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.

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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.

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

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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. Carrie says:

    I’m intrigued by this process. I would love to try it out myself. I think your design is fantastic!

  2. Scott says:

    Hi Kim, I just wanted to tell you that your article is very cool and I appreciate you including Karma
    Kraft. I have been reading some of your posts and it seems there are quite a few people who would like to join in and have a fabric printed but are unable to because of lack of design experience. I just wanted to let you know that we do offer design services. We can create a design for you from scratch. If you have a pattern you like or just an idea or a sketch we can create a totally new design file for you and you will own the design after purchasing. You can simply take a picture of the pattern or idea you have and discuss it with us and we will draw the pattern for you. We will not copy an existing design exactly but we can draw something inspired by the fabric design you like. The original custom design artwork price ranges from $50.00-$200.00 depending on the complexity and detail. This service does not have to be utilized for printing a fabric with us, we just wanted everyone to be aware that we do have a design team that can create not only your fabric but your design as well. We can also offer traditional printing methods (flatbed, heat transfer etc..) for those small business owners who see larger print runs in the future. If you move to traditional printing the costs go WAY down, but there are minimums of 1000 yards if moving from digital printing to traditional printing. Thanks again for your article!!

  3. Rachel says:

    This article and your experiments are a great value to those of us venturing into fabric design… thanks so much for posting about it! I’ve done some with Spoonflower and things have been great so far. Great to hear about the other companies though too.

  4. Kristin O says:

    This was very interesting to me, I didn’t know so many companies offered this service (I just heard about spoonflower recently). I would love to win some custom designed fabric!

  5. bethany says:

    I found your site (and this review) via Craft blog — this is priceless. Thanks for doing all this work. Great reference. Thank you!!!

  6. craftytammie says:

    Thanks for sharing! I won’t be trying this, I don’t have any of the tools. I don’t own Photoshop or Illustrator and don’t know how to use them. I love fabric though, and I like how Spoonflower lets you vote and then sells the winners on Etsy. And I think your design is great! I’d love a fat quarter!

    I’ve seen several examples on blogs where the colors didn’t come out properly (pink instead of red was one) so I’m sure a lot of people have this trouble.

  7. Fun book on digital textile design for Photoshop and Illustrator users: http://amzn.com/1856695867

    Thanks, Kim!

  8. Joy says:

    Thanks for the great post Kim!

    There’s a lot of good info here for both the newbie and more experienced designers. Color management and resolution are key, but you don’t have to be a pro to get a good print. Happy designing everyone!

    Joy

  9. Jan Rader says:

    This is a great guide! And I love the fabric you designed! It really inspires me to try my own!

  10. Jacey says:

    Thank you for this wonderful resource. I’ve been thinking about how fun it would be to design fabric, and I appreciate such a fantastic reference for the subject.
    Your fabric is really cute, by the way!

  11. Karen says:

    Just wanted to thank you for this exhaustive and great post + digital printing guide. I admit I’ve sort of been suspicious of digital printing – especially in terms of quality – but after reading all you said here I’m definitely trying it.

    Thank you Kim.

  12. [...] TrueUp blog has a great post on comparing 4 of the online custom fabric printers.++ At $16.75+ per yard of fabric, it’s kind of pricey.+ But think of the things [...]

  13. Brian says:

    Fantastic article!

    Just the resource needed as this starts to become affordable.

    I was wondering if you could speak to the actual quality and feel of the fabric itself; such as, could you make a comfortable soft shirt out of any of it?

    Anything would be a wonderful addition to an already great article.

    Thanks!
    –Brian

  14. alexandrah says:

    you are awesome! thank you so much.. this was the only site i could find any useful information on!!!

  15. Leeloo says:

    Great article. I have a question on the base fabrics from these companies…the only one I have a sample of is those from Fabric on Demand, and the fabric that is supposed to be for quilting is really stiff and weird…seems kind of like it is coated like an outdoor fabric – nothing like what you would buy in a store. Is that true of all four of these companies?

    Thanks so much for any info!

  16. Susan says:

    Leeloo, just wanted to let you know Karma Kraft has 12 different base cloths in stock but we can get pretty much any fabric that you want. We have a base cloth set that you can order from our website and all of the fabrics have great hand and drape because we wash and soften our fabrics after printing. Hope this helps!

    Thanks,
    Susan

  17. Susie Monday says:

    I shared a link to the site form the yahoo Complex Cloth list. Thanks for the helpful comparisons and for the heads up on color correction, pigment dyes, etc. Very helpful!

  18. This was a well thought out experiment dealing with digital textile printing. I wish my business had been included in the comparison printing. I do digital textile printing for myself and for many other people. I am able to use two different types of fabric dyes in my printer. I use fiber reactive dyes that work on silk, cotton, other cellulose fibers like hemp, linen, bamboo etc., and rayon. I also use acid dyes that work on silk, protein fibers like wool, alpaca etc., and nylon. I have an extensive list of fabrics that are ready for me to use or I can have fabrics treated for my printing process as long as they fall within the criteria that I need them to work. There is an additional charge to have the treatment done. All the fabrics have to be pretreated and backed with paper. The paper backing makes them run smoothly through the printer and the pretreatment makes the dye become permanent after the steaming process. All the fabrics are steamed after printing and then they are washed, dried and pressed. I tell my customers to provide their images as CMYK, 300dpi (if possible), and they can be tiff, jpeg eps, or pdf. I prefer to print as a tif file but I can convert files that I receive. I can do repeats at a charge or they can be supplied as a repeat. It is up to the customer. My printer can print up to 63″ wide. At this point I can only steam fabrics up to 60″ wide. I hope to be able to steam wider widths in the future.

    This is an exciting process and I have enjoyed the results that I have produced. Check out my website at http://www.dianaballarddesigns.com.

    Thanks,

    Diana

  19. Merrill Solomon says:

    Diana,

    Long story not worth going into now, but do you know of any company that makes either a narrow web high speed ink jet printer, say up to a 24 inch web, and 100 feet per minute, or a 60 inch web that could print at 15 feet per minute?

    Thank you,

    Merrill Solomon
    703-522-7070

  20. April Tosch says:

    Digital Fabric Printing…..*faints

    I’ve been in this business for 6 years; I’m located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

    I’ve read about Spoonflower and more power to them! No way could I charge what they do. I don’t use pigmented inks, I use reactives. The biggest problem that I’ve encountered is fading after washing. Many times I’ve had to scrap orders and start again due to this. I hear that pigmented inks are more color-fast but they just don’t seem to come out as bright as when using reactives.

    I tell my customers “Dry clean only” and problem solved.

    It’s a tough business and yes, color is SO tricky! It will vary from what you see on the screen to the fabric and then again after post treament. AND colors will print differently depending on the type of fabric used.

    It’s not an exact science yet.

    But I will tell you this, there is nothing more gratifying than handing over work well done and having the customers walk away totally happy. It makes the blood, sweat and tears worth all the effort!

  21. [...] decided to+try the services of+Karma Kraft.+++Here is a link to a blog posting titled, “My Big Digital Fabric Printing Experiment”+ Several digital printing service companies products are compared in this [...]

  22. Beth H says:

    WOW! just found this post but will be keeping it for reference. thank you so much for this experiment & your detailed assessment & handy chart! i also appreciate the explanation of reactive dyes – did not know about those.

  23. Margaret says:

    Hey, I’m here from the DressaDay blog. Fantastic post, really helpful. Thanks so much for sharing your research!

    By the way, one of your Karma Kraft links (“Need silk, or cut & sew service, or want to use reactive dyes? Right now, Karma Kraft is your only choice.”) leads to Spoonflower. Oops!

  24. MinaW says:

    Thanks for the comparisons. Everybody might want to check back with these companies about new fabric offerings, for instance. Spoonflower now has linen/cotton & organic knit.

    About the technical expertise required, Spoonflower held a contest a month or 2 ago for fabric designs made with crayons! (Check back in the blog to see.) There were some fantastic designs. I am familiar with the Photoshop/Illustrator color choices, but I think maybe the main color problems for this printing (besides black) may come from computer generated design sources. A crayon kids’ drawing with a white background, tiled onto fabric, is highly likely to give good results. (But do get a test swatch.)

    So don’t think you need too much technical expertise to get started. Just play.

  25. Scott says:

    I just wanted to respond to a post that mentioned an e-mail that came from our Karma address. Our computer was not shut down in the evening and a newphew got hold of a few e-mails that were still open and sent some uncool things to a customer or two. So far, from the customers we have e-mailed about this, they are all understanding and we are very sorry this happened. Lesson here: Make sure when you shut down for the evening, it REALLY shuts down.

  26. rob says:

    I have been looking to create USA-based products and found Spoonflower. Love it!!! Great resource with great results. An added bonus is that they use water-based inks- better for the environment.

    Now if we can only get US textile production rolling again. Support bill HR 1009 that would allow domestic hemp manufacturers to buy their hemp from American producers. Let’s level the playing field.

  27. erin flett says:

    Such a great resource! Thanks so much! e

  28. Hal says:

    Great comparison. For what I want, it looks like the reactive dye with Kharma Kraft produces far better color from a photographer’s point of view, and I have seen great results printed on their standard fabrics.

    I am not sure if I can afford to ship my Lycra/Polyester fabric to them to print in China and return. I hope more printers will emerge offering more fabric with the reactive dye printing.

    May have to start taking painting classes. LOL

  29. suzanne says:

    hi

    i am so happy i found you this was extremely valuable ingormation i hve been designing beach bags for my company called beachhouse etc. and was running into problem of running out of fabric and had been thinking about creating my own designs so that i don’t have to worry about something being discontinued but also having the control of exactly what you want …thanks so much for your help….i’m a follower…suzanne pignato

  30. clm says:

    Donna Halloran casts her vote for Karma Kraft and their fiber reactives but her recommendation on reactive dyes is a bit overstated and overrated. Certified or not by G.O.T.S, reactives are still less environmental-friendly than (non- dye) pigments. And for many of us, the end use application IS limited to certain uses other than upholstery so it’s not a concern. There are other issues to consider also, i.e., supporting businesses here in the U.S. that are building on local economies. Wins my support every time.

    Sorry, Donna, but I cast my vote for Spoonflower – for the quality of service, quality of product and their commitment to revitalizing a dying industry in their region.

  31. JN says:

    This was very helpful. My students are looking for vendors to get their custom designed textiles printed for our Digital textile class and I found these reviews very helpful. Thanks!

  32. RobbyRaccoon says:

    [...] have tried each exactly once, so my experiences are limited and you should really go elsewhere like this post at TrueUp to get a more rounded [...]