My Big Digital Fabric Printing Experiment

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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.

raindrops

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.

spoonflowervseyecandey

I followed Spoonflower’s instructions on color correction to a T. Their fabric is on the left. I sent the wrong file type to Eye Candey, and didn’t do any color correcting, resulting in washed-out looking colors. Note the saturation of the black area in particular.

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.

trueup-dtpguide-thumb

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.

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All four swatches after laundering. There was no significant color fading after washing with any of the fabrics, except for the black areas of pigment-printed fabrics.

closeup-karmakraft

Close-up of Karma Kraft fabric. They use reactive dyes so the colors are more saturated.

closeup-spoonflower

Spoonflower’s fabric. I printed the design at a larger scale at a lower dpi than with the other companies, but I didn’t notice a difference in line quality. The colors are still strong; the green and orange drops really pop.

closeup-fabricondemand

Fabric on Demand’s fabric. I did not color-correct this file and the colors turned out dull. By some fluke, the line quality was poor, but they printed it again for me and the results were great (see image with black pen below).

closeup-eyecandey

Fabric from Eye Candey. I sent them the same file I sent Fabric on Demand, which turned out to be the wrong file format for them (RGB vs. CMYK), and results were similarly disappointing. Owner Joy applied a different printer profile, which resulted in almost a whole new colorway of a khaki-gray (instead of off-white) and dark gray (instead of black). I actually kind of like it! Like other pigment-using companies, the black didn’t fare well in the wash.

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 Fabric Comparison

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.

88 Comments

  1. monicalee says:

    wow! This was a great experiment! Thank you for doing this so we don’t have to!

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Wow. Thanks for this post–this is terrific. I’ve been hovering on Spoonflower’s site and have been tempted, but didn’t know what to expect. I think your side by side–even if they were not the same “apples”–is very helpful to use newbies.

    Thanks!

  3. Valerie says:

    This has so many application opportunities, although I am in love with black so that might not be the greatest for me… I will have to really look into it, and your chart will certainly come in handy!
    And I enjoy your design, very simple yet …catchy (sorry that’s the best word I can come up with).

  4. Jennifer says:

    So helpful! I always wondered why some of my black prints were so faded looking so quickly (the black print in the My Folklore fine was very frustrating to work with).

  5. Whistlepea says:

    This is super duper helpful. I like to think of my self and functional when it comes to technology and design but I think the process would be a bit over my head too. I think your description would be a big bonus.

  6. DianeY says:

    Thanks for such a thorough article! I love to sew, but I have a feeling I’ll have to leave fabric design to the experts-it seems a little more complicated than I think I have a learning curve for! Love your fabric!

  7. I thought this article was very interesting Kim…makes me want to experiment with the other companies, as I have only played with Spoonflower so far….would love to play with what you created here…
    Have a great day!

  8. Wende says:

    Thank you so much for this write up. It’s a lot to digest and like DianeY above me, I’m thinking I might be in over my head trying it.

    Your fabric is darling, but you don’t have to include me in your giveaway. My fabric stash is so large I can’t in good faith take a freebie.

    Thanks again!

  9. Shannon says:

    Great post! Thank you so much for sharing.

  10. Great synopsis- I should give a few of the others a try (when I find the time)

    We used that adage “garbage in, garbage out” all the time in traditional manufacturing-mills typically don’t “double check” your artwork and go to print on exactly what you give them (and try answering to a boss when you screw up!)

  11. kaylah says:

    Interesting! I didn’t know there were other alternatives to spoonflower. I really like spoonflower, I’ve had a few fabrics printed there and they all turned out great except the colors were a little off even though I’m 98% positive I had everything correct.

  12. Suzanne says:

    This is incredibly helpful information. I’d like to know more about organic offerings and if (I haven’t checked myself yet) any of the companies are going to (or already do) offer knits.

    Thank you for this experiment! Such great info.

  13. Jocelyn says:

    Amazing! Thanks for sharing about the project. Very cute fabric.

  14. Renee g says:

    Thanks for your blog post. I’ve been considering using one of these services, but haven’t known where to start.

    rsgrandinetti(at)yahoo(dot)com

  15. Tatania says:

    Thank You for a fantastic article. The differences in color and dyes is fascinating. I have really enjoyed your series on digital fabric printing.

  16. Jesse says:

    I do like your design :) Thanks for this, it’s very interesting reading. I haven’t used any of these companies, mainly because I’m not in the US and it seems pointless to have something printed, shipped all the way to SA and then made into things that I’d probably sell back to people in the US! That said, I’m very pleased these services are available and improving all the time.

  17. molly says:

    Wow, thanks for doing all this work! I have been looking at Spoonflower and frankly didn’t even realize that there were other similar services. I’m new to your blog via Craftzine, so I’ll have to take a look around and see what other interesting bits you have.

  18. As an high school teacher of textiles and design I found your article really helpful. I have been following the development of digital printing for years in the commercial field and in Universities. It has always been ‘beyond’ what high school students could really engage with. But, the latest development, digital printing of fabric on demand for individuals, brings it right into their sphere. As we live outside the USA it makes it a bit more difficult cost wise, but heck, my kids will work around that. The future holds so many possibilities for this technology. Thanks for this great article.
    Carolyn

  19. Amy says:

    Wow, I’ve wanted to do this, but have found the technology a little prohibitive. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

  20. Very cool – thanks for writing a comparison/tutorial on this creative technology which is still in its infancy stage.

  21. Super helpful post!! Thank you for taking the time/energy to do a comparison & give us a little info & something to think about.

  22. mccolandclan says:

    thanks so much for this…i have been wanting to experiment with creating custom linings and fabrics with some of the organic and sustainably produced fabrics used in our designs.

  23. penny g says:

    Thanks for trying to give us good metrics for fabric printing decision making. There was enough information to help and I think it is good thing that we all appreciate your input.

  24. meg says:

    This was immensely helpful, thank you! I’ve been meaning to do it for quite a while, but was always worried the fabric wouldn’t be right and I’d just be throwing away my money. Now I know how to do it right.

  25. Beth says:

    When I first looked I thought there were three fabrics – I like that the three different colors are on one fabric. Great to know about the black.

    What about the software the companies want you to use? Is there any freeware? Do you need to be a graphic designer to figure it all out?

    • Kim says:

      @Beth Unless you have access to expensive and specialized textile CAD software, Photoshop and Illustrator, or their open source & free counterparts GIMP and Inkscape programs, will do most things you want it to do for designing patterns for DTP. I think anyone who is semi-comfortable using these programs can design a pattern and prep the files as indicated by each service.

  26. Mary on Lake Pulaski says:

    This was great information on the companies available to print our own designs.

  27. Your fabric is beautiful! This was a very interesting comparison! I have been wanting very much to try these companies out, but I don’t have much confidence in my own design abilities. Do you have any other resources for where to get these sorts of files?

  28. Nicole says:

    This was really helpful! Digital fabric printing is something i’ve been wanting to have done for a while now but have been to uncertain about it. I think you may have set me on my way!

  29. Josie says:

    Great info, thanks. How do the rights retain/copyright terms compare between the sites? I don’t like Spoonflower’s broadly phrased terms about granting derivative rights.

  30. emtdlb says:

    I was unaware that you could do this as an individual. It is such a neat idea that you can have your own creations printed that quickly. Thanks for all the great info and ideas. I am apparently behind the times with all this type of stuff. Thanks for the chance!!!!

  31. daisy janie says:

    Wow. What an undertaking Kim! My head was spinning, despite my professional experience with the technology. Seeing the side by side comparisons was very cool. Spoonflower seems like they are raising their own bar all the time…and they are such incredibly nice folks to work with.

  32. [...] True Up » Archive » My Big Digital Fabric Printing Experiment (and a small giveaway) (tags: fabric reference digital.printing diy crafts sewing) [...]

  33. Cameron says:

    What a great contribution! I have worked with both Spoonflower and Fabric on Demand. I have the highest regard for the customer service at each company, and I think they are continually improving their product offerings and refining their processes to offer more reliable color and quality. I am rooting for both companies to succeed, and I am looking forward to trying out the other two as well.

  34. Sondra says:

    Excellent write-up……thank you so much for all of your time and valuable information. We will link your blog article on our for our customers. This is great info for my personal use.
    Best to you, Kim.
    Sondra

  35. Jade says:

    This was so informative! Thank you for taking the time to write this all up. I’ve been wanting custom fabric printed recently and have known nothing about it until now. Your fabric looks great!

  36. Mama Spark says:

    Wow, I never knew what I never knew and how interesting it all is!! I am going to subscribe to your blog. It’s great!!

  37. This is such a useful post, thank you so much! I am a little scared of designing digitally, as I know nothing about file formats or any of the software that you use for this sort of thing – can I just draw a design on paper and scan it into my pc? I get the feeling that wouldn’t be a high enough resolution of image though…hmmm. I love your design btw!

  38. Karen says:

    This a very informative, and gives me a lot of information I have been wondering about for a while now. Thank you so much!

    Your fabric, with the definite color breaks, is something I love as I like to work with border prints. These days it difficult to find good border print fabrics, so if I would love to win a yard of this one.

  39. Heidi Rand says:

    Thanks! This is so helpful. I’ve ordered a lot of fabric from spoonflower, and have seen the quality improve. Because I use photoshop elements I don’t have access to LAB space, so I haven’t really done much color correcting in my orders to them. Most of the fabric turned out good in terms of color, although one was way off. I can get much better resolution printing my own, but of course I can’t print that large (or that inexpensively!) with my printer. I recently got 2 yards from fabricondemand (I think their customer service is incredible, much better than spoonflower), and the colors were way off, but again it was my fault for not color correcting. They sent me a color blanket, and now I have to figure out how to use it!

    • Kim says:

      @Heidi ahh, I didn’t realize Photoshop Elements doesn’t have LAB space. Sometimes I forget that not everyone has access to Photoshop! It looks like GIMP (free, open source raster image editing software like Photoshop) has LAB colors, though.

  40. Clo says:

    Brilliant post, thanks for taking the time to put it together.

  41. Angelina says:

    Thank you! It’s a great post, so helpful!

  42. This was very very helpful. I am in the process of designing fabric to send off to spoonflower. Now that there are other options I will test them. I live near
    Seattle…I wish there was a place a little closer.

    • Kim says:

      @Krys I wonder, as the technology becomes more widespread, if more local print bureaus will offer DTP.

  43. Very interesting experiment. I have been invoved in textile printing for over 20 years now and have been concerned with people’s creating printed textile lines for resale, with no knowledge of dyes, now that digital printing is available to the public. My concern is more from a technical perspective. I have felt bad for some of the people who have produced lines for resale to the public, using pigments, where the end application should be limited to certain uses. But, I see consumers buying pigment printed fabrics for upholstery end use and I cringe when I think about all of the potential problems for the seller and buyer.

    I just want to share with everyone that although pigments are loosley considered as a dye class, they are not true dyes. They sit on the surface of the fabric and adhere with a binder. The characteristics of pigments vis-avis other true dye classes that are are appropriate for cellulosic fibers are that they can crock (rub off) easily, fade easily, look chaulky and can create a stiff hand. They are washable, but they also loose and color and substance with each wash. Furthermore, if the fabric is not prepared properly before printing (singed) then the fabric is far likelier to to have print defects such as little white omits from the fuzz of the fabric that hasn’t been singed off before printing.

    Fiber reactives are considered evironmentally low impact and are approved by G.O.T.S. (Global Organic Textile Standards) for use as such. Fiber reactive are superior to pigments for cellulosics and do cost more than pigments. They have superior in every way.

    For everyone who is seriously considering spending money on digitally printing textiles, I recommend a book that I read in my Freshman year in college in 1983, which is still in production, and I still use my tattered one for reference today. It is Fabric Science by JJ Pizzuto and is a Fairfiled book. Even if you just love textiles, have to do laundry or buy anything made from textiles, this is an absolutely invaluable resource!

    One more comment, I cast my vote for Karma Kraft, their fiber reactives and Scott’s rocking knowledge of printing, dyes classes and the home dec industry.

    If anyone ever needs some guidance relate to textile printing, I charge 5 cents an hour.

    • Kim says:

      @Donna thank you — that was very informative. I also recommend Fabric Science by JJ Pizzuto — I was very lucky to find it at my local Half Price Books recently!

  44. Ammie says:

    Thank you so much! This is a wonderfully helpful post. I haven’t yet wanted to design and print my own fabric, although I like batiking and stenciling. I’ll be sure to refer to this chart should I someday design something spectacular.

  45. Christie says:

    I love your design. It looks very Japanese. And I love how you took the plunge using these different companies thereby saving the rest of us money. Thanks so much!

  46. Fulvia says:

    Thank you for the info. I have just placed my first order with Spoonflower; will gladly share when I get it.

  47. veronica says:

    We used Spoonflower to make a quilt for our in-laws as a (very well rec’d) Xmas gift. It was a pretty basic design, but a great learning experience and they were so accommodating and speedy. However, I’m eager to try to the other companies (especially Karma Kraft) and see how it all works out. Thanks for all the info!

  48. Dot says:

    Fascinatig article. We are becoming such a technical internet society that one day everyone may be printing their own fabric. Like your design and would love receiving some of it.

  49. RobinW says:

    Resolution is so important to printing of any kind! No amount of talent can make up for inadequate resolution. You should to do a whole report on it.

    • Kim says:

      @RobinW – that’s very true. Here is some good information from Stephen at Spoonflower: “You can upload a file at any resolution. The default preview shows your design as it would look printed at 150 pixels per inch, but you can now toggle the size of the image to print it at a higher resolution, which of course makes it smaller in the preview. Having said that, on fabric printing a design sized at 150 pixels per inch gives more or less the highest possible resolution in terms of quality because of the bleed intrinsic to printing on textiles. With images above 150 dpi you see no real improvement in output. Ok, so that’s image resolution. Our printer resolution on the other hand is 720 pixels by 720 pixels. Printer resolution — how many dots of ink the printer uses to compose each pixel of color data on the substrate – is very important. We print every image at a printer resolution of 720 x 720.”

  50. Barbara says:

    What a great article! I didn’t realize there were four different vendors to choose from. Your design is very cute too.