Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing

jasonda_beachcomberIntroduction to Digital Fabric Printing: Technology, Design & Possibilities is a guest post written for us by Jasonda Desmond. Jasonda has long been a member of our forum and designed the masthead of Fashion-Incubator. She recently launched Dotty Logic, a line of fabrics she’s designed. Today she shares what she learned in the process of putting out her first collection Beachcomber.

Digital fabric printing is a relatively new technology with tons of applications. I just completed my first line of digitally printed fabric earlier this year and I’d like to share a little bit about the technology, design process and possibilities.

Most commercially available fabric is rotary screen printed; each print run is typically several thousand yards. The high minimums are due to the cost and time required to prepare a unique set of screens, with each color in a design requiring a separate screen. The main advantage of digital printing is the ability to do very small runs of each design (even less than 1 yard) because there are no screens to prepare.

The inkjet printing technology used in digital printing was first patented in 1968. In the 1990s, inkjet printers became widely available for paper printing applications – you might even have one on your desk right now! The technology has continued to develop and there are now specialized wide-format printers which can handle a variety of substrates – everything from paper to canvas to vinyl, and of course, fabric.

The inks used in digital printing are formulated specifically for each type of fiber (cotton, silk, polyester, nylon, etc). During the printing process, the fabric is fed through the printer using rollers and ink is applied to the surface in the form of thousands of tiny droplets. The fabric is then finished using heat and/or steam to cure the ink (some inks also require washing and drying). Digitally printed fabric will wash and wear the same as any other fabric, although with some types of ink you may see some initial fading in the first wash.

first2print_jasondaPhoto courtesy: First2Print

Design Process
Designs can be created digitally with almost any graphic design software (Photoshop and Illustrator are the most popular). Alternatively, existing artwork or photographs can be scanned and then digitally manipulated to make a pattern. Usually designs are created as a seamless pattern that is repeated (tiled) across the fabric. You can also create a design that fills an entire yard without repeating, but you may run into issues if the size of the file is too large for the printing service to process.

Some helpful things to remember when designing for fabric:

Make color easy. Find out what color model your printer uses (most often CYMK or Lab) and choose your colors accordingly. You should expect colors to appear differently on the fabric than on your computer screen. Some colors such as deep, rich reds may be hard to reproduce. Large areas of solid color may come out with bands of lighter and darker tones. Setting up your design so that the colors can easily be changed (using layers or vector artwork) will save you a lot of headaches.

Focus on the finish. It’s easy to get caught up in the artistic aspect of creating a beautiful design and lose sight of the fact that fabric is never the end product – it’s always a part of something else. Make a habit of picturing the print as part of the finished product, especially concerning the size of the print. I have a ruler next to my computer – whenever I can’t quite decide if the scale is correct, I’ll hold the ruler up to the screen and zoom in or out until the size matches up. Sounds silly, but it works!

Print swatches. The color and texture of the fabric can have a noticeable effect on the print. Shiny fabrics like silk reflect light and can make the print seem lighter – thin fabric can be translucent and this will make print look washed out. Most digital printing services offer affordable swatches – even if they only sell by the yard, you can gang up a couple of designs onto a single yard.

Stay original. It may seem like a good idea to use digital printing to make a copy of a popular commercial print that is no longer available, but unlike clothing designs, print designs can be (and usually are) copyrighted by the artist or the manufacturer. It’s best to stick with your own unique designs – if you’re not artistically inclined, you can always hire a designer to make the perfect print for you.

kayanna_jasondaPhoto courtesy: Kayanna Nelson


Personalization. Every yard you print can be completely customized and personalized. Print fabric with names and dates, for use as quilt blocks, t-shirts, doggy raincoats, pillowcases, etc. Every item in your line can come in a different color. You can also do more practical kinds of customization, like creating sequentially numbered labels.

Lean and Just in Time (JIT) manufacturing. Small runs of fabric can easily be printed for sampling purposes. No more hunting high and low for the perfect print, only to find that it’s no longer available when you need more. No such thing as fabric inventory – with an on-site printer, it’s possible to print fabric on the same day that it will be cut. You can even have a pattern printed directly on the fabric.

Trends and fast fashion. Traditional screen printed fabrics usually appear on the market about a year after they are designed. With digital printing, it’s possible to go from the design stage to finished fabric in a matter of weeks (or days, with an on-site printer). This allows you to take advantage of current trends, and even change prints or colors mid-season.

lauren_hunt_jasondaPhoto courtesy: Lauren Spencer Hunt

The major downside to digital printing is the cost. As with any new technology, the costs are always high when it first becomes available. As time goes on and the technology continues to develop it will undoubtedly become more affordable.

When dealing with printing services, expect to pay around $20 to $40 per yard of finished fabric. Most services have no minimums and allow you to purchase 1 yard at a time. Some have minimums and set-up fees but the cost per yard may be lower. The typical turn-around time is 3-4 weeks, but may be more if the base fabric is out of stock.

If you’re considering having your printing done in-house, digital printers typically sell for $10,000 to $70,000. Keep in mind that you’ll also need to purchase equipment for curing the ink and a dedicated computer to run the printing software.

If you would like more information about digital textile design and printing, I would encourage you to check out the links below and ask questions in the forum. Several of the digital printing service providers are active members and can help with some of the more technical questions.

Design Tutorial: A Beginners Guide to Digital Textile Printing
Design Tutorial: Repeat Pattern Swatches
Design Book: Digital Textile Design: Portfolio Skills
Article: 20 Ideas for Digital Fabric Printing
Article: My Big Digital Fabric Printing Experiment
Resource: Digital printing technology, applications and trends


  1. Sabine says:

    with the price of the equipment i understand the price of the fabric, but how can one make affordable clothing with prices like that?
    The whole topic is fascinating though.Report

  2. Rocio says:


    I’ve been working with digital printing (sublimation) since the mid 90’s and I think you’ve done a great job at explaining the process in very simple terms….

    Some people may think it’s prohibitively expensive, but done right it can actually give a new company an edge by always staying one step ahead of the competition.Report

  3. Jasonda says:

    This kind of technology is not going to be a practical choice for a company making affordable clothing – think more along the lines of a silk wedding dress printed with photo-realistic flowers, or an original painting made into a quilt. This is what you want to use when you really need something unique, something people are willing to pay a little extra for. :)Report

  4. This was a wonderful overview of this option for designers. More and more of my freelance clients are asking to have original textile prints designed for them and they feel that the cost of this sort of printing, be it a little higher than the norm, can actually work to their benefit because they can then showcase the prints as exclusive to their company. I am designing more and more all-over prints (AOP) for smaller companies who can work with smaller yardage needs and I can see this becoming even more popular option for others. Again, a great post on this topic!Report

  5. Mary says:

    great post! I recently completed a collection for my final BA project and did some digital print on silk twill for coat linings. It DOES cost an arm and a leg (even with my student discount, it was about $60 per meter), however in my case it was great to use fabric with a print that I designed and it added a unique edge to my garments- definitely worth the cost. If you work with a good technician the process is surprisingly easy!Report

  6. Jess H. says:

    I was very excited to try out some of my textile designs with – the samples I got from them looked great, of course the colors needed tweaking (it was my first time ordering from them) but the quality was fabulous. I could definitely see using some of their twill to do small insets in my existing designs, which would be very affordable cost wise. Overall, the process fascinates me, and the options available to design my own custom prints are VERY exciting. Jasonda, thanks so much for a great breakdown on the process.Report

  7. Marla Wonboy says:

    Great post! I’ve been able to work with many types of fabric printers in my career, but I have a few questions: 1. Have you found a digital printer who can print on silk – like taffeta or organza – without washing and destroying the hand? 2. How does one copywrite their prints if they are doing original prints? Is this cost prohibitive if only doing small runs? (I have been “inspired” by prints in certain jobs and was told there needed to be a 20% difference to avoid a lawsuit — which always brings up the question of how to determine if a change is actually 20%. I have also worked in companies which copywrited the print designs. I however was never part of that process.) Thanks!Report

  8. Hal says:

    I am a photographer interested in designing Photoshoped photography for both tecture and print effects that I have rarely seen done on a professional/commercial level. Your article is the best I have seen, and hope there will be more to come.

    I also agree with having an end product in mind while designing fabric is an advantage, and a requirement to some of us. As a photographer, I did not know much about fabrics and the differences in color printing techniques, durability, or color print results , so I am learning there are many more steps from conception to end product than I had expected.Report

  9. Jasonda says:


    Several companies can print on silk – try Karma Kraft or Silk Melody. As far as I am aware, silk dyes usually require the silk to be washed after printing but you should talk to the printer directly for more details.

    Prints can be copyrighted the same way any other piece of artwork is copyrighted. Check out the US Copyright Office website for more info at

    The idea that something can be changed 20% to avoid a lawsuit is a myth – a very popular one, but a myth nonetheless. You should stick with creating your own original designs and have them copyrighted. :)Report

  10. Victoria says:

    Great post!! Detailed and organized. Most helpful.

    In the last year, I have been using a smaller digital printer for prints not larger than 13″ X 15″ – The initial appeal was the fact that the inks were water soluble, leaning in the sustainability direction. The printing method does not change the hand of the fabric, or very little. I have done some printing on silk and after heat setting, I have not had to wash it, though I have essentially been printing on fabric that is either white, or already dyed. It has been a fun adventure…quilt blocks, applique pieces for apparel, tees, tees and more tees! I would love to expand someday into actual fabric printing…not quite in the budget today!Report

  11. Thilde says:

    My experience is that dye sublimation (image printed on paper and transferred to fabric in a heat press) has the best saturated color, but you are limited to poly fabrics. The cost of direct digital printing is still prohibitive: $135 a yard. So I would have to sell my garment for $500 to 600 dollars. Let alone raise $10 k to print on custom fabric for which minimums do exist. That’s why you see it being done with high end designers that can charge that much for a dress. I’m frustrated. I want it to cheaper.Report

  12. Heidi says:

    Hi Jasonda, this is such a great post! thank you for sharing! Do you have a recommendation for which textile pinter has worked best for you? Im looking into it, and I cant seem to find much info on it.Report

  13. Eduardo says:

    I work in a company that make digital printing textile and I want to know more about profile (I don’t know if it’s the right word in English, I’m from Brazil). Explaining, we have printer that works in more than one process (MS ink-jets machines), disperse, acid and reactive (again, I don’t know if it’s the right word). And we work with a lot of textiles, nature fibers, cotton, silk… So, I want to understand what´s I have to consider to define which profiles I have to create and use, if I have to make groups of fibers of same origin and same grammage, if have something more to consider, and I want to know what the impact to use only one profile for all tissues of a same chemical process. Can you help or point where can I learn more abaout that. I work in process, no a technical person, but I need to understand more abaou that issues…
    Thanks for your attentionReport

  14. Linda says:

    This article is great! Really covers a lot of basis. I was fortunate enough to receive a grant from the City of Melbourne to have my own digital fabric printer and am now offering it as a local service for other fashion designers in the area.Report

  15. Frank Creamer says:

    If using a photo,what is the normal file size that a printer will accept?And for example, can a photo of fall foilage be transfered to fabric?Report

  16. Maria Wrigley says:

    Thank you for all information you have given about digital fabric printing.
    I create my own designs for fabric printing and I would like to know where I can buy a digital printing machine for small projects. Thankyou for any information, MariaReport

  17. Jordanna Cheifetz says:

    My Company is looking for a place to buy a digital fabric printer to use in our studio. Any one have any ideas on where to buy a printer of this sort?Report

  18. Jack Wilson says:

    Hi Jasonda,
    I manage Griswold Textile Print, Inc. in Westerly, RI. We handscreen fabric prints. I just wanted to thank you for the informative article.
    Jack WilsonReport

  19. Mikie says:

    I am currently using Spoonflower for my digital printing, but I am unhappy with the fabric choices because of wrinkling… Is there any place that does custom printing on a wrinkle-free or wrinkle-resistant fabric? If I have to charge $500 per dress, the least I can do is make it non-wrinkly, right?Report

  20. Jason Reynolds says:

    What about purchasing the proper fabrics. Does anybody know of a good cost effective source for rolls of fabric? What about fabric that is ready for printing with little to no prep?Report

  21. Julie Ibbetson says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. Just a question, do they still do the artwork by hand these days. I have worked for a silk screen printing company, and I was looking at getting back into the workforce. All I have ever done is work by hand, all my work was drawn and painted onto drafting film, using rotary pens, opaque. I’ve only ever drawn by hand, that part was my job, then the camera operator would take it from me, and put onto screens, then someone else would take the screens and print the fabric. But like you said it’s a slow process.
    I have been told that we don’t do this anymore it’s all digital, I have no idea if it’s true. Do you know what I mean, when I did colour separation. That’s why I came to this site to find out about digital printing, to find out if the old way has gone and I should do something new.Report

  22. Dan Bell says:

    I work with a company in China to produce my fabric automobile accessories. So far all printing is digital. For a long run I need, my account rep says dye sub process must be used. Her primary reason is to be sure the design image consistently appears in the same place on the fabric. She says with digital the image may move because of ‘Material washing and high temperature drying”.
    She wants me to use dye sub at a 38% higher cost.
    I have been satisfied with the small number of sample provided using digital.
    I have studied online articles on digital and dye sub and have not found mention of her concerns.
    I realize there are language issues, but is she essentially correct? This run is for a high-profile sports team and the quality must be good. I cannot pass price increase on to client.
    Thank you for your assistance. I would appreciate referrals to any helpful articles.Report

  23. Laiq says:

    Jasonda, the information you have provided about digital printing is great and worth to read. Am also involved in the garment production and its really nice to know about this technology.Report

  24. nesreen says:

    Hi am frme Saudi Arabia and i am intrested in paying the top of the line printing machine can i have the prices and shipping cost and all related information pleaseReport

  25. elena says:

    Please i need all the information about printing washable cotton, it seems ilke it´s almost impossible o super expensive equipment can someone explain me how to do it. I want to start a buisness af printing wall paper an fabric, but i front want to use sublimation because it does´t work with cotton so what kind of machines do i need, what type of inks do i need? and what type of pre treated cotton do i need?.

  26. js says:

    I am in the NW suburbs of Chicago and am starting a “makerspace” that includes art, 3D printing, vinyl cutting, woodworking, laser cutting, cnc quilting, etc. Digital textile printing would be a perfect fit. Is there anyone out there that could help me? Or even be hired or begin a business in my “makerspace”?Report

  27. AK says:

    Iv worked as a designer to the top brands in France/Italy and we only used digital printing for sampling just to see how the end screen printed items would look and also only because the minimums required for screen printing are WAY higher- thousand yards of fabric atleast which becomes prohibitive for designer labels who dont sell those volumes- Digital printing works because you can get the dress/top/tunic made whenever an order comes in or just make 5 and not worry about the thousands of yards of fabric that will be wasted if the print/cut is not a success.

    Screen printing is still the best way to print- it takes a good print designer to create good prints because its more challenging- also when i dye pattern (by batik or shibori or tie dye) i cant match the exact colors by digital print because i use fiber reactive dyes to hand dye my pieces and when you want to replicate it in digital print , to get the same harmonious color mixing its a LOT of time and effort and invariably the end result falls short of the more naturally hormonious method of hand dyeing. If you see the top NY studios they do by hand first and then try copying it electronically – nothing beats a great hand done piece especially if your trying to get tons of dye colors in 1 piece!Report

  28. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for this explanation. Is there anywhere in N. America that prints onto canvas fabrics (either screen printing or digital) in larger quantities ~100yards +? ThanksReport

  29. Jeff Arris says:


    We’re researching the possibility of purchasing a digital fabric printer for our school.

    Can anyone recommend me some models?


  30. Ram says:

    Thank u soooo much Jasonda for this wonder piece of advice..however I would like to know which textile printer to purchase to print my design on my garment to sell on a small scale, d cost of d printer and where I can order it ‘coz am in Africa. And are there smaller printers for a small scale business that are affordable? plz someone help me.Is there a single unit printer that can run both screen , digital and sublimation printing?Report

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