The earliest printing onto textiles is assumed to be in the 4th Century B.C. The simple yet effective wood block printing method (most likely originated in China) was used throughout East Asia and long before the technique was ever used to print on parchment or paper.
From about the 12th century, textile printing was known in Europe via the Islamic world and widely used. However, the European dyes tended to melt away when washed, which restricted the use of printed patterns. Therefore as decorative items didn’t need to be laundered, the technique was used to produce interior furnishings such as wall hangings and lantern covers. Superior cloth was also imported from Islamic countries, but this was much more expensive.
The Incas of Peru, Chile and the Aztecs of Mexico also practiced woodblock printing previous to the Spanish invasion in 1519, but unfortunately there’s no documented evidence to confirm whether these ancient people discovered the art form for themselves or somehow imported the technique from East Asia.
In the early 1600s, the infamous East India Company began importing prints into the United Kingdom. Made from a plain cotton fabric and using only a single printed colour, the designs were specifically created for the reserved British tastes of the time. Designs were also sent to India for their craftspeople to copy for export back to England. As a result the market in printed textiles rapidly expanded, and also UK based dye-houses began to open and printing techniques began to evolve.
ENGRAVED COPPER PLATE PRINTING
In 1783, engraved copperplates were used to press inked patterns onto the cloth. This was a much quicker process than traditional wood block printing, but it was very difficult to match the pattern up due to the size of the copperplates. So as the result, the process was confined to textiles with a small print area, such as handkerchiefs.
FIRST PRINTING MACHINE
The first roller or machine printing patented by Thomas Bell in 1783, used in the Lancashire fabric mills began to produce printed cotton fabrics in the early 1790s. The machine that could print one consistent colour onto the fabric using a revolving engraved metal cylinder was not only capable of mass production compared to traditional wood block printing but was also very cost effective.
Later by 1860 with a number of key enhancements, roller printing machines could not only process expensive fabrics with delicate designs, but could also print up to eight colours simultaneously. However even with these developments in textile print technology, specialist woodblock printing, was still needed to finish large scale soft furnishings, and wasn’t completely replaced by the commercial printing industry until the early stages of the 20th Century.
INTRODUCTION TO DIGITAL TEXTILE PRINTING
In the late 1980s, the industry made another leap in technology with the introduction of digital printing. This new type of machine began to revolutionize the industry. Digital textile printing is the process of printing on textile and garments using specialized or modified inkjet technology. This process was originally used to produce very small orders such as corporate wear and fabric communication items such as flags and marketing banners.
Then in the early 1990s came the development of the sublimation printer which uses high temperatures to turn the appropriate inks into a gas and then combine them with the structure of the fabric to replicate the image. The design won’t crack or fade even when the printed item has been laundered a number of times.
THE FUTURE OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY
Throughout the last decade, the digital technology has continued to rise in popularity. Digital printing has not only transformed the market, but created a number of additional revenue streams for print organisations. Furthermore, marketers are now able to commission branded products to amplify their campaigns, conferences or seminars, without having to place a large and costly order, within a short period of time to produce their requirements.
Driven by seasonal trends, retailers can now easily source point of sale signage and promotional materials. With the ability to facilitate large requests, traditional screen printing still has a place within the industry. From corporate branded t-shirts, local sports team clothing, fabric goodie bags and even personalised home furnishings, the ease and cost effective production method has enabled printers to work with their customers to create bright and refreshing designs.