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A Beginner's Guide to Digital Textile Printing

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This is a basic illustration tutorial combined with a practical overview of file preparation for Digital Textile Printing. After a long process of trial and error I've developed a streamlined process for creating files for digital textile printing. This is the perfect tutorial for people wanting to learn basic file preparation and color management. You'll learn the details of prepping your vector file for digital textile printing and these skills transfer well to larger projects. Let's get started!

Introduction

Digital printing is by far one of the most exciting developments in the textile industry. Not only does it open up endless opportunities for customization, small run printing, prototyping and experimentation but it also puts textile printing within the budget of your average illustrator.

Digital textile printing can reproduce unlimited colors and shades but - as with most forms of printing - what you see on screen is not necessarily what you get back.

After a long process of trial and error I've developed a streamlined process for creating files for digital textile printing. This is the perfect tutorial for people wanting to learn basic file preparation and color management. The skills learned from this tutorial are easily transferable to more complex designs and are simple enough for absolute beginners to start producing patterns quickly with little (to no) Illustrator experience.

Final Textile Print Preview

Below is the print we will be working towards. Want access to the full Vector Source files and downloadable copies of every tutorial, including this one? Join Vector Plus for just 9$ a month.

Tutorial Details

  • Programs: Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop
  • Version: CS4 (preferable)
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Estimated Completion Time: 1-2 hours (10mins with pre-prepared artwork)
  • Advanced users may want to use their own illustration style.

You Will Learn

  • How to prepare a basic vector file for digital textile printing.

You Will Need

  • Drawing tablet (preferable)

Step 1a - Set the Workspace

Since we're making a basic repeating tile, the workspace should be set as a square. I like to use 10x10cm tiles, increase the size of your square for larger repeats.

Step 1b - Set the Color Swatches

When working with files for print it's best practice to delete all unused Swatches, Gradients, Brushes and Graphic Styles. Doing so makes it easier to manage and save colors later on. To delete all unused swatches simply click Select All Unused in the Panel Menu then click Delete Swatch. If any unused swatches remain, simply select and delete them.

Step 1c - Open the Color Library.

The easiest and most cost effective way to color match a project is to use a Color Library. All major printing companies have their own color libraries available for download. These libraries are composed of swatches that fall within the printers gamut range. If you don't have a color profile be sure to use colors that aren't too bright or saturated. If you have downloaded a library, then load it by going to the Panel Menu in the Swatches pane and select Open Swatch Library > Other Library then navigate to your file and click Open.

For this tutorial I'll be using Spoonflower.com as my printing service. There are many other print bureaus out there, but for the purpose of this tutorial Spoonflower stands out, as it has no minimum order and international shipping. You can find Spoonflower's color Library for Adobe Illustrator Here.

Step 1d - Make a Color Group

Once the color library is loaded into Illustrator you can choose the colors you want to use. I like to brush the colors next to each other so I can get an idea of how they will sit together in an image. I do this using the Blob Brush (Shift + B) but filled shapes work just as well. Once you have a selection of colors that you're happy with, drag the Swatches from the color Library into the Swatches Pane. This is why we deleted all the swatches in Step 1b.

Note: Notice that the swatches used here have a white corner on them. This means that they're Global colors. Global Color Swatches are swatches linked to the fills and lines that use it. If a Global color Swatch is changed, then every color in the document that uses that particular color is also changed. This is extremely helpful for editing a document, such as a pattern, that's reliant on accurate color management. To change a standard color Swatch to a Global swatch, double-click on the color in the swatches pane (being careful not to have any objects selected) and select Global, then click OK.

Another way to keep track of your colors is to make a color Group. To make a color Group select the colors in your swatch pallet (Command-click) then click the New color Group button at the bottom of the Swatches pane, this will open a dialogue where you can name your color Group. You can also save these swatches for later use by going to the Panel Menu in the Swatches pane and select Save Swatch Library ASE - Adobe Swatch Exchange (ASE swatches can be used with other adobe programs such as Photoshop).

Advanced: If you're working from a pre-existing vector file you can create a swatch pallet by selecting your image and clicking the New Color Group button at the bottom of the Swatches pane, this will open the New Color Group dialogue. Name your color group and check Convert Process to Global, then click OK.

To change a color Swatch to make it suitable to print, simply double-click the swatch and change the CMYK values accordingly. If your color is out of gamut (Printable color range) a warning should appear in the Swatch Options dialogue - either manually change the color values yourself or click the yellow alert triangle to change it to the nearest color value that's within gamut.

If you're still unsure of how your document will print or want greater accuracy of color I would suggest replacing each swatch with swatches suggested by your printing service. You can do this by loading the printers color library and choosing the colors you want to use. Replace the old swatches by holding down Alt and dragging the new color swatch on top of the color you wish to change. This is where it's important to have the swatches set to Global, as each of the colors in you image will then change to be the colors you've chosen from the library. Easy!

Step 2a - Lets draw!

We now have a set of colors to use in our pattern it's time to draw. For the absolute beginner - the quickest way to start drawing in Illustrator is to use the Blob Brush (Shift + B). I've used the Blob Brush to draw three different objects using the Color Group I defined earlier. To change the settings of the Blob Brush such as size and accuracy, double-click the Blob Brush icon in the Tools Pane.

The basic features of the Blob Brush are Size, Fidelity and Smoothness. Size is self explanatory. Fidelity is how accurate the line is, the higher the value the smoother and less accurate the line will be. Smoothness is the amount of smoothing applied to your stroke - the higher the percentage, the smoother the path.

Note - Advanced Users: You can either draw your own pattern in any method you like and skip to Step 3 to learn how to test your repeat OR if you already have a working repeat pattern you can skip to Step 5 for instructions on exporting your file for print.

Step 2b - Copy and Reflect Objects

Here are four images I've drawn using the Blob Brush. As you can see they're fairly complex. To make the objects easier to work with - select the image with the Selection Tool (V) then press Command + G to group it together, repeat this for each object. Because this is the quick and easy version of how to make a repeating pattern I'm going to copy these four objects to save myself having to draw more.

To do this select the objects you wish to copy, select the Reflect Tool (O) and Command-click on a blank area of the artboard, this will open the Reflect Dialogue. Select Vertical and click Copy. You should now have a reflected copy of your four objects.

Step 2e - Re-Color

We will now re-color the copied objects. Since each object is grouped, this should be fairly easy. Double-click the object you wish to re-color, this will take you to the object's isolation mode - from there you can re-color your object without accidentally changing the other objects.

To change every instance of a color to another color you can use the Magic Wand Tool (Y). First, double-click the Magic Wand icon in the Tools Pane to bring up its settings, change the Tolerance to 0 - this way you will only select exact color matches. Once the color you wish to change is selected using the Magic Wand, click the color you wish to change it to in your color Library. To exit isolation mode double-click outside of the isolated objects. Repeat this process with each mirrored object.

Step 3 - Arrange

Now that we have our objects, it's time to arrange them on the artboard - as you can see I've added a few hearts, stars and signatures to fill the blank spaces. This layout is looking pretty good to me, but before I export it for print, I want to test my pattern. To do this first draw a square the size of the artboard with the line and fill set to None, then select the square and send it to the back (Object > Arrange > Send to Back).

With the transparent square at the back of your image, use the Selection tool (V) to click and drag a selection box around your artboard. Take the selection and drag it into the Swatches Pane. You should notice a new swatch is created, this is your pattern.

To test your pattern, draw a rectangle anywhere outside of the artboard and fill it with the pattern swatch. Remember to make the rectangle large enough to repeat the pattern a few times, this is better for detecting anything that needs to be changed.

Step 4 - Save As PDF

This is the tricky part. Once your happy with the positioning of the elements save the file as a PDF. One of the most popular file types (and recommended by Spoonflower) is an 8-bit, uncompressed TIFF in the LAB color space, as it's impossible to export LAB color directly from Illustrator we have to save the image as a PDF and open it in Photoshop. I use PDF as it preserves color values so all the hard work choosing swatches isn't ruined on export.

Go to File > Save As > PDF (Command + Shift + S). This will open the Adobe PDF Dialogue Box. Go to Output and set the color Conversion to No Conversion, then click OK.

Step 5 - Open PDF in Photoshop

If you haven't already done so, open the PDF in Photoshop (go to File > Open and select your saved PDF). This will bring up the Import PDF Dialogue. Choose the following settings to import your image: Page Options as Crop to Bounding Box (this will import only what's inside the artboard) Resolution as 150 pixels/inch (this is the optimal resolution as specified by Spoonflower, other printers may differ - be sure to check.) color Mode as LAB (I will explain LAB color in a moment.) Bit Depth as 8 (again, this is specified by Spoonflower), then Click OK.

LAB color, unlike RGB or CMYK has tones and colors separate so one adjusts without affecting the other. L is light, A and B are color - so if A+B is red you can subtract L to make maroon or add L to make pink.
LAB color is also the only device independent color-space in Photoshop, which makes it perfect for digital fabric printers as they work with color differently to a standard commercial print machine.

Step 6 - Save as a TIFF

Each printer has their own recommended file types, some like jpg some like gif, Spoonflower asks for TIFF (8-bit, uncompressed). I personally like to use TIF because its a lossless file type, which means there is no quality loss due to compression. To save your art as a TIFF go to File > Save As > then choose TIFF - make sure the image compression is set to None, then click OK.

Conclusion:

You should now have a print ready file with (almost) foolproof colors, all you need to do now is go to spoonflower.com, or your preferred printer, and upload the artwork to print.

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