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.”