Digital fabric printing is “probably the greatest innovation of 21st-century fashion,” Christina Binkley declared in the Wall Street Journal last month. The “vastly improved digital printing technologies allow designers to innovate while beefing up their brands,” she says.

For Binkley, the printing revolution means that the textiles print isn’t just the new big thing, but is becoming more important and more recognizable than the logo in the branding of fashion companies – whether it’s Prada, Pucci, or Jil Sander.

michael angel digital prints
From Michael Angel Resort 2012

Danielle Locastro, Director of Operations for New York and Los Angeles-based digital fabric printer First2Print, agrees. Digital printing technology “is enabling creative individuals to get their ideas out and on to fabric,” she says.

Because designers now rely on digital technology – from Photoshop and illustrator to digital photography – digital printing is “the tool” that works best with that, says Locastro.

“Before the advent of digital fabric printing” the average designer “couldn’t take an idea – whether it was a custom design for your dress, or a photograph or a painting – and put it on to fabric,” she says, “because you had large yardage minimums that had to be met for rotary or flatbed screen printing. And you had a whole process in between about how do you get that image engraved to be printed onto fabric?”

In contrast digital fabric printers tend to specialize in small runs. First2Print focuses on “the three to 300 yard” runs.

Typically this means two types of designer are interested in digital printing. The first is the major design company that needs to produce a prototype. They want to “make their product, show it to the buyer, and get an order that is committed to 15 or 20,000 units.” Once they have the order, the client will run the thousands of yards he needs with a traditional silkscreen printer, usually in Asia.

The other major use is for short-run commercial printing. Here, it’s either new designers or high-end or couture companies that are interested. And, “this is where we’re seeing a major explosion in the fashion market place,” says Locastro “particularly with products that are being made with silk, nylons, and various types of polyester.”
“Because digital fabric printing is short run… products that fit into this market are naturally higher end, where you’ll retail at a higher price point per garment. A lot of couture designers are only producing maybe three garments per size for six sizes, so that when they need a new order they just call us up again.”

Our printed “fabric is washable, wearable, and retailable,” says Locastro. “We have to meet AATCC specifications, or trade standards, so you can sell them at retail.” And First2Print’s technology is being employed by design companies such as swimwear company Shortomatic and womenswear designer Jeremy Scott.

But short runs is only one reason why designers are turning to digital technology for printing. The major appeal comes from its relative lack of limitations, in comparison to traditional silkscreen, and its compatibility with the technology designers are using during the creative process anyway.

With “screen printing you typically have to cut a screen for each color that you’re going to use,” Locastro notes, “and its usually a limited number of colors, averaging about six to eight colors. With digital fabric printing there are no color limitations.” If a designer creates a print with 500 colors for the first time in textiles history it can be printed.

Locastro says digital printing has “broken down the barriers of traditional textiles. In digital fabric printing you also don’t have to have a specific [pattern] repeat, so you can custom engineer panel pieces to fit your garment, and the fashion designer can become more of a designer with strategic placement, about where they want their prints to fall.”

“Some high end fashion companies, such as Elie Tahari and Michael Angel, are really taking to that,” designing placement prints individually for each pattern piece of their garments, and then sewing them together.

The question for the fashion designer then becomes “do you want the print to come from the highpoint of the shoulder, or from the waistline? And that’s giving fashion designers freedom to be creative with textiles and fashion. They can think of their garment as a sculptural form.”

Locastro says digital printing technology is “going to change the industry.”

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