Monday, February 18, 2019

Digital Printing: My New Year's Resolution

Every year I try to spend some time learning some new skill. 2019 is the year of mastering digitally printed fabric.

I've been doing my own printing with an ink jet printer for years and I designed a few prints for Spoonflower, which prints custom designs on quilt-weight cottons---or any fabric, paper, etc.

Here's a Spoonflower search for Penguin:

I can't say I've mastered digital printing yet. Or even come close. But it's early in 2019 and by the end of the year I hope to say I've made some progress in designing and printing.

 Hillary Clinton/Susan B. Anthony panel
about three years ago

Small panel for Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee, both these printed on my own printer.

7" x 10"
I did several small embroidered patron saints collages with my own prints.

One of my Spoonflower designs is this yardage
of quilt labels to cut and ink. Spoonflower is great because
they print, market and sell your designs for you, paying you a royalty.

I also want to understand the commercial market better. I've been looking at what the big quilt fabric companies are doing in digital printing. For the past forty years or so prints for quilters have been screen printed, a kind of stencil process. A four-color print requires four screens.

Griswold Printing in Rhode Island prints using silk screen technology.
But this process using human printers is not cutting edge.

Giant automatic flat bed screen printing machines are the standard today.

It's the kind of technology the U.S. has not invested in.

Which is why most of our quilt fabric printing is done in Asia.

Screen printing has limitations. Because screens have to be cut and stored fabric companies want to sell a good deal of each print to cover their investment. No small niche markets.

Screen printing at Finland's Marrimeko

The highest number of colors per print is about 20---20 screens. And the fabric has to fit the screen width. But screen printing does produce a beautiful piece of cotton with dense, colorfast printing (almost as sharp as the copper roller print introduced in the early 19th century and abandoned in the late 20th century).

 Jasonda digital printer

Digital printing is the future. No screens to cut, no storage (except digital). They make flat bed printers the width of your living room, so theoretically there are few limits to how wide the repeat can be. (Except, I guess, for fabric size.) There are no limits on number of colors. If a computer can generate the color the printer can print it. And small-run editions of a print are feasible.

Right now, there are several ways to buy digitally printed fabrics for your quilts.

"Baltimore House - Multi Digitally Printed Panel
by Paula Barnes for Marcus"

The big companies are experimenting. For example, Marcus has done a Paula Barnes reproduction collection digitally. Is this because reproduction fabrics are now such a minor market that a small run is feasible with this technology? Or just an experiment with new techniques?

Another digital Marcus line: Ki-Coo Gardens by Laura Berringer.

Fluttering from Hoffman's Digital Spectrum line

Hoffman has a whole series of digitally printed fabrics, taking advantage of the color range possible.
This makes me think we can do a better job of reproducing the classic rainbow prints of the 1840s, print style not really feasible with screens.

Mid-19th century rainbow print plaid

Jason Yenter of In The Beginning is doing quite a bit of commercial digital printing.

Spoonflower's Heat Setting Machinery

You can buy other designers' work or your own patterns on Spoonflower.

Fussy cutting Queen Victoria shirtings from Spoonflower

The Spoonflower prints I've ordered are on the same quality fabric we can buy commercially, same thread count, yarn size, etc. But, they do not have the same final finish we expect, so they feel somewhat different on the surface.

Steph Skardal wrote a post last month on Joanne Fabrics's new digital printing service:

And if you want to think bigger than that---there are many digital printing companies that will print your designs in large or small editions. You market; you sell. See Robert Kaufman's website here:

Another site is Contrado.

The digital printing, particularly the custom printed fabric, is more expensive and it looks like some of the commercial quilt fabric is about $1 more per yard than commercial screen-printed yardage. Perhaps that's the price we pay for being a niche market. The whole idea of doing repro or retro prints that would never sell over a few yards is very appealing.

I've observed that most of the Spoonflower prints are very much like what's hot in the retail fabric business, same colors, same styles. The idea of doing something that is not trendy is interesting.

The Queen Victoria prints at Spoonflower are my latest experiment.
I will keep you posted. I'm thinking chintz panels next.


  1. I love that you're doing this - from doing your own printing of fabric to trying something different (aka "not trendy."). In a marketplace where there are too many collections-fabrics that look the same, being able to print fabrics that are distinctive and original without having to worry about whether it will sell thousands of yards is very appealing.

  2. Pretty cool to learn about the process! I wish we'd bring more mfg back to the US.

  3. Thank you for the introduction. Something new on my research/reading list!

  4. this was all very interesting-thank you

  5. Thank you Barbara for this fabulous informative post! I have wanted to design my own range of fabric and this post gives me a great place to start. Your blog is THE best and I always read every word! Thank you, Brigitte

  6. Fascinating, Barbara! Thanks so much for sharing all of this info. Makes me want to learn the ropes and reproduce a limited run of some stuff in my collection. Please do keep us informed about how to educate ourselves as you yourself learn. It would be great to be able to short-cut the learning curve with your pioneering efforts in this field...quilters learning how to digitally print their own fabrics in short limited editions runs! A new chapter of quilt history emerging.

  7. You might be interested in the Hawthorne Supply co, who started to print fabric for in-house designers, now seems to for others, and has branched out into wallpaper; various ground fabrics available including cotton, rayon, and knits. hh

  8. Great post. I would love to have some of the chintz panels too.

  9. I have used a couple prints from Spoonflower. I found them a bit difficult to hand quilt. Perhaps they require more than one pre-wash. Perhaps the colors were dark, using more ink.

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  11. Nice blog! I really like to read this post on digital printing.

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