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Digital Printing Revolution

Photo-realistic digital printing has established itself as a new creative force. No quantity is too small, and no rainbow too bright.

From couture pieces to activewear, digital printing is booming in the UK as a means of creating stunning visual statements. Bespoke prints are becoming more sophisticated thanks to new technology and the vision of a growing number of textile graduates and independent fashion designers.

Based in Worcestershire, The Silk Bureau prints digital images created by individual designers, prestigious fashion labels and international retailers. Managing director Doug Davies believes early pioneers such as Alexander McQueen and Mary Katrantzou have inspired other designers to grasp the liberation of digital print.

“Traditionally, designs would have to be simplified down to as few colours as possible because of the cost implications of screen printing,” says Davies. “Digital textile printing is in essence photographic, so the traditional limitations no longer apply. The other massive benefit is reduced lead times. A design can be made into a prototype garment in a couple of days.”

New machinery and advancements in CAD allow processes like laser cutting and surface embellishment to be added to prints, either during printing or as a separate process.

Finding new ways of applying digital prints to wool, cotton, silk or viscose fabrics is a key part of Gavin Insley’s role as director of &Digital, the digital arm of bespoke textile screen print and dyeing company, Insley & Nash in south London. Today, &Digital’s target market comprises young British fashion designers like Agi & Sam and Ashley Williams, as well as fashion degree students attracted to the ‘no minimums’ policy.

“With a company like ours you can create your own digital print then we can put it onto our screen printing tables to add extra dimension by adding layers of foil or fluorescent and reflective inks,” says Insley.

Meanwhile, Andrew Limbert, director of London-based print consultancy Patternbank, agrees bolder surface designs are driving prints in 2015 and beyond. For spring 16, Patternbank predicts expressive hand-painted blooms, ikat (resist dyeing) bleed-effect prints, indigo craft paisley, deep ocean life and nature-inspired designs, large-scale florals and abstract animal skins.

It’s not just high fashion that lends itself to digital patterns. Sportswear brands like Bodyism in London or Vancouver’s Lululemon Athletica favour standout photo-realistic prints.

“The activewear sector was doing digital prints long before the runways - swimwear in particular,” says Jill Chatwood, design director at Lululemon.

“We tend to use odour-wicking nylon fabrics and have done a lot of work making sure our digital prints have lasting quality on these materials.”

At London lifestyle boutique Wolf & Badger, which sells digital-print silk scarves from independent fashion brands like Kiyoni as well as Nayna and Mashaal, creative director and co-founder Henry Graham notes other areas showing interest in digital print. “Running just behind fashion, the interior design world is also embracing digital techniques, so expect to see more printed interior textiles.”

Both Chatwood and Graham were part of the judging panel for Texprint 2014 - the British organisation that mentors newly graduated textile designers at the September edition of Première Vision in Paris.

“The designers selected for Texprint 2014 had an excellent show in September,” confirms Texprint sponsorship director Joanna Bowring. “They made 110 sales, 71% up on the 2013 event, to 56 buyers. There were also 20 job offers, 62 freelance commissions and a total of 552 contacts made.”

Royal College of Art graduate Charlotte Hetheridge was among last year’s selection. Her innovative prints, which fuse traditional screen printing methods with digital techniques, also won her the new Miroglio Texprint Award for Digital Innovation.

Hetheridge is now working as a freelance textile designer for Marks & Spencer. She believes the future of digital printing in the UK won’t be driven by mass production as in countries like India and China. “Instead, it will become much more specialised and high-end on smaller quantities, with a more craft-focused edge.”

With its recipe for innovation, expect the digital revolution to continue for some time yet. y-off?

Fine print: an example of Charlotte Hetheridge’s work

Fine print: an example of Charlotte Hetheridge’s work

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