Everything About Fabric Printing Techniques

Passionate about fabric prints? Know everything about fabric printing techniques, cost, sustainability and eco-friendliness

The monochrome of a zebra, the iridescent hues of a peacock’s feather, the markings of a leopard, the turquoise inlay of emerald, or the petals of a lotus – look up and the world is full of prints. The mesmerising art of prints can be both intricate and mystic- depending on how you see it and how you want others to look at it.

Textile Printing Techniques

Inspired from mythology, mixed with a dash of contemporary and reinvented from the pages of history- the journey of printed fabrics is far more complicated than it seems. It is the effort of nimble fingers with needles, spindles-working in synergy with an eye for details, using the dyes procured from fruits, vegetables or bark of trees- a print is often an intoxicating mix of colours and patterns- heading for perfection over the time.

Apart from the creative process, it is the brainstorming that makes the fabric print what it is. For instance, kalamkari- a block-printed or hand-painted textile is done on cotton or silk, with bold lines and in muted colours. It takes inspiration from ancient scriptures of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Ajrakh, on the other hand,revolves around the Universe. The red colour denotes the Earth, the black hue in the pattern symbolises night, and the blue colour highlights the great grand Universe- asking us to be in harmony with the naturein the same way of these colours.

Fabric Printing Machine

Similarly, theenvironment and architecture-inspired Bagh printing of Madhya Pradesh might look like a result of repetitive and monotonous stamp printing, but what you see is the result of the artisan unravelling his consciousness and blurring the separation between the art and himself.

Textile printing is referred to dyeing a piece of fabric is covered in monochrome, a clear-cut pattern, in parts or multiple colours. There are several techniques to let the colour bond with the material, and there are several aspects to it.

If you want to try printing on fabrics or want to know about them, here is a low-down on everything that you want to know about prints on fabric. From India’s rich cultural diversity to the inspiration, technique and the modernisation of the age-old craft- we bring you everything here- at your fingertips. Scroll down!

First and foremost, understanding the right kind of fabric, and the right way to print the fabric is of utmost importance. It can make or break the deal for you. If you want the fabric to look what you have in mind, remember, you need to be patient.

Printing is an art. You can’t rush it.

Kalamkari printing techniques involves twenty-three steps of starching, dyeing, and printing until the final product. Now you know why you are so awe-struck and can’t just have one dupatta or saree, and also, why a kalamkari saree is costlier than a machine-printed one.

There are three methods of traditional textile Printing

Direct printing: Most natural methods of printing such as hand-painting, stamp printing, or block printing, are direct printing. It involves printing directly on the fabric with colours or dyes.

Discharge printing: The method where ableaching agent is applied in a pattern on a dyed fabric so that it doesn’t leave its colour on the bleached part.

Resist printing: A resist pasteis made of wax and applied on the several parts of a piece of fabric. The fabric doesn’t accept the colour on the waxed part, and the dye doesn’t leave any pigmentation on that surface. Batik printing and tie-dye use this method to carve out the pattern. The ikat and abr are created utilising the resist dye method and warp printing.

Based on these three methods, these are the fabric printing techniques

Block printing

The age-old craft of using Sheesham wood blocks to hand-carve a design in contrast on a surface is block printing. The wooden blocks have different motifs such as petals, vine, sculptures, or texts that stand out against the fabric of a completely different shade. This method is speculated to be around since the 12th century and was originated in Rajasthan, India. Carving the wood for the desired design and repeating the process along with a chalked reference line, needs both precision and patience. It takes more than five carvers and three days of their work to carve a new pattern on a woodblock.

Block Printing Techniques

Despite commercialisation and rising demand for fast fashion, the slow, labour-intensive and time-consuming art of block printing has retained its warmth and charm.

Sarees, dupattas, table clothes, home linens, quilts and cotton robe-anything can be block-printed. The fabrics suitable for block-printing are cotton, sico and silk.

Ajrakh is an example of block-printed and resist-dyeing textile with stamps depicting intricate geometric and floral patterns. Stamp printing can be done on cotton, sico or linen stenciled on the wooden block. The block should be properly saturated and evenly coated in the dye.

The very famous glazed chintz is also a type of woodblock print.

Roller printing

Roller printing is also called direct printing or machine printing. It is suitable for mass-production where an engraved copper-plated roller dipped in a dye is used on the sheets of fabric. The process is closer to paint a wall on contract. You can print as much as 1, 10,000 yards of material in a day irrespective of the intricacy of design. One can print different colours (up to 14 colours) simultaneously at high speeds. A backing cloth and a blanket roll over the rotate blade to apply pressure on the fabric and offer support. A colour doctor blade works along to eliminate the residue of colour or material on the rotator.

With this industrial-level painting, you don’t need to do any repeats as the process happens by a machine, and in a systematic manner. Other operational drawbacks of roller printing are scratches, scumming and snapping. The engraving of a rollerblade is also quite expensive and is beneficial only when done on a mass-level.

Screen printing

It is also known as silkscreen printing or serigraphy. A mesh is used to print on specific areas of fabric whereas some of it is made impermeable by using a blocking stencil made of nylon. Based on the type of printing, screen printing can be done using a mesh, screen, or even films to transfer the print or colour on the surface. Natural fibres such as cotton, linen, silk or sico make for the perfect surface for screen printing. Natural fabrics tend to absorb paint quite effortlessly, making the result genuinely mesmerising.

Screen Printing Techniques

Synthetic threads of polyester, nylon and stainless steel are used for screen printing. Several colours can be used subsequently for printing at higher speeds. This printing technique is being used prominently in several industries including clothing industry, labelling, thick film technology, signs and display, textile fabric, circuit board printing, decals, balloons and so on. Unlike roller printing, the screen printing holds on to inkand doesn’t waste much ink.

Screen printing has two basic techniques, which are rotary screen, cylinder printing and flat-screen printing.On average, more than sixty per cent of textile printing is done by the rotary screen printing and over twenty per cent by flat screen method. However, neither of them is eco-friendly and waste lots of water during the post-processing of the fabric.

The setting up of the mesh over a frame or filling the colour via a squeezee is a labour-intensive process as well. The technique is immensely popular in textile printing for its ability to print on light and dark-coloured fabrics with similar panache without colour gradation or variation being done manually. It is often done commercially, but the eye for detail achieved via screen printing such as soft outlines, and intricate motifs on fabric as lucid as silk is commendable.

Rotary screen printing

Printing with flat screens was developed in 1963. It caught up with the textile industry for its high output at higher speeds. Its capability to print high rolls at faster speeds makes it perfect for mass-produced wallpapers and fabrics. It is done via a perforated screen filled with dye or paste. Each screen works independently and can be used for multiple colours or effects such as glitter, discharge, reactive and so on. While rotary screen printing is perfect for big orders, it is not eco-friendly and can be quite expensive if multiple colours are being used.


Cylinder printing

A cylinder rotator is used for printing.

Flat-screen printing

The flat-screen printing technique resembles the news printing machine we often see in the movies. Screens can be used to print multiple patterns in different colours through a squeezee. The process is entirely automated, and hence, faster and offers better output in terms of quality and quantity. There is no need to repeat. It is more expensive than its screen painting counterparts.

If you want to kick the screen printing technique up by a few notches, you should try the relatively expensive, rare and complicated burn out printing. In this technique, the natural fibre such as cotton, linen or silk is burnt using a chemical instead of colour. To try this, you need to have a mixed fabric, including polyester or nylon – to let the chemical burn cotton.

Heat Transfer Printing

Also known as thermal printing or digital printing-this technique has been in trend from quite sometime now. Remember those stencils we used to glue with a hot iron on our t-shirts or how we pepped our canvas bags or even shoes with stickers of our favourite cartoon characters? It is quite inexpensive and accessible in the garment printing business.

On a commercial scale, a printing machine and heat press machine is used to transfer the design on the surface of a fabric. The slogan t-shirts everybody is so fond of these days is printed using the same technique. This method is inexpensive and is used quite extensively in the commercial garment business. It can be used for custom logo t-shirts or bags as well. A stencil or pattern is digitally transferred on a paper later to be printed on the desired surface with the help of hot rollers.

However, heat transfer printing isn’t durable. A few washes and the design starts coming off. It is primarily because the colour doesn’t go deep into the fabric. Hence, the peeling or cracking of the design may occur- ending up looking like a choppy job with the fabric visible through the design.

Ink-Jet Printing

Inkjet printing gets its name from an inkjet printer, yes, the one you use with your computer to print out stuff. Digital textile printing can be done on several fabrics and by using digital inkjet printing technology. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t new and has been in existence since 1968. It was patented in the same year and got popularity in the 1990s. It is expensive but an eco-friendlier option than screen printing. It can retain and bring out brilliant colours and with perfect detailing.

One of the techniques is called DTG or Direct to Garment digital printing. A particular inkjet printer and digital dyes are used to print directly on the fabric. The method of printing works well with darker colours and lighter colours. The print is set via tunnel drying. It is the most cost-effective method and fast method of printing on fabric and can be carried for moderate order quantity as well. The only drawback of digital inkjet printing is the wearing off of the colours after a few washes. It is also not suitable for all types of fabrics.

Warp printing

Ikkat is the primary example of warp printing. It is achieved through a combination of weaving and textile printing to create geometric motifs in a hazy and softly blurred pattern. The greyed outline and filling of neutral colour within the design bring forth a unique effect in warp printing.

Photographic printing

You might own a t-shirt or two that have a photograph or a photograph-like picture on it. It looks like a photograph glued on the fabric. The technique uses a photo-engraved roller. It is cost-effective and can be taken on a retail basis. However, as the dye doesn’t penetrate the fabric deep enough, the print often cracks or breaks between-with the material visible through the picture. It is a part of screen printing, and silkscreen is used to transfer the photograph on fabric.

Pigment printing

Pigment printing utilises insolublepigments or emulsions such as water-in-oil or oil-in-water. It is extensively used on cotton fabrics or the blend of viscose or polyester. Decorative bed linen, aprons, nightdresses, cellulose crockery, and curtains are printed using the same technique. It has evolved to be quite a popular fabric printing technique for its cost-efficacy and ease of usage. It can be done on synthetic and natural fabric. The post-process is also relatively more comfortable and quick. In terms of a sustainable and eco-friendly choice, it is better than screen printing, but water pollution is quite evident.

Spray printing


Fabric paint, spray can, paintbrush, pencil and a stencil is all you need to do fabric spray paint at home. The aerosol paint cans can be stored and used for multiple colours. It is cost-effective and can be used to paint large or small patters on fabric. Automated spray cans are used for commercial purposes. The cans also come with interchangeable heads making way for different kind of patterns and designs.

Duplex printing

Also referred to as double-side printing, duplex printing implies printing on both sides of the fabric. While the design is achieved by printing cylinders, the intricacy of the design is such that it is often mistaken for a woven fabric. Ikkat patterns are also created on both sides; however, it is due to the yarn binding and complexity of warp and weft weaving and not duplex printing.

Similarly, the reversible border ofMaheshwari sarees, also known as bugdi is woven in cotton or silk. It shouldn’t be confused with duplex printing either. It stands true of ‘double Ikat weave’ of Patan patola sarees as well that have the same pattern at front and back and can be worn on either side.

While we have covered most of the printing techniques, let us go through the types of fabric suitable for different kinds of fabrics.

  • DTG digital printing: Complicated prints on fabric on a t-shirt, cotton fabrics and sico
  • Flat-screen printing: For simple designs
  • Pigment printing: For quick output and low-to-medium complexity designs
  • Sublimation printing: Polyester printing

The printing process takes place in several steps, and each stage is essential to get the desired result. Each stage could involve several elaborate steps, making textile printing a complex and evolved process.

  • Pre-treatment of fabric
  • Colour preparation
  • Printing paste preparation
  • Application of paste/dye/pigment using the printing method of a choice
  • Drying of the fabric
  • Hot air or steam application to let dry
  • Post-process treatment

I hope this will help you to figure out your prints and patterns! Each fabric marries a particular impression and creates a beautiful harmony of colours and unique effect.