Earlier this year Fabric on Demand joined the pioneering Spoonflower in offering affordable digital fabric printing over the internet to the everyday crafter. Soon after, two more services popped up, Karma Kraft and Eye Candey. (Full disclosure: the latter two are also True Up sponsors.)
I had a single design printed by all four services to compare them. Unfortunately, I didn’t think the process through sufficiently. I followed one service’s directions thoroughly for file preparations but not the others (I thought I had, but I hadn’t). I communicated directly with one service what my intentions were with the colors, but not the others. So in the end, I wasn’t comparing apples to apples, and that makes me unable to answer the question “which service is the best?”
Hopefully, though, this post will help you figure out which is the best for you.
The Design. When I started this process, I had just bought the Check & Knit volume of the Petite Pattern series from Japan and was in love with this abstract design of clouds in yellow, black, and off-white with little drops of green and orange. These books include a CD with .eps (vector) and .tif (raster) files — I used the .tif just because I know my way around Photoshop better than Illustrator.
From the picture on the page in the book, I expected a near-true black and only slightly off-white white. I didn’t think much about the yellow, green, or orange, actually. I sent a 150dpi .tif to Spoonflower, and 300dpi .tifs to the other services.
The Results. Across the board, I was impressed with the customer service and the quality of the basecloths. When I took sufficient time to follow the service’s recommendations for file preparation and specified my colors, the print quality was awesome. Otherwise, they had poor line quality and/or washed-out colors. However, all the services worked with me to get a final result I was happy with.
So the #1 most important thing I learned through this experience is that the adage “garbage in, garbage out” is very true for digital fabric printing. I’m not saying your designs are garbage, but that if you don’t do any color management, it is highly unlikely that the results will meet your expectations.
The colors you perceive on your screen do not and cannot exactly match (or in some cases, even come close to) the colors that comes out of a printer and onto a substrate. To ensure colors meet your expectations, you must build or alter your design according to a standardized color reference — ideally, the full array of colors possible from the printer you intend to use, printed onto the basecloth that you intend to use. You can buy these printouts (or will be able to soon) from all four services. (Karma Kraft also offers Pantone Fashion + Home and Sherwin Williams Color Book matching.) For those with limited resources, making this up-front investment pretty much ties you to that service, and you might be wondering which service to make that commitment to.
I do recommend each of the companies, but each has its own price range, basecloth offerings, printing technology, file requirements, and extra services. I’ve prepared this free downloadable .pdf that compares all these factors at a glance. Decide what factor(s) are the most important to you and choose the service that fits your needs. Need silk, or cut & sew service, or want to use reactive dyes? Right now, Karma Kraft is your only choice. Or maybe you like the community that Spoonflower has built, and their fabric-of-week contests. If you want to sell your designs to the public, Eye Candey is the only place right now that offers a built-in webshop. And Fabric on Demand currently has the lowest price for custom printing on basic cotton. If you’re still undecided, I’d say go with the website you feel most comfortable using, and offers the level of guidance about file preparation that you need.
There are a few more things I learned from this experience:
Pigments vs. reactive dyes. Current digital inkjet printers for cellulose fabrics (cotton, silk, rayon, etc.) can print with either water-soluble pigments or reactive dyes. Reactive dyes require pre-treated basecloth, steam-setting, laundering out of excess dyes, and drying. Pigments can be printed on untreated cloth and only require heat-setting after printing, and so are more environmentally friendly than reactive dyes — virtually no waste ink ends up in the water system. However, I’ve heard it argued that you can achieve more deeply saturated and more washfast colors with reactive dyes than you can with pigments, and that’s what I found with my limited experiment, especially with …
Black. It is difficult if not impossible to achieve true black with pigment inks when printing onto a white basecloth. Thanks to Fabric on Demand, who took this image of my design against a black pen for comparison (above). I had no problems with any of the fabrics fading after laundering swatches with my biodegradable detergent, except pigment-printed black. This is a limitation to keep in mind if your design contains solid black.
Inspect your fabric thoroughly on arrival. Check that the design is on-grain, that there are no smudges, unprinted spots, or other defects. If you sent your design at the specified dpi, you should get sharp lines (unless your design doesn’t have sharply deliniated areas of color). All the companies will happily replace flawed fabric. Each company’s return policy is still evolving, but I think the general consensus is that color is the customer’s responsibility — which underscores the importance of color management and ordering swatches before committing to a larger order.
And speaking of evolution … Spoonflower, at the ripe old age of one year and a few months, has been around the longest of these four companies. All of them are constantly refining the functionality of their websites and expanding their offerings. I will be updating the chart accordingly to the best of my ability, so keep checking back.
I hope this guide was helpful to you! I felt at times that the technical aspects of digital printing were a bit over my head, so if those of you out there in the know catch any errors, please let me know.