Articles & Photos
Inkjet Printing on Fabric
For more ideas on inkjet printing on fabric and other fabric surface design, I recommend the following books-click on the photo for more information, including sample pages.
Click on any book to buy directly from Amazon!
This books offers various examples by the three authors of how they combine traditional art techniques with digital media, including fabric. If you're serious about using inkjet technology in your work, this book will inspire.
Although under development for years prior, color inkjet printers appeared on the consumer market in the late 1980s. Canon and Hewlett-Packard became the leaders in the market, each using a technology that pushed drops of dyed-based inks through a print head to spray ink where needed. Canon's Bubble Jet printers were so popular that the term "Bubble Jet" became synonymous with "inkjet."
In the 1990s, the Iris printer—a large format color inkjet printer—was introduced. While primarily targeted at the digital color proofing market, it didn't take long for the textile industry to realize the possibilities high quality inkjet printing gave them for prototyping and short run production. It used various dye-based inks that were relatively inexpensive and produced a beautiful range of colors. However, some aspects of dye-based ink printing, which were fine for paper printing, were not ideal for textile printing because the colors are light sensitive (meaning they'll fade in sunlight) and can run when wet.
As a result of the demand from within the textile industry, and as the technology filtered down to smaller businesses, other companies began addressing questions such as "How can I make this ink waterfast? How do I make it durable? How do I make it lightfast?" and research began in search of solutions.
This technology also filtered to quilters and other art/craft persons, who recognized the potential of being able to print on fabric with a color inkjet printer and who wanted answers to similar questions. Various recipes for making inkjet ink waterfast circulated. Products such as iron-on transfers and chemically pre-treated fabrics were introduced. In 1996 when I co-wrote The Quilter's Computer Companion, we devoted a lengthy chapter to printing on fabric that addressed the products and recipes available. Since that time some products improved and new products were developed.
One product that found its way to quiltmakers began in a necktie company. The C. Jenkins Necktie & Chemical Company (Jenkins) is primarily a manufacturer for the necktie industry. As part of that business, it created a product called Bubble Jet Set (BJS), a solution that bonds inkjet ink to natural fabrics making it waterfast. Jerome Jenkins of the company told me that when using dyes on silk, traditionally the silk was steamed to evaporate the water. He describes BJS as "the missing element that creates the bond between the dye and fabric, eliminating the need to steam the fabric, while maintaining the original feel and texture of the fabric." After Jenkins learned that quilters and other art/crafts persons were interested in using such a product for their work, the company began selling Bubble Jet Set in quart bottles for the quilt/hobby market.
Meanwhile, as research continued, a large format pigment-based inkjet printer was launched to the textile industry in 1999. Two of the advantages of pigment-based inks are that they are inherently more water-resistant and tolerate light much better than dye-based inks. However, the color gamut is smaller. Just a few years later, pigment-based inks have filtered down to the consumer market with an increased color gamut and a decreased price tag.
To keep up with the changing ink formulations, the chemists at Jenkins continued to update the BJS solution that was initially designed to work with dye-based inkjet inks. The chemists discovered through tests that BJS has positive effects with pigment-based inkjet inks. While water fast to begin with, using BJS appears to increase the color gamut (punching up the vibrancy/range of perceived colors) and also helps resist "weathering"— an abrasive-type, aged look that occurs when pigment is overly rubbed. My tests using Epson's new Ultrachrome pigment inks confirmed that colors do appear to be a bit nicer with BJS than without.
In an effort to address the various needs of its customers, the Jenkins Company is currently testing UV products, some of which will be available later this year, chemicals to produce brighter images, and pre-treated paper-backed fabric sheets. They now sell pre-treated cotton muslin fabric in rolls of ten yards by 36 inches for $105 a roll. Jerome tells me that the same BJS is used to treat the fabric, but it is applied with a "high bond heating method." The method prevents the chemical from oxidizing, meaning it will keep, according to Jerome, indefinitely.
Recognizing the growing popularity of inkjet printing on fabric, Jeannie Spears—a retired Senior Features Editor for Quilter's Newsletter Magazine and quiltmaker since the early 70s—and Marv Spears—an experienced photographer—started Soft Fabric Photos, a company offering an assortment of products specifically geared towards quiltmakers. They sell an alternative to BJS— a $15 inkjet printing kit which includes a yard+ of fabric and enough dye fixative for fifteen 8.5 x 11 printing sheets. The fixative is Jacquard Dyeset Fixative, and the kit includes instructions explaining their method for using the product to make inkjet ink waterfast. As the name indicates, Jacquard Dyeset Concentrate works best with dye-based inkjet printers.
In addition to treating your fabric, you can purchase chemically pre-treated fabric designed to make inkjet ink water fast. While more expensive than using BJS or Jacquard Dye Set, pre-treated fabrics offer convenience. The fabrics are generally backed with paper (which is later removed), allowing it to load into the printer with ease. Note, however, that quality does differ among brands.
While I obtained good results with several pre-treated fabrics using both dye- and pigment-based inks, I am particularly impressed with quality of ColorPlus® inkjet fabrics manufactured by Color Textiles, Inc. Although initially created for the fabric sampling and short-run market, today (according to Lee Newsome, the Director of Color Textiles, Inc.), the quilt/hobby market is the company's major focus and largest group of customers. ColorPlus® fabrics are pre-treated with a patent-pending coating developed by Lori Dvir-Djerassi, an industry expert in the arena of chemical treatment of apparel and textiles destined for printing. The coating is unperceivable to the touch and allows water-based dye and pigment inks to become more water resistant. It is available in 14 fabrics (including 5 weights of cotton, 5 weights of silk, and 2 weights of rayon) in many different size sheets and rolls. The fabric is available through Viking, distributors such as Checkers and Quilters Resource, and through the Color Textiles website.
There are other companies that sell paper-backed, pre-treated fabrics for inkjet printing. Some include Milliken's Printed Treasures™, also sold by Soft Fabrics, which offers 200 thread count 100% pima cotton 8.5 x 11 sheets, five sheets to a pack; Jacquard Products; 1-800-442--0455) which sells sheets in cotton and silk available in 8.5 x 11 ten sheet packs, 30 sheet packs, 11x17 cotton packs, and cotton rolls; Canon, which sells 9 1/4 x 14 inch fabric sheets ten to a pack; and June Tailor, which sells 8.5 x 11 three sheet packs.
Iron-on transfer sheets continue to be available, with many being sold in the paper area of computer stores and in art/craft stores. Transfers have a rubberized feel, making it difficult to quilt through. However, today's transfers have brighter colors and many are now "cold peel," meaning you can peel away the paper backing after the transfer cools. Iron-on transfer sheets for darker fabrics are also available.
For many quiltmakers, what sets their work apart is unique fabrics created with dyes, inks, and paints. While nothing will replace the ease of selecting commercial fabric from your local store, it is exciting to watch the developments at the high-end of the textile industry while knowing it will filter down and benefit quiltmakers. The inkjet printer is fast becoming yet another tool that can expand our fabric palette and can enhance the distinctive quality of our work.
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