Digital Printing on Fabrics

In the continuing quest for creating the perfect eco fabric (short of simply re-purposing existing fabrics) I’m experimenting with digital printing.

Galaxy Design
Digital design from hand painted fabric

To date all of my dye and print techniques have resulted in one-only lengths of fabric, with hands on mixing of dyes and inks, fabric preparation, printing, dyeing, clean up, fixing, washing and pressing.  The amount of wasted excess dye, water and power use and disposal of salty/soda ash/printing ink infused water made me question if traditional craft methods of surface design is the most eco friendly and sustainable process?

Original hand painted fabric
Original hand painted design on silk with fibre reactive dyes

I started thinking about the artists and craftspeople who have health issues from constant contact with raw materials.  The build up of accidentally ingested dye powder in the lungs, eczema from handling printing inks and chemicals (gloves don’t work with lino block printing!) the fumes from dyeing with eucalyptus leaves, the caustic effect of soda ash, salt, and constant washing by hand.

So is there a safe and eco friendly method of surface design?  Is the artistic integrity in the hand crafted process of creating the fabric?  With competition from countries where labour and the cost of living is much lower, yet the skill and level of craftmanship and design is high, is it financially viable to use hand crafted techniques to create one-only fabrics?

A few years ago a friend and I experimented with digital printing on fabrics.  A local printer offered sublimation printing (essentially a heat method of bonding dye to synthetic fibres) to placement print our designs.  It was exciting to see a digital design that was originally a mixed media collage reproduced on fabric.

However, I didn’t like working with synthetic fabrics.

Digitally printed text fabric
Test piece digitally printed on organic cotton, natural coloured base

The next step was find a digital printer that could print on natural fibre, such as silk and cotton.  A high quality printer in Sydney was using fibre reactive dyes on pre-treated fabrics.  The resulting fabric from other designers looked fantastic, but the set up and printing costs including the special fabrics was too expensive.

Recently I came across a digital printing website in the USA that pigment prints onto natural fibres, with a selection of organic fabrics and silks.  The method seems to be extremely low waste, as only the required amount of pigment is used when printing the lengths, with minimal pre and post fabric handling.   The printed fabric has no odour or ‘handle’ so is like a dyed fabric.  The only down side is that the print is on the surface only, so does not penetrate the fabric like a dye, and like all hand printed fabrics, needs care with washing and drying.

Digital textile samples
Same design printed in digitally altered colours on different fabrics

This method of printing is affordable for studio production, especially compared with the cost of making hand crafted fabrics.  Digital printing opens experimentation with surface design.  Artwork can be scanned into or created on the computer.  Whole designs can be the width and (limited) length of the fabric.  Hand painted fabrics can be reproduced with some experimentation (as shown in the samples, some adjustment is needed with colour intensity vs fabric choice).   Even the look of eucalyptus dyed fabrics can be reproduced, though the integrity of the fabric is questionable!

See the Useful Links page for digital print sources.

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Eucalypso

Artist in Adelaide, South Australia. I enjoy viewing and participating in street art and experimenting with photography for surface design.

3 thoughts on “Digital Printing on Fabrics”

  1. Thank you for sharing the above on digital sublimation on natural fibers.
    This is a difficult subject as I know I would like to be producing digital designs on more natural fibers. Can you share with me your source in the U.S. ? Was it Air Dye?

    1. Thanks for asking! No, the source is Spoonflower at spoonflower.com (also see the Useful Links page). I’m hoping they will expand the range of organic cottons. It would be great to print on hemp too.

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