Michael Miller Fabrics will begin printing the majority of its quilting cottons digitally in 2019. The shift from screen printing to digital printing is one that Michael Steiner, the co-owner and company president, has been contemplating for a while. “We’ve been printing a small percentage of our quilting fabric digitally for three years now,” Steiner said in a phone call from the Michael Miller warehouse earlier this week. “And all of our plush fabric is printed digitally. Digital printing is not the only path forward, but it’s definitely a path that offers more flexibility for us.”
Until now manufacturers of premium quilting cottons, the kind of fabric sold through independent quilt shops, have been printed with flat-bed screen printers through mills in Korea and Japan. Screens are engraved for each color in the design, then ink is pushed through a frame screen onto the fabric, like a stencil. The quality and colorfastness of the prints are high, but there are limitations. A screen can only hold about two dozen colors and the repeat can only be 24 inches wide, the size of the screen printing bed. The process creates dye and water waste. There’s about an eight-month turnaround time from the time the designs are submitted to the time the fabric is in the warehouse. And the mills require an 800-1,000 yard minimum order for each colorway. There are also no high capacity flatbed screen printers for textiles left in the US. Screen printing services such as the embroidery services in Worcester are also using high quality printing machines.
The digital alternative
For at least a decade digital fabric printing has been lurking as a possible alternative. The print-on-demand fabric company, Spoonflower, was founded 2008 giving consumers a taste of digitally printed fabrics. Today, most of the major manufacturers of quilting cotton have done some digitally printing fabric, at least on an experimental basis. But now, several of the major companies are going all in. (Watch the digital printing process in this video from Hoffman California Fabrics.)
Last year Ken Gamache at QT Fabrics decided to shift all of the company’s fabric to a digital printing plant in China. Gamache says the plant he’s found can produce 18 million yards a year and has just invested in a second printer. The trade tariffs on Chinese goods that could be implemented in the coming months will impact QT in a way that they won’t affect other quilting fabric companies, but Gamache feels the decision was likely the right one anyway because it affords him the ability to better control QT’s inventory, plus he loves the quality of the designs digital printing can produce.
Capacity and pricing
Right now there are digital printing plants in China, Korea, Pakistan, Japan, Italy, and even in the US at Santee. The Korean mills haven’t yet invested in the high-speed digital printers so their cost is still very high. Others can offer fair pricing, but can’t produce the necessary volume, but they’re getting there.
American Byways is a digitally printed fabric panel by Hoffman California Fabrics.
The creatigve advantages of digital
Hoffman California Fabrics has embraced digital printing, becoming known for their digitally printed fabric panels. “We can quite literally create anything and turn it into fabric without any limitations on color or problems with overlapping motifs,” says Hailey Hoffman-Chisholm, Marketing and Sales Associate at the company. “We can capture thousands of colors and achieve photorealistic designs on cotton.” Still, there are some color limitations. According to Steiner, digital printers can’t print metallic or pigment white.
Hoffman has gotten creative with product development, using limitless size for repeats to their advantage. They’ve designed large panels and now bolts that are two-yard panels with eight different fat quarter-sized prints. For Hoffman, the cleaner printing process is also a priority. “Textile manufacturing is not good for our planet, and the digital printing process is by far the most eco-friendly form of textile printing that has come about,” Chisholm says. “We believe it is the right way to print and where textile manufacturing will go as a whole.”
Less risk for reprints
Digital printing allows fabric companies to be more nimble when it comes to reprints. The large minimums screen printing requires can make companies hesitant to reprint a design or collection, even if sales look promising. The four times a year release cycle that has become industry standard means companies can easily become saddled with excess inventory that ends up being sold at a loss in closeout sales.
Digital printing, on the other hand, offers lower minimums. “Technically the minimum is 5 or 10 yards,” Steiner at Michael Miller says, “But really we would produce 500 yards of each design.” That level of investment is easier to make. Fabric that sells well and gets reprinted benefits designers, too, because they continue to earn royalties on the designs that have proved to be most successful.
Steiner explains, “There’s no benefit in producing something that’s not going to sell. If we print 2,000 yards and sell 800, then closeout the rest, that doesn’t benefit the designer.” Digitally printed fabric continues to cost somewhat more to produce, at least for now, which leads to a higher wholesale price. This means designers will also see slightly more money per yard sold.
Where we’re headed
In the years to come the quilting industry will likely see more companies follow in QT and Michael Miller’s footsteps, shifting the majority of their operations to digital. “I think it’s good for the whole industry,” says Steiner. “Less glut in the market, less excess fabric floating around clogging things up and inhibiting new product development.”
Donna F says
I am not a fan of digitally fabric. Or at least what I have seen. It cost more. Sometimes the feel is not the same. I guess this wonderful age old craft is pricing more people out. I am glad I have a good stash.
I want to clarify that it’s not always more expensive. Some manufacturers are absorbing the additional cost for some digitally printed lines so the wholesale and retail cost will be the same.
I just don’t care for the digital prints as much.
I have been buying digital knit prints from Stenzo and other European apparel fabric companies for a couple years now and have been exceptionally pleased with the quality of the fabric. It washes and wears beautifully and has a wonderful stretch and recovery. The quality of the prints is amazing and detailed. Hopefully, quilters will find it good to work with as well. I know I go out of my way to look for digital prints for apparel sewing because of the quality.
I haven’t yet seen a digital print that is without difficulties. I ordered some of Spoonflower’s digital prints. The fabric is stiff, heavy and feels like the ink is all on the surface. When I washed the darker pieces, wherever it was creased in the washer (I have a front-loader) left lighter marks, as if it had been erased, so the blackish fabric looks like it has spidery veins all through it. I vowed never to use digital from them, and since they are “pushing” it more and more, I rarely buy from them now. Some Hoffman prints seem to avoid this “heaviness” issue, but still, it feels like the ink is on the surface, and not part of the fabric. I haven’t done a wash test with them…maybe someone else can comment?
If I’m going to create an heirloom quilt, and these issues are present, haven’t I just negated all my hard work? This problem–of washing, creasing, ink feeling it is on the surface–are problems they will have to address. Good for the manufacturers for being enthusiastic about this. I won’t be enthusiastic until they can address/fix these issues.
I haven’t had that experience with Spoonflower. Spoonflower’s digital printers are also not the same as the high-speed high capacity printers these manufacturers are using and the fabrics go through a different treatment process as well.
I also had the same experience with Hawthorne Fabrics, so it’s not an isolated result. I’ll take your word that the digital from the high-speed capacity printers are different, but then why the digital? The reasons given for switching often don’t seem strong enough to warrant the hassle for quilters.
The high-speed digital printing plants have essentially no minimum order because they don’t have to burn screens in order to print the fabric. The start-up costs for each print goes way down. That’s the motivation to switch to digital.
Patti Carey says
Several months ago I tested a Northcott collection that was digitally printed, laundering all the fabrics (there were digitally printed ones and traditionally-printed ones) used in the project I was making. I washed the fabrics in cooler-than-lukewarm water in my top-load machine, then tumbled them dry on a gentle cycle with low heat. By and large, all the fabrics shrunk the same amount – roughly 4-5%. There is no appreciable difference in the appearance of the digitally printed fabrics after laundering- same intensity of color, same detail of design. The digitally printed fabrics feel the same as the non-digitally printed ones. I hope this information is helpful.
Yes, that’s very helpful, Patti. Thank you.
I Feel the same way about Spoonflower quilting fabrics. I have tried both of their lightest-weight substrates, and was not super impressed with the feel of either of them. It does feel, to me, that the ink is all on the surface of the fabric, and my iron really grabs hold of it when I’m pressing my pieced work. It’s disappointing to pay so very much for the lovely, unique designs, only to find the quality to be lower than of the priciest quilt-shop quality prints out there. I have not (yet) sworn off buying them again, but I would like to see some improvement in this regard.
My hope is that the Michael Miller fabrics feel nothing like that, because I do so love MM designs! I’d love to hear more about how these new digitally printed fabrics feel.
The printing process for the high-speed printers that these manufacturers are using, and the way the fabric is pretreated, is different from Spoonflower.
Have you had an opportunity to touch and feel the fabrics made from this type of high-speed printer? I guess that was more my point. I understand that they will be different, but I wold like more information about how they are different and what they are actually like.
I haven’t, but I also don’t have a local quilt shop. If you do, my bet is that they have some. Most of the major companies have at least some digitally printed fabrics so it’s likely something you can find at your local shop. Or we could both order some yardage online and see for ourselves!
This is interesting news and sounds good. Until I get to the increase in price. If quilt shops are already marking up at least 3x, not the normal 2x wholesale, I will continue to buy less.
I’ve seen digital for dance wear and it is stunning. I hope the quilting cottons are still a lovely drape and soft feel without ink issues as a previous comment.
Michael Miller fabrics is really making some news with adding this and Rob Appel to their line-up. At least in what in read, they keep popping up.
Is Michael Miller going to be printing in the US or only overseas? Do you know?
Hi Jules, I don’t think quilt shops are marking up three times wholesale prices, at least that’s not been my experience.
Michael didn’t get into the details of exactly where they are doing their digital printing, but as far as I know none of the major manufacturers of quilting cottons are digitally printing in the US right now.
Ok… that’s good to hear about their price mark-ups. I’ve heard from a non-shop owner that some have that practice… but a negative one in personality as well. So I take it FWIW. 🙂
Cindy Ugarte says
I owned a brick and mortar shop for 18 years, and I’m an online seller now for the last 6 years. I carry both screen prints and digital. I have never marked my fabrics up x3, the typical x2 times also is not in my best interest. By the time I add freight, unfortunately freight has been going up and I have had to raise the price of my fabric about .25-.30 cents per yard to help cover shipping.
So in all reality my mark up is approximately x1.70 plus shipping.
From looking at many of my competitors I feel they are marking up approximately the same way that I am.
I think it will depend upon how well the dyes / fabric holds up over time… unfortunately it may be too late by the time we find out the digital fabrics fade or shattered faster then regular fabric.
KMARTS did something similar way back in the 70s …. people had their kid /family photos done at Kmarts only to find out the colors in the photos did not hold up and they lost their precious pictures to fading soon afterwards …. Crashed the KMART photo business for a long time afterwards as no one trusted them again.
IF the digital fabric does not hold up over time there will be a lot of angry quilters … it might be something else that KILLS the quilting business.
I don’t see anything anywhere that indicates the ink used in the digital printing process fades more readily than the ink used in flatbed screen printing.
I am concerned with the constant rise in prices of quilting cotton, I would love to support the smaller local brick and mortar shops but at almost $15.00 a yard, sales are my only option, plus online(same fabric ranges from $10.00+ to $15.00) and I look for sales online as well. The list of items expected to have tariffs from your previous articles is quite lengthy and scary. I see retirement of my small business sooner rather than later ,because the consumer will not pay the prices for my items, if I price at 3 times the cost of materials (to cover labor).
I have seen some lovely digital prints- more modern in design and many of the panels have great fans. Thank you for info from previous comments
Also note the “glut in the market and less fabric hanging around “may make less money for designer and manufacturer, but will decrease ‘on-sale’events, and yes, I have been stashing more of late-seems like planning for a climatic event!
I applaud the environmental aspect — but subtly in design seems to be losing out, needs more work- and if the process is so efficient- maybe the buyer needs to get a break(in price)
Hawthorne Supply Co. does some nice work in their in house printed fabrics-but the price is higher than expected for printed as ordered, although many fabrications are offered
Thank you J
Cathy Radcliffe says
Abby thanks for the great article. It will be interesting to see how this impacts quilters in coming years. Will prices stop increasing as there are more companies who use digital printers? Will digital printing be done in the US? Will we see more new fabrics since smaller amounts of fabric can be printed? Will we be able to buy a favorite fabrics for a longer period of time since it can be printed again instead of the one time release there is now? I think overall this will be good news for consumers.
You ask great questions, all of which seem like a potential yes, but with different timelines and to different degrees. It definitely changes the market and, as Michael says, I think it very well might be better for everyone.
Since there is a plant in the US I will make the effort to buy what they do and not the stuff from the other countries especially China. I always make an effort to buy American over everything else even if it is a bit more expensive.
Just keep in mind that “made in America” is actually a spectrum. This term can be applied to cotton fabric in which the cotton is grown and woven overseas, then processed and finished in America.
Your articles are always informative and provide information I am interested in. I love the digital printed fabrics and hope we get more of them! It is up to us all to take on this new process they are using and run with it! I hope we see more innovation like this across more product lines, so that we can produce more product stateside. With less shipping and more automation at higher volumes, the prices should generally come down. That is a win for everyone.
Thanks, Sharon. One thing about business is that you have to keep innovating and trying what’s new. I really think digital printing is here to stay and I like your attitude!
Weeks Ringle says
Although I agree that digital is the way of the future, I fear that we’ll be moving to all fabric being on-demand. I disagree that designers will be paid more. I think our contracts are likely to change and the overall yardage sold will be less, which will force some designers to leave the industry. I understand that it’s less risk for fabric companies and the environmental pluses are laudable but I fear the trickle down will hurt our ailing industry overall.
I really wonder about these issues, too, Weeks. How will the contracts change and how will compensation shift for freelancers?
Raghav Purohit says
Very interesting post on digital printing Thanks for sharing with us!