A Newcomer’s Guide to Digital Textile Printing
By: April Tosch
Getting started in digital textile printing doesn’t have to cost a fortune or require the hiring of several staff. With a
little research, a willingness to enter the mystical world of color, and a good mentor/psychologist, any one can do it.
Take it from someone who entered in to this industry without even an understanding of why what I saw on my monitor
varied drastically from what I printed. Not to mention my total lack of knowledge about color profiles.
I print custom fabrics for home décor, artists and small businesses wishing to redecorate their offices with fabrics
bearing their logos. I’ve printed fabrics to make purses, schoolbags, and clothes for my children using their drawings
that I’ve scanned. People are immediately interested in hearing about this business once they see samples. I’ve brought
many customers to my studio and allowed them to sit with me and participate in creating their own designs and
patterns. They are immediately impressed, and often overwhelmed at all the possibilities.
Adobe Photoshop and Corel’s Painter 7 are used on a daily basis. In addition to these, I’ve used Bryce for landscapes
and various fractal programs that can be purchased inexpensively online. To date, all the individuals who I have
approached have been interested in having something created…but it hasn’t been easy and several times I’ve
unknowingly placed myself in uncomfortable (and embarrassing) positions where I have offered more than I could
deliver. This has mostly been the result of not fully understanding the limitations of color profiles or the differences
between printing on paper and fabric.
There are limitations inherent to textile printing to consider; printing on fabric is very different to printing on paper.
Among other things, fabrics absorb light and ink differently than paper. For instance, regardless of your printer’s
capabilities a photograph printed on fabric will never be as sharp or clear as one printed on paper. In addition, there
will be color variations. Exact color matching is a combination of science and luck. Knowing what your printer, inks
and fabric combination is capable of producing as far as color and resolution will allow you to tell your customer up
front what to expect, and more importantly, what not to expect. Getting this right will let you sleep easier and save you
a lot of embarrassment.
For those of you who are researching this industry, let me explain a few things in simple English:
Generally speaking a color profile is a file that tells the printer which color ink to lay down and in what quantity. It
will establish what your “gamut” is. Your profile’s gamut will show you which colors are capable of being reproduced
and which aren’t. Once you begin digital textile printing, you will need a color profile for each type of fabric/ink
combination you print with. For instance, acid inks used on silk will need a different profile from reactive inks used on
There are several ways to get color profiles.
First, you can go out and spend $2,500 for profiling software and another $2,500 for the hardware (a
spectrophotometer), and create your own profiles. It’s expensive, time consuming, and not for the technically
challenged. But it’s not impossible.
Basically you print up a set of color patches generated from the profiling software and then scan each one with the
spectrophotometer. The spectrophotometer is reading each individual color patch and the computer is comparing the
results against what the colors should look like. Once the profile is created, it will tell the printer what combinations of
ink to use to get your burgundy looking patch to print “Coke” red like it was supposed to.
Another option is using the “canned” profiles that come with some RIP’s and then spending hours and hours tweaking
them. Wasatch comes with a good selection in Softrip 4.5. I have yet to see the 5.0 upgrade but I’m sure that the
canned profiles are included as well. 99% of the profiles are for traditional paper-prints, very few are targeted towards
textiles. However, learning how to tweak and getting a good understanding of your RIP can produce “sellable” results
depending, of course, on your customers’ expectations.
Or, you can look around and find someone to create profiles for you. The disadvantage here is that you will need to
purchase a different profile each time you decide to use a different fabric. If you’re an adventurous soul and like
experimenting with new fabrics, this can be costly.
The hours poured in to either creating your own profiles with the software and spectrophotometer or simply tweaking
the canned profiles in your RIP, aren’t necessarily a bad thing. You’ll spend a lot of time and use up a bit of fabric but
the lessons learned the hard way are the ones that stick. You’ll gain experience and get a grip on what exactly creating
or modifying color profiles entails.
This is all assuming that you made a decision on which printer to buy. There are a few textile printers in the market to
choose from; Mimaki, Colorspan and Stork to name a few. I chose the Encad Novajet 880. Although it is not sold
specifically for textile printing, it makes a suitable entry level machine and costs significantly less than the others that
are available to choose from.
Media and Inks
There are several good companies that sell pre-treated fabric for printing. My choice was Jacquard Inkjet Fabrics
because of the wide variety of fabrics that they offer in addition to inks and steamers. Practically speaking it makes
sense to purchase from a company whose inks are formulated to go with their fabrics; it makes the results a little more
predictable. That’s not to say that buying the inks and fabrics from separate vendors would not give good results. I just
chose to buy everything from one company to simplify things and develop a relationship with one vendor instead of
several. The people who work at Jacquard are very helpful and are very generous with their time. Having a supplier
that is willing to spend time helping you through the learning curve is invaluable.
The cost of inks and pretreated fabrics are one of the biggest barriers to mass sales. I operate within a niche market
that caters to people who are willing to spend in upwards of $50.00 per yard; sales are slow but steady. The wholesale
cost for 500ml of ink is roughly $60.00. Multiply this by the numbers of colors your printer uses and you can see how
the costs add up. The average cost per yard of pretreated fabric is between $25 to $30. There are less, and more
expensive fabrics on the market to choose from and the prices are often discounted depending on the quantity
purchased. Deciding on which fabrics to use will depend on your target market, what you are printing and which
fabrics you decide are the easiest to work with.
A Raster Image Processor or RIP is basically the means for communication between your computer and printer. It will
help you with ink limitations, basic profile tweaking, scaling, and will help you layout your prints on the fabric.
If you’re researching RIP’s one to consider for use with textiles is the Evolution RIP from Digifab. Their site has a
downloadable trial version that will allow you to try it prior to purchasing. This is good considering that most RIPS
cost over $3,500. Others to consider are the Wasatch Softrip with the textile plug-in and ProofMaster, which I have
read about but have not used.
Digital textile printing isn’t easy. There is a lot of physical labor involved that newcomers may not realize, i.e., loading
the printer with the fabric bolts, steaming the fabric after it’s printed, hand-washing, and regular printer maintenance.
Plus, there’s a technological learning curve to struggle through. But there’s nothing better than creating something
beautiful on fabric and knowing that it’s truly one-of-a-kind (making a profit on it isn’t bad either). So if you’re
interested in this business or just starting out and are thoroughly confused, have a little patience because your efforts
will be rewarded