The Fabric Design
There probably isn't a single industry that hasn't been touched, enhanced and revolutionized by computer technology in the last 15 years. The easy availability of powerful computers right on our desktops has meant creative engineering leaps are made every day. The art of fabric design has not escaped the trend.
The Old Way
Look through your closet and notice the patterns that have been printed on some of the fabrics you find there. Traditionally, patterns are printed on fabric like images are printed on paper. Each color in the design is "burned" into a printing plate, which is mounted on a cylinder on the press. As the fabric passes under the roller, the imprint of that color is transferred to it. Colors build up, much like repetitive block printing, to create the final design. Since these large presses have a finite number of rollers, the designs are limited to that number of color impressions -- for instance, a large fabric press might
have 16 "plates" to lay down color.
It takes a great deal of time and expense to prepare a fabric press for printing a roll of cloth. Designs have to be developed, the colors divided onto separate plates, inks or pigments matched to each color, and so forth. As a result, most factories require a minimum of at least a few thousand yards of fabric to be printed of each design. This is great for the general market, but for interior decorators, fashion designers and people craving the unique or unusual, it severely limits the choices available.
- Intrigued? Read a step-by-step description of how fabric is printed at Cranston Village, a popular brand name on fabrics sold in mass retail stores across the country.
Enter Ink Jet Technology!
The pieces of equipment on your desk that make using a computer so productive (and fun) have made their way to the fabric design industry with fantastic results. Digital Fabric Printers (like the one pictured here) operate much like your ink jet printer, and they have just as much flexibility when it comes to color and design. A head moves back and forth over the fabric, laying down the four basic colors (black, cyan [blue], yellow and magenta) which make up all 4-color process printing. Varying amounts of each of the 4 colors can be combined to produce literally millions of
colors. Using a digital printer, it's now possible to produce a single yard of unique fabric -- usually in a matter of days. If you can design it on your computer, they can print it.
There are still things to be worked out in the area of digital fabric printing, though. The main one is the ability to print quantities of fabric quickly. The technology can produce special-order fabrics in a hurry for design mock-ups, display purposes, etc., but not the massive runs that traditional fabric printers can produce once they have the plates ready and the presses are up to speed.
Read More About It
You can do it, too!
Ever wanted to wear something so personalized that you knew no one on the planet would have a duplicate of it? It's possible, and without doing an iron-on transfer with it's attendant stiffness and plastic-like non-porous result. You can order cloth swatches and "carriers" that enable you to pass silk, cotton and other fabrics through your ink jet printer today. The sky is the limit as far as design goes for this. If you can dream it, and can create it in an art program on your computer, you can output it in all it's glorious color. (For once, getting printer ink on your favorite shirt will be a plus!)
The printed swatch can then be sewn into a garment design, added to a quilt or other decorative piece, framed, or otherwise displayed.
Try it yourself!
- Dharma Trading Co. has prepackaged pieces of silk and cotton for ink jet printing, as well as full instructions.
- McGonigal Paper & Graphics has "carriers" that adhere to fabric cut to size, and enable it to go through a standard ink jet printer. Check out the pictures and see how easy it can be.
Evolution is sure to continue on this front in years to come, and just as it always does, such evolution will lead to increased availability of the technology to everyone who wants it. Keep your eye on this one; it won't be long before we find ourselves wondering how we ever put up with "mass produced" fabric prints so long!