metres and more. Textile warehouses housed vast stocks and a design might stay in a range for many years. Sadly so many of the artisan textile skills have been lost over the last twenty or so years, including textile technologists, chemists, screen makers, colour separation artists, dyers, and printers.

WPLM - Skeena S- Rainbow Dress1

British Heritage

The Heritage of British textiles is still a crucial part of digital manufacturing. Everything has changed except the core fabrics we print onto: Cottons, Linens, Silks, Polyesters, Fire Resistant substrates. The processing of these fabrics requires great skill and, whilst smaller scale finishing equipment is available, it’s our duty to actively regenerate, re-train and pass on those skills to the next generation.

In the late ‘80s the UK’s textile market was strong; mass manufacture continued to thrive, employing 800,000 people.

As technology advanced it was in the creative design world where CAD would sew the seeds of radical change for the industry.

And so, whilst young, enthusiastic and eager to learn, I embraced this new CAD technology and its creative potential at its advent, seeing no limits, only freedom. Racing through the ‘90s and the development of design software, various applications would emerge that would change the creative workflow forever and all in a very short space of time.

As a young designer specialising in Home Furnishings, my work evolved both the design and manufacture of the products I created. Design was moving into the digital world, production was definitely still analogous. Designers began utilising slow, complicated, expensive design software to create digital patterns and prints for design selection. Imagine no paint, no gouache, nothing created by hand, and along with that came creative freedom. The speed with which one might create changed forever.

The Emergence of CAD

CAD software was born. Specialist companies emerged offering programmes which began to address the needs of the industry, or at least in part. As a designer myself I was so intrigued by the new technology that for a short time I left my role as a designer and worked alongside the developers. It was only by communicating with the design world that the software could evolve with the correct skill set. It was a happy time but eventually I would migrate back to my own world.

My earliest digital prints were created on a desktop printer long before the first digital print machine was available in the late ‘90s. It’s natural for creatives to mix media and to spray starching cotton fabrics, and manually feeding them through the printer seemed like the next logical step. These early digital prints would be used to produce printed fabrics for storyboards and mock-ups. The colour would fade quickly in the sunlight but it was the beginning of a new era.

Along with the dawn of Photoshop in the early 90’s design software became available to all. CAD had become affordable. Before long even the commercial design studios stopped painting and their portfolios became full of A0 paper prints. Designs were no longer painted or created by hand. Initially, the software addressed the creation of design, replicating paint effects and design styles, creating colourways, finalising repeats along with simple rendering applications to create photographic roomsets and product shots. But these were simple programmes, nothing like the sophisticated technology we take for granted today.

The Digitisation of Print

Software advanced until eventually all design, separation, colour and pre-production creative processes could be handled within a computer. I still miss the smell of gouache, paint and paper that was all part of the ‘90s creative day.

Soon, software could create complex tonal colour separations, plot films and then eventually engrave conventional rotary screens for colour sampling and production. It moved on to control colour calibration between computer screens and analogue production machines, even creating recipes for pigment and reactive inks.

However, whilst the technology had replaced the hand, design to production would still take an average 12 weeks if not longer; even with clever design software the designs we to be printed using analogue methods. Digital print was in its infancy and the market was driven to speed up the manufacturing process further.

It was around this time that the UK Textile market started to slow down, volumes began to fall and buyers looked to the East for cheaper manufacture. The industry sought to reduce costs and as the first digital print machines emerged onto the market they began to be used for pre-production sampling. Saving the costs of expensive screens and importantly time but loosing out on bulk manufacture, many companies here in the UK closed down. Production, still analogue, was switching over to the East.

The Digital Revolution

Having embraced the creative freedom offered by CAD in the late 1980s and ‘90s, I was to witness the reform of analogue print here in the UK, changing textiles forever. The ‘Digital Revolution’ had arrived.

Over the last 15 years digital print technology has addressed the primary needs of its multiple markets. Machines are now available with super fast print speeds to match the old analogue rotary machines. Digital print is indistinguishable from analogue. Colour and colour fastness are to industry standard, and suppliers of both printers, inks and fabrics strive to improve on the limitations. Many of which were present in analogue print.

Fabric suppliers have brought many new substrates to the fashion and interior marketplace, building on the potential that digital has to offer, offering exciting new technical fabrics for Fashion and Interiors.

The demise of the UK’s textile industry during the ‘90s is well documented. Those companies who did manage to hold on and survive have had to reform. The UK textile printing industry now employs just 100,000 people. Bulk production still resides in the East, but the market has changed and continues to evolve.

WPLM -Skeena S Cut - Out dress

Evolving to Survive

There is a new market for lower volumes, driven by the consumers’ need for design diversity. Buyers are buying across multiple seasons, creating a niche for lower volume, reduced or no stock and short run production. The bulk of this resides in Europe but much of it is also produced here in the UK.

Manufacturers and designers have been forced to evolve to survive. In the UK, there is a growing desire to buy British; both British design and products hold a historic reputation for quality, design and service.

For designers this is great news. Design studios report a buoyant market and a new thirst for design driven by demand. Sustainability is a key issue, and digital technology faces more reform to comply. But for designers it’s an age of new opportunity.

Freed from the shackles of mass production, digital technology has encouraged new growth in our marketplace and, with it, a new skill set.

Designers worldwide have embraced the technology. For large brands this has allowed them to switch away from the East for production, taking firm control of their supply chain to avoid replication whilst reacting to market trends and delivering in real time. Reduced set up costs have encouraged the growth of new brands, and home-grown talent continues to flourish online.

Many highly successful high street retailers now print their own fabrics. This cuts out the wholesaler whilst offering the consumer exceptional design and great value. Digital print should empower designmakers and new emerging Fashion and Interior Brands.

Investing in Education

I’d also like to see the industry invest in education. Both the educators and the print industry need to communicate to stimulate opportunities.

Consumer buying patterns have changed. Designers offer seasonal main line collections as before, which are then continually topped up with trend driven collections. The creative process never slows; it’s fast and hungry for the next best selling product.

There is a huge need for good quality design and todays “Fast Fashion” or “See now – Buy now” culture has created increased designer demand. This is the age of the designer and many have become brands of their own, offering their unique products online via bespoke e-Commerce resellers. Demand for good quality design is once again key to the manufacturing of successful product. Sales are not always about price. Luxury items are in growth and the consumer is willing to pay the extra money for boutique, couture designer products.

For the creative, the digital era has evolved. Thankfully, there’s a huge resurgence for painted artwork and artisan drawing skills. Hand painted patterns, once created, are only then digitized to become digital files, which are then prepped for digital production. The creative integrity of the artist is preserved; every brush stroke cloned, copied and simulated, then manufactured using a combination of digital technology and innovative fabric technology.

To the consumer it’s not digital, it’s textile.

Sadly, many designers suffer from a lack of design and commercial print knowledge on so many basic levels. So many traditional design skills were lost in the 1990s and the post-generation have been denied access and crucial training within design studios and manufacturing environments.

Just as in manufacturing, now short of traditional knowledge, the same occurs in the design industry. We have an ever-creative digital, Photoshop generation, many of whom don’t possess traditional design skills. It’s our role to pass on these skills and facilitate education for the next generation. I look forward to sharing my knowledge.

WPLM - SkeenaS - Fashion shot 3

The Future

Global textile manufacture will be transformed over the next five years. As companies seek to reduce distribution costs, and increase “speed to market” localised sourcing will create a strong demand for new print resources. Fast Fashion is demanding a new generation of manufacturer and an increased demand for good design and improved products.

Our specialised digital textile factory is built on a strong British Textile heritage. Digetex plan a large investment in new technology over the next 2 years, thus empowering growth and improved service to an ever-evolving market place.

Textiles have changed forever; the market demands faster production methods. Our clients demand increased speed to market, matching the consumer’s thirst for new product.

It’s an exciting time for design and the textile Industry.

*All images used within this post are property of designer SkeenaS.

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. Debbie has developed many new digital production practices, and speaks as an authority on digital design and print worldwide. She is the CEO of TextIntel - an expert advisory practice serving the Creative, Digital and Print Textile manufacturing industry. 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.