Adding Value: Digital Fabric Printing

Many Print Service Providers have been taking a closer look at the textile industry of late, as it is one segment of the industry that continues to grow above and beyond all others. The reason for this is simple. Recent technology has allowed the number of textile designers to rise faster than in years past. Add in the fact that apparel manufacturers have less time than ever to get their product to market and the textile manufacturers and printers have no choice but to keep up or lose out on the business.


Overall, the number of textile printers in the United States is rather small considering the amount of textiles that are purchased and used each year. As one might think, the actual printing process is much different than the traditional rotary or lithographic processes but the set up is quite similar.


There are three basic types of textile printing: direct dye sublimation, transfer dye-sublimation, and digital direct to print. For this purpose, digital direct to print is the focus as it is the easiest to incorporate into an existing business model.


Aside from the various types of the printing, there are companies that specialize in printing textiles for garments (ready to wear) and others that focus on textiles used for other purposes, such as home soft goods, banners, upholstery, etc. Following are two samples, one from each category, that show how printing textiles can open new doors for struggling printers.




Located in Mebane, North Carolina, Spoonflower is a digital textile printing company with more than 70,000 clients gained since their opening in 2008. The company is highly successful in creating customized runs, from order of one swatch to hundreds of yards. The average buyer purchases relatively small quantities although Spoonflower’s client list runs from the hobbyist to large design houses.


Spoonflower’s history is an interesting one. According to the company’s website, the business was started by two geeks with crafty wives. Owner Stephen Fraser says the company was started after his wife, Kim, commented that no one printed the kind of fabric she wanted for a particular project so she decided that she wanted to print her own.. There were no places available for the average person to do that,” Stephen Fraser says. “It was far too expensive plus there they had to be purchased in large quantities. There are many places that will print on clothes, mugs and promotional materials but there wasn’t anybody who could do what she wanted.”


With a “can do” attitude, Spoonflower was born. The company opened in May 2008 by printing textiles for major design houses. By August, it was totally out on its own and has been making great progress ever since, a remarkable feat for someone with no industry experience.


“We were certainly swimming against the current at first. We started at zero and we continue to grow,” said Fraser.


Although no one in the company had the expertise necessary to begin such a project, help was close at hand. Spoonflower gained an enormous amount of guidance from TC2, an industry association in Cary, NC and assistance from the Yuhan-Kimberly company, Spoonflower was up and running in no time.


Currently, Spoonflower runs four Yuhan-Kimberly presses continuously. The presses are significantly adapted Mutoh presses which enable the company to create textiles on a very short turn around. The digital capabilities also make it easy and cost effective to run minute quantities compared to other types of processes. To that end, Spoonflower will print anything from one 8” swatch to one yard and beyond. The cost effectiveness allows Spoonflower to print a standard quilting cotton for as low as $16/yd.


“It’s easy to run 100 one-yard pieces as it is to run 1 one hundred-yard pieces,” Fraser said.




First2Print is one of the largest and most revered sources in the textile industry, a company whose client list includes notable designers like Daniel Vosovic and Zac Posen. First2Print is different in that they do not do the “print and sew” type of textile printing which changes some of the dynamic. Still, the company works with all of the major markets in the US and has created a successful business model for the textile industry.


First2Print has operations in New York and LA, with the work being split between the two locations. Like any printer, turnaround and production all depend upon the deadline which is dictated by the client’s action calendar. The exceptions to the “need it NOW” mentality lay with the high end designer, costume industry and traditional textile clients. Those are the people who are not being pressured by the retail end of the business like tradition designers and apparel manufacturers. Locastro says she has seen drastic changes in that area in recent years.


“It’s really tough in the apparel industry,” said Locastro. “It all comes from retail. The retail end dictates the cost and squeezes everyone along the way.”


“Our success is that we understand clothing, textiles, soft goods, etc.,” said Danielle Locastro, Director of Operations at First2Print. The company’s success also depends heavily on “the willingness to work with the client.”


Locastro also says that there has been a definite mental shift in the industry in regards to the types of clients coming in the doors as well as the overall mindset of what is possible.


The one thing that has not changed from the traditional printing world is the design end. “The easiest part of the process is the printing,” said Locastro. In regards to the design, the process is much the same as one executed by the rotary and offset printers. People send in digital files to be processed, which can be both a blessing and a curse. As any designer knows, client supplied files are rarely right or specific enough for the process to run correctly. The designer must take the file and turn it into a usable piece of art, a process that takes time and considerable experience. “Artists are working three times harder than the digital side,” said Locastro. “They are working longer hours with less profit than three years ago.”


Locastro feels that education remains the key to creating and printing a technically correct, saleable piece.


“You have to know what’s doable and not doable,” Locastro said. “When people hear digital they think they can do miracles.”


While anyone in the printing industry knows that there are limitations, the client often is unaware of the scope and abilities of various types of equipment. At First2Print, it is imperative that the client understand the realities of printing. “Our printers are set up in a realistic manner,” said Locastro. “People need to understand that you need different printers and different inks on different fabrics.”


Part of Locastro’s job is to educate clients to the ins and outs of textile printing. Surprisingly enough, designers are the easiest to please. “Designers who don’t work in the textile industry are the easiest to please,” said Locastro. “They’re easy to work with because they’re just happy to finally get their designs on fabric.”


Forging Ahead


Printers who want to use textiles as a way to add value to their existing services may do well to use a trade shop as a partner before making the investment into digital printers such as the Yuhan-Kimberly MC3. The good news is that the industry is growing by leaps and bounds, attracting even the most unlikely customers. When people find out how easy and cost effective it is to print their own fabric, the sky is the limit. Beyond that, the number of shops offering the service is very small and ones that can print on natural fibers are ever scarcer.


Fraser says, “You can count on one hand the number of people who are doing this. The people who can print on natural fibers are few and far between.”