Spoonflower promises to be the most exciting and revolutionary service to come along in the craft word since Etsy. If you haven’t heard, Spoonflower, which is set to open its doors this summer, will offer custom digital textile printing to the crafter market. It was founded by Stephen Fraser, formerly of Lulu, a service that allows you to self-publish all sorts of printed matter. As you can imagine, I’m very excited about the prospect of getting my own designs printed, and seeing what other people come up with. I am just dying to know the extent to which Spoonflower’s business model will resemble Lulu’s. In other words, will there be software that will help you create repeating patterns? (Not that you necessarily need repeating pattens for digital fabrics … see below …) Will you be able to buy and sell through the site?
Since the going cost of digital printing is extremely prohibitive ($50-75 per yard), currently the technology is only practical for higher-end interior and fashion designers, career art quilters, and the like. I assume that printers have either dropped in price, or maybe others offering the service have been enjoying huge markups. How much less expensive Spoonflower will be is yet to be announced, of course, but since they are marketing to crafters, I would think the difference would be significant. I wonder if the cost will be low enough so that people who want to sell their creations can make a decent return.
Spoonflower comes on the heels of an article in Print Magazine (April 2008 issue) by Claire Liu on digital textile printing and how it is changing the face of the textile industry. Digital textile printing is radically different from traditional printing: designs are not limited to the circumference of the mill’s print rollers, nor are they limited to the one-color-per-roller constraints and the associated costs (the more colors, the more it costs to print). Self-publishing one’s designs is nearly impossible for the indie designer today because the mills are mostly overseas and require huge minimum orders (usually 3,000 yards, sometimes more). It’s just not worth it for printing plants to print short runs. If you’re outside the industry — say, a graphic designer who think it would be neat to have some fabric printed up to make pillows with, or a bride-to-be who wants custom table runners for her wedding — it’s difficult to find anyone who will even talk to you. It’s possible to get short runs screenprinted by hand, but that’s labor intensive, expensive, and practitioners are scarce. The only real advantage traditional mills have over digital printers is efficiency. Traditional plants can print thousands of yards daily; digital printers are extremely slow in comparison. But like any technological advance, digital printers are getting cheaper and faster all the time.
Digital textile printing — like mp3 technology and digital photography — is a major democratizing force. It remains to be seen what effect it’ll have on traditional fabric companies (I’m thinking of quilting fabric companies specifically). Will it cut into their business significantly? I don’t think so, especially if their goods remain in a lower price bracket than custom prints. Furthermore, creating decent designs for fabric requires a some expertise — most people won’t be good at it and even fewer will be great at it. People will always buy from the established names and the new, outstanding talents. You can definitely bet that companies will be looking to Spoonflower-ers for the latest design trends.
It is more likely that digital technology will impact smaller, traditional printing plants. There are a handful here in the U.S. that are currently struggling to compete with Asia. Liu’s article reported that some of these American companies are already turning toward digital printing as a means of survival.
I’m crossing my fingers that Spoonflower is truly able to bring fabric printing to the masses. You can bet I’ll be following their progress closely over here. Or you can go straight to the source and read the Spoonflower Blog, where Stephen and his wife Kim are posting about their progress toward launching, as well as offering fabric design tutorials and inspiration.