Digital Printing on Fabric: Pros, Cons + Who Is Making Digital Print Fabric Now

on July 5 | in Products & Books, Sewing Trends | by | with 8 Comments

Teresa Coates of and Fabric Depot showed us How to Sew Professional-Looking Pillows and brought us a hard-hitting Sewing Needle Comparison. Here she fills you in on Digital Printing on Fabric– the pros, cons and who is making this fabric right now!

Teresa Coates picked up needle and thread as a child and hasn’t stopped sewing since. Her quilting and sewing patterns have appeared in Quilty, Generation Q, Stitch, American Quilt Retailer and Quiltmaker’s 100 Blocks magazines, as well as for Fabric Depot, Robert Kaufman Fabrics and Luke Haynes. She is the social media maven and sewing instructor at Fabric Depot in Portland, Oregon. Follow her sewing adventures at and on Instagram.

The first time I heard about digital printing on fabric was five years ago with Spoonflower prints. In the years since, many of the fabric manufacturers have tried their hand at digital printing, with mixed results. Red Rooster, Hoffman California, Elizabeth’s Studio, Robert Kaufman Fabrics and Benartex have all produced digitally-printed fabrics over the past few years, but only a handful have continued on a regular basis. As with any specialized fabric, there are pros and cons.

What’s So Great About Digitally Printed Fabrics?
Prints are typically screenprinted onto quilting cotton using a different screen for each color. This process requires careful registration and limits the number of colors that can be used to 16-20, depending on manufacturer.

Digital prints, on the other hand, can have as many colors as there are dyes. It’s potentially limitless. A design could easily be made with 30, 50 or 100 different colors and it would not affect the ability to print the design. Unlike screen printing, resolution is perfect every time and you’ll never get the halo that often occurs when two screen printed, complementary colors bump into each other. Digital printing also eliminates the need for cleaning screens and rinsing out inks giving an environmental benefit.

Without the need for screens, it also makes it possible to increase the length between repeats or even completely do away with them. You could actually print a 10-yard-long design that never repeated. This gives tremendous flexibility to the original artwork and allows for panoramic and/or photographic prints.

The breadth of color choices and design opportunities is what draws the large manufacturers to digital printing. For companies such as Spoonflower and Modern Yardage, it’s the ability to turn around a custom design quickly and easily in very limited quantities.

What’s Not to Love?
The most common complaints about digitally printed fabric have been the cost and the color. Because of the specialized nature of digital printing, including base cloth preparation, limited runs, dyes and machines, the cost per yard for the manufacturer is higher than traditional screen printing. This cost, naturally, gets passed on to the consumer and digital prints are typically a few dollars more per yard. The more limited the run, the higher the cost. Hoffman California generally prints a few thousand yards of each design, whereas Spoonflower prints designs as they are ordered.

Talking with fellow sewists, the biggest complaint has been about color: lack of saturation and fading with both time and sun. This was a problem strictly with the quick turnaround fabrics. Many sewists I questioned complained that the blacks weren’t black enough and other colors were not as bright. Colors faded on fold lines. Each time the fabrics went through the wash cycle, they lost color. This seems to be an issue only for the small printing houses, but one that many sewists accept as the price of having custom fabric made.

The process is different for major manufacturers and the intensity of color is a selling point. Personally, I have used prints from both Hoffman California (Trapezium) and Robert Kaufman Fabrics (Bloominescent). Both were vibrantly saturated off the bolt and remained that way, even after several washes.

The hand of digitally printed fabrics can be slightly odd at first, but wash up beautifully and have a much better drape and feel after the first wash. Hawthorne Threads and Hoffman both agree that washing the fabric before using it will give you better results.

Who Is Making It Now?
Hoffman California has several lines available in quilt shops this year including Ridge Rock, Poinsettia, Trapezium, and Skylines. These are coordinated to go with their 1895 batik blender collection. Elizabeth’s Studio has the Digital Garden coming to stores in August. Hawthorne Threads has more than a dozen collections that are designed and digitally printed in-house, including Calypso, Fawn, Coyote and Zambezi.

Have you tried digital print fabrics? Have you made your own designs, or have you used prints from major manufacturers? What has your experience been like?

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8 Responses to Digital Printing on Fabric: Pros, Cons + Who Is Making Digital Print Fabric Now

  1. Marzy says:

    I have been printing material with Spoonflower for a couple of years. I mostly only print on the organic fabrics and the color is a bit muted, but I know that up front and compensate for that feature in my design. Excellent company to work with!

  2. Hi everyone. I recently started my own digital fabric printing business. If anybody has any questions at all about digital printing, feel free to send me an email. I will answer them the best that I can! Different printing processes result in different colors. For example, polyesters are printed via transfer paper that is printed on. This gives the most vibrant color. Cottons are printed on directly with pigment inks. This process does not result in a vibrant color that you would get on a polyester. Even within different cottons you could have a different pop of color in saturation. It all depends on the type of fibers and the weave of those fibers! It’s an exciting world though!

  3. Carol says:

    I’d send them back.

  4. Linda says:

    I ordered some from Hawthorne Threads but was very disappointed in the color and the hand of the fabric. In spite of the extra cost, I put it in the donate pile because I felt it would not let me produce a quilt of acceptable quality and appearance.

  5. Cetriya says:

    I’ve only printed with spoon flower and found that different fabric prints color at different intensity. I like their suede and high performer fabric. Both intense and bright. Their basic or lower cost fabric is pretty dull in color so will only work with more ‘natural’ colors instead of super brights

  6. I designed some custom tags several years ago using Spoonflower. The text wasn’t as crisp as I wanted, but it was still legible. I heard they’ve improved their printing process since then, though. I would definitely give it another go if I ever get skilled enough to design fabric. It would be so neat to sew something with my own fabric design.

  7. Wendy says:

    I have centered my business around the availability of print on demand digital fabrics for the past six years. I’ve seen it change quite a bit and have discovered that the “problems” with the color fade can be managed through your design. For example I have some designs that are meant to look “cottage chic”. When the fabric is off the bolt it looks vibrant, but then the natural fade and change of hand after that first wash it looks exactly as I imagined it when I did the design. To handle designs that need to stay vibrant for it’s lifetime I print on the synthetic choices like jersey, satin, minky and suede. There is no detectable fade and gives me rich blacks and saturated brights. I make children’s clothing and costumes so durability and washability is the most important factor. I especially love that I can get “boy satin” via digital printing. Satin is very hard to find with masculine prints.

  8. One of the things I learned when I visited Spoonflower’s headquarters recently was that digital printing involves almost no waste. There are no dye runoff into the waste stream. The inks are in ink cartridges much like what you have in a home printer. To me that’s a huge advantage of digital printing.

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