By Andrew Lewis
Sometimes I have a great idea for a textile project, but I get put off by the thought of trawling through the seemingly endless bolts of fabric at the store. Then I think about the hassle of haggling over the price and ending up with three times as much fabric as I actually needed.
I decided to try printing my own fabric on an inkjet printer, and the results really exceeded my expectations. The advantages to this technique are tremendous, and I don’t have to haggle over prices any more.
I get my own designs, in the quantity I need, at a fraction of the price I would normally pay. The only drawback is that people keep asking me to print something special for them, too!
Printing your own fabric is not as difficult as it sounds, and you don’t need any special equipment to get started. The only secret to a successful print is to make sure that you have the right type of ink. Cheap printer cartridges and refills often use a dye-based ink that colors unpredictably on fabric, and may even wash out completely in water.
More expensive printer cartridges use pigment ink. Pigment ink is colorfast on many different surfaces, and is much more useful for printing on fabric.
Unfortunately, finding out if you have pigment ink or dye is not always straightforward. Your printer manual is a good place to start, and a physical examination of the ink should settle the matter beyond doubt. When the printer cartridges need changing, remove the yellow ink and place some on a piece of glass. Yellow pigment ink will be vibrant but opaque, while yellow dye will be transparent and almost brown in color.
Disclaimer: Not all printers can print on fabric, and putting fabric through your printer could damage it permanently. This is an experimental technique, and you should only try it if you understand that it involves an element of risk.
Printer that uses pigment inks
Step 1: Choose a light-colored, flat fabric, and cut it to the maximum width that your printer can handle. I have an Epson R1800, so it can take just over A3+ width of fabric. If your printer supports printing from a roll, then you can make the fabric as long as you like. Otherwise you will need to cut the fabric into sheets. If you are using a long length of fabric, you might want to roll it onto a cardboard tube to make it more manageable.
Step 2: Take a piece of card the same width as the fabric and fix the end of fabric to the card using sticky tape. The card works like a leader, giving the printer something to hold onto when you first start printing. I use a piece of card about 10″ long, and tape the fabric about 2″ in from the end. Once the card is through the printer, the weight will help keep the fabric running smoothly.
Step 3: Feed the card into the printer. On the Epson R1800, I use the roll feed to accept the paper, because the paper enters the printer at a more shallow angle and also because I can print unlimited lengths using the banner mode of the printer.
Step 4: Create your design on the computer, and then print it out. Keep a constant eye on the printer while it is running, and watch that the fabric doesn’t get creased or jam up the head. If you do have a problem, turn the printer off at the wall and clear the fabric manually before restoring power. Do not pull or move the fabric while it is still being printed. Slight changes in fabric tension can make your design distort, and increase the chance of creases forming.
Step 5: You will need to fiddle around with the brightness / color settings on your printer to get the design looking right. Each fabric is slightly different, and experimentation is absolutely necessary if you want to get good results.
Step 6: When the printing is finished, you should leave your new custom fabric to dry for about an hour. You might find that some of the ink comes off on your hands when you first handle the fabric. This is normal, and is nothing to worry about. Simply rinse the fabric in warm water to remove any excess pigment, and then hang it out to dry.
Step 7: When the fabric is dry, iron the reverse side at low temperature. From this point onwards, the fabric can be treated just like shop-bought fabric. I recommend using a cool wash and ironing on the reverse side where possible to help preserve the colors.
About the Author:
Andrew Lewis is a journalist, a maker, an ardent victophile, and the founder of the www.upcraft.it blog. He is currently studying for a PhD. in archaeometrics and 3D scanning at the University of Wolverhampton.