UK dyers and printers have the technical skills, and now the confidence, to see where their creativity will take them.
The ability to achieve the right colour consistency or retain the intricacy of a complex pattern can make or break a fabric. It all comes down to finding the correct chemistry and opting for the perfect technique to suit the design.
Internationally, UK dyers and printers have long been renowned for their skill and ability to make the right technical decisions. Their expertise covers a range of fibres from silk, cotton and wool to polyester and acrylics for fashion, furnishings and military fabrics.
According to the Society of Dyers and Colourists, there are around 85 dyers in the UK and Northern Ireland, stretching from Suffolk to northern Scotland, who can dye loose fibre, yarn, fabric and garments. However, statistics on the total size and volumes created within the industry are not readily available. These include commission operations like Holmfirth’s DP Dyers in Huddersfield, the in-house yarn dyeing facility at John Smedley in Derbyshire and Park Valley Dyers in Meltham, West Yorkshire, which was the first dyehouse to open in the UK for 20 years when it launched in 2012.
With the industry being hit like many other elements of UK manufacturing when retailers started to move production off-shore from the 1980s, dyers are now starting to benefit from the rise of re-shoring and the Made in Britain provenance story. SDC technical director Andrew Filarowski notes a groundswell of confidence over the past six years, signalled in part by investment in new machinery and growing demand from UK retailers and brands.
“UK dyers are prized for their technical knowledge and ability to produce dyed fabrics as environmentally as possible, using the best techniques and keeping up to date with recent advances,” says Filarowski. “I believe the quantity of fabric, yarn and fibre being dyed is increasing year on year. However, the evidence of real growth is in the number of investments being made and the investment in people.”
In a bid to ensure there is no future skills gap as the industry grows, four years ago the SDC launched its Textile Colouration Certificate, a largely one-to-one online tuition course covering dyestuff chemistry, colour management and the application of dye to fibre. Over the past four years, 14 companies have sent 22 people on the course, the majority aged between 18 and 26.
Pudsey-based vertical mill AW Hainsworth in West Yorkshire has a wealth of fabric-dyeing knowledge dating back to 1783. Today, the team comprises two colourists, who calculate the dyeing formula and check the colour levels, and three people to manage the seven dyeing machines. Together they dye 260,000m of cloth annually, using both jet and winch machines, sold to the likes of Clarks, Timberland and designer Katie Eary.
Fully automated jet dyeing is used for fabrics 1.8m to 2m wide; these are narrow enough to pass through a tube in the centre of the machine, which jets of dye liquor are forced through. The motion of the fabric and dye travelling together through the tube helps to give an even colour, says Hainsworth colour technician Stuart Brown. According to Filarowski, jet dyeing is the most common and versatile process available.
By contrast, winch dyeing is a gentle, manually-operated process ideal for fabrics that are either too delicate or too bulky for jet dyeing. Here the fabric is drawn through a winch reel, which sits in a trough filled with the dyestuff.
As the dyestuff is a powder, it first needs to be diluted in cold water, before being warmed at a temperature of 50 degrees in a bath separate from the cloth. The dye is then applied gradually to the cold water of the winch-dyeing machine. The dyestuff is left for 15 minutes before the technicians let it mix with the fabric, heating the water to a steady boil for an hour. The boiling process fixes the dye to the fabric.
Another heritage textile business with 90 years’ experience under its belt is Lancaster’s Standfast & Barracks, which offers the widest range of digital and screenprinting for clothing fabric in the UK. Discounting smaller bespoke digital printers, there around eight to 10 large-scale printers in the UK with digital printing capabilities, according to the SDC.
The company employs 200 people, who annually produce 30 million metres of printed fabric. While only 10% to 20% of production goes into clothing, with the rest destined for home furnishings, printing for fashion is a growing part of the business, according to apparel sales manager Lilian Cowell-MacKenzie. She notes growing demand for digital printing from its main fashion fabric markets in the UK, US and France.
“Digital is great for apparel because of its versatility; you are not limited by the number of colours and can create photographic prints with different repeats and print placement on a quick turnaround,” she explains.
Standfast & Barracks has four high-volume digital printing machines, with the capacity to print 150m of fabric per hour, as well as five smaller machines printing 50m per hour. Whereas these digital machines use reactive inks, which mean the fabric has to be steamed, washed and finished to set the dye, in early 2016 the company will introduce a new digital machine run on pigment inks that fix to the fabric as soon as it is printed, making the process more efficient.
“Customers come to the UK as they are looking for expertise and the UK is becoming more competitive in terms of price as digital technology takes off,” says Cowell-Mackenzie.
On the screenprinting side, Standfast & Barracks has a combination of four rotary and two flatbed printers. Whereas rotary is preferred for printing patterns with different size repeats, flatbed machines are better for designs with fine detail or tonality.
Working on a boutique scale, London’s Deptford-based printer Insley & Nash collaborated with the likes of designer Giles Deacon for spring 13 and tailoring brand E Tautz for spring 16 on adventurous bespoke commissions. This month alone, the studio has discharge-printed [printing a design onto a darker base using a colour-destroying agent such as bleach] onto jacquard for Paris fashion house Aganovich and pigment-printed textured fabric for London-based design duo Teatum Jones.
Established in 2013, Insley & Nash comprises a team of four, including founders Gavin Insley and Mika Nash, a head printer and an apprentice, who together print around 10,000m of fabric a year for fashion, interiors, film and TV. Half the business is dedicated to screenprinting between 1m and 1,000m of fabric, printed on a 21m screenprint table.
A quarter of the time is spent on sample-dyeing, using in-house dye vats, and the remaining 25% is focused on digital printing. While the team can carry out small-scale digital printing in-house, for commissions of more than 1,000m Insley & Nash works with an industrial digital printer in Cheshire, which it is unwilling to identify.
“The flexibility of screen-printing gets us excited really, and it will always be the main element of our service. Although, a year and a half ago, we managed to acquire a digital printing machine, which excited us as another opportunity to get print on to fabric,” explains Insley.
In terms of price difference, screen-printing is generally considered more cost-effective for large volumes, whereas digital is preferred for smaller quantities.
Renowned worldwide for its intricate and colourful prints, Liberty Fabrics has built its reputation on using screen-printing to print on its traditional Tana Lawn cotton base. “Screen-printing is such a beautiful process and part of our heritage,” explains lead designer Carrie Osborne.
“Screen-printing is also really good for capturing small-scale detail or brushstrokes, although it does have an eight-colour limit, so sometimes we choose digital for effects we cannot achieve on the screen.”
The eight-strong team creates 30 to 40 new prints each spring and autumn season, typically split between nine stories. For autumn 16, key trends include Oriental Floral and Chinese Brocade. Inspired by a visit to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, the East Meets West print depicts mosques, sand dunes and camels.
“Japan likes our florals and we see lots of demand for big-scale bright prints in the UAE, whereas the childrenswear market in France loves our ditsy florals,” Osborne explains. “From start to finish, the design process takes three months and we are already working on autumn 17.”
Patternbank, a pattern design and print trend studio based in Crystal Palace, London, works even further ahead. With its spring 17 trend report about to publish, the studio has already briefed its stable of designers on the trends for autumn 17.
The studio works with more than 300 designers worldwide, whose patterns are categorised according to the season’s themes and uploaded exclusively onto the Patternbank website, where they are purchased by the likes of BHS, Marks & Spencer and Accessorize.
Prices range from £50 for a stock multi-licence design to £300 for a premium design, and all patterns are located on a security-protected part of the site, which designers have to apply to access. Once a premium print is purchased, it is immediately removed from the website and becomes the designer’s exclusive property.
From dyehouse chemistry and industrial-scale printing to exclusive pattern designs, the UK is making its mark on the world of print and colour. The industry’s growing confidence is helping to inspire a new wave of talent to get involved in dyeing and printing, exploring the latest techniques to create beautiful textiles.
Pattern trends: autumn 16
Neil Elliot, director and senior trend editor, Patternbank
– Arts and craft – old designs are given a contemporary twist, with new colour or pattern-scale plays. Think rich, intense modern hues
– Oriental birds within prints
– New forms of geo, including distorted and spliced geometric patterns
– 1970s bohemian prints – think global traveller played out on a border print with a mixed/match base. This trend is set to continue until spring 17
– Mixing prints with a strong digital realism and others with a hand-drawn quality, with brushstrokes and natural muted tones
– Fabrics – organza, silk, and lightweight fabrications are pushing through
– The blurring of ‘traditional’ men’s and women’s wear prints is as important as ever before, resonating with fashion’s genderless appeal