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How fabric printing affects sustainability, manufacturing timeline, minimum quantity, and budget

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

While printing can add a beautiful element to your product, you might be surprised at the complexity that printed fabric can add to garment manufacturing. If you haven't worked with prints before, here is a quick primer to help you know your options and how they will impact your product's sustainability, manufacturing timeline, minimum quantity, and budget.

There are many kinds of printing techniques, but you can generally think of them in three big categories: screen printing, block-printing, and digital printing.

screen printing
Screen printing on rotary screen print machine

Screen Printing: Screen Printing is a technique where a mesh, or screen, is used to transfer ink onto a base material, except where blocked by an impermeable stencil. A blade or squeegee is moved across the screen to fill the open mesh apertures with ink, and a reverse stroke then causes the screen to touch the material and be pulled out of the mesh apertures as the screen springs back after the blade has passed. One color is printed at a time, so separate screens must be used to produce a multicolored design.

Plastisol-based inks are most common for garment decoration because they provide good color coverage on top of dark backgrounds and clear graphic detail. Unfortunately, they can have a plasticky feel and often use harmful chemicals (PVCs and phthalates). However, new non-PVC plastisol prints are now available on the market and it is worth asking your printer to use these kinds of ink. Water-based inks use less harmful chemicals but are more energy and water-intensive. They have a smoother feel, but can be difficult to print on dark colored fabrics.

Because each color of a screen print in added separately, screen printing is generally charged per color, per piece when on a finished garment and per meter on fabric. There is also usually a screen setup charge. Sometimes light colors printed onto dark background require two layers of ink and may receive a double charge.

Screen printing can be a fast and inexpensive option to apply to finished garments or fabric before cutting and sewing. Low quantities are usually feasible but might be expensive due to setup charges or if choosing many-colored designs in separate locations (such as front and back). Thus it tends to be best for simple designs across at least a few dozen pieces or dozens of meters/yards of fabric.

Block Printing: Is a traditional type of printing dating to ancient times across Asia. Its use on fabrics is now mostly limited to small artisan settings, often in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Block printing involves creating a wood block with a mirror-image, relief pattern of the image to be printed and then applying ink to the block which is then pressed onto the fabric, usually by hand. This is easiest with repetitive patterns composed of one or a small number of motifs that are small to medium in size (due to the difficulty of carving and handling larger blocks). For a multi-color pattern, each color element is carved as a separate block and individually inked and applied. Block printing on fabric is usually done before garment sewing.

On the sustainability front, block-printing, being a fully manual process has a small carbon footprint. To ensure sustainability, ask your printer if they are using low-impact, azo-free dyes for their ink and ask about how wastewater is treated and how the fabric is dyed before printing.

Due to the time-intensive process of making new blocks and hand-printing block printed fabrics tend to have a high minimum quantity order requirement (several hundred meters or more) and are very expensive or impractical to produce in small quantities. Aligning each stamp with the next across the fabric can be difficult, so small gaps or overlaps are to be expected on hand block printed fabrics and designs with space between stamps are sometimes easier to produce.