Want Big, Cheap Prints? Try Printing Your Photos on Fabric

Want Big, Cheap Prints? Try Printing Your Photos on Fabric

You've used your inkjet to print edge-to-edge A4s and A3s, then wanted to upsize, so you went to an online printer for a canvas or a poster. They get pretty big at 45" by 30". Wanting to go bigger? Try a wall covering!

You know the score: you've got a studio space that requires some sample artwork, a new rental that needs sprucing up (but not decorating), or you just want to try something a little different. Canvases and posters are great, relatively low-cost options for showing off your best shots. But you actually have a whole wall you want to cover, either because it needs covering or because you want something really big. This was the situation that faced me with a new rental and after a little online research, led me to two potential options. First is custom wallpaper, a great way to make an imposing, edge-to-edge impression in any room that you hang it. There are a number of vendors (such as Redcliffe in the UK) who will print and supply, but it is a little pricier and way more hassle (in fitting) than the second option of a tablecloth. Or rather a tablecloth turned into a wall covering.

You can find someone who will pretty much print onto anything: the key to printing economically is to find a product where there is the volume to reduce costs. Marketing, particularly commercial exhibitions, is one of those areas, and a scour of the fair number of online printers reveals that tablecloths are a standard format. They can be big, full color, and high resolution. The primary questions then are what are the key features of a tablecloth and how does the final product rack up? Below, I talk about a tablecloth I purchased and had printed by TextileTown (as a mystery shopper) and include an interview that was conducted after it was delivered.

TextileTown's preferred print method is dye sublimation. I'm familiar with the quality of the image produced, but Nick explained that "the environmental impact is extremely low compared to every other method of printing. It’s low-cost, produces stunning image quality, and as it’s dyed into the fabric rather than printed onto the surface, it is vastly more durable than every other method."

The price point seems a fairly obvious benefit as the upfront cost is relatively low, while dyeing into the fabric rather than printing on the surface is a massive benefit. That said, Nick notes that it can't be used on natural fibers and volume spot work with just one or two colors onto pre-dyed material is uneconomical (and for those interested, the suggestion would be to look at eco-solvent and transfer type applications).

If that's the print method, then what is the best material to print onto? Perhaps not surprisingly (and the same goes for paper), the smoother the fabric, the better the resolution (or higher accuracy) print achievable. And of course, resolution is dependent upon viewing distance (see this earlier article explaining how to calculate this), although the short synopsis is that the closer the viewing distance, the greater the pixels per inch (ppi) required. As Nick notes: "Items likely to be seen close up — a napkin, cushion, clothing item — will benefit from using a smoother fabric that can take full advantage of the highest print resolutions, while a backdrop or other display item will look much the same when viewed at normal distances regardless of the fabric type."

That obviously leads on to achievable print resolutions in terms of lines per inch; however, as Nick explains, this is a little more complex for fabrics:

We print to 1,440 dpi. Because textiles are a 3D surface, dpi is much less important a feature than the picoliter droplet size that the nozzles can go down to and how controllable this is through the software. We are able to control the droplet size in multiple increments starting from 1 picoliter (that’s one trillionth of a liter), and that is what ultimately controls the print resolution.

You can pretty much print on to any fabric, but selection should be based upon where it's going to be used and for what purpose. Crease resistance, the ability to be laundered, and fire resistance are all important. Based upon these characteristics, you can select a fabric and then see what sort of print can be achieved. So, how big can they actually print with no joins? Much to my amazement, lengths can go to 100 m on the roll with widths of 5 m. That's pretty big!

The printers use an eight-color process (rather than the traditional four-color CMYK). As a result, the color gamut is wider, particularly for oranges and turquoises, which means skin tones will print better. For those who like accurate color reproduction, this is a big bonus.

Full size wall covering

Full size wall covering

For my print job, I went with the tablecloth simply because it was the most economical way to print at this size (£109 or about $150 excluding sales tax and delivery). I supplied a 24-megapixel TIFF exported from Lightroom. I use a calibrated monitor and soft-proofed prior to export. As with most printers, you can request a digital proof to check your artwork prior to approving the job.

About a week later, the tablecloth arrived. The quality of the print was excellent and everything I expected from a fairly smooth fabric and the dye-sublimation print process. The color reproduction matched the original well. However, my choice of product left me with two issues. Firstly, there was a seam running across the top. I queried this and as I suspected (in retrospect), it's a result of use and cost:

Tablecloths used for display purposes are normally made to around 70”x132” when going on a standard 6’ trestle table. This is so they drop to the floor on 3 sides and have a short drop on the rear (seated or against the wall side). Because these cloths are usually produced in a quantity of a single unit and to meet a budget, they are best produced on a machine with a print capability of 1.5-1.6 metres [and so] we put a flat seam join in around 10” from the back edge, designed to run along the rear edge of the tablecloth rather than being on the tabletop or in the print area.

As ever, it's a tradeoff between function and cost. It doesn't particularly bother me, but you need to bear this in mind when purchasing. In addition, I was wondering about how to hang it on the wall. As this is temporary, I stitched on simple hanging loops and then slotted poles in place to afix to the wall. It's okay, but I will switch to proper tab tops possibly with a wire solution when I get it a permanent home. However, it also highlights the join at the top and how the material hangs. Obviously, a single piece print would look better but cost more.

Not surprisingly, there are a range of wall-hanging solutions, including top and bottom loops for rigid poles (as here) or grommets for hooking up. Some users might prefer tensioned fabrics on a lightweight aluminium frame. One point Nick raised was fabric selection. He'd recommend a stiffer fabric than for tablecloths (which tend to drape) and also be aware that fire resistance might be a requirement in a public building.

My overall recommendation? It's hard to beat the flexibility, quality, and cost that printing onto fabric brings. Tablecloths are excellent quality and low cost, but bear in mind the caveats noted above. So an unreserved thumbs-up for printing big.

When interviewing anyone, it's always good to see what some of the more outlandish jobs they've worked on are and Nick was no exception. "We’ve produced lots of weird and wacky stuff, including fitting out the "Big Brother" House with some ‘unusual’ interior furnishings. One I’ll always remember is the work we did for U.S. Presidential Candidate Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth’ speaking tour when we had to work entirely with materials that were destined for landfill to produce the stage set. Staff volunteers were thin on the ground when 30 used mattresses turned up at our loading bay one day for printing and re-purposing into stage props."

I asked Nick if there was anything else he’d like to mention. His reply, about the environmental impact of large volume textile printing, caught me by surprise and it is worth quoting in full:

The textile industry has a really poor environmental record. 10 percent of all clothes produced go straight to landfill without ever being sold or worn and traditional dyeing/print methods use and discharge a concerning array of chemical pollutants. Digital print on demand alongside other innovations in the textile industry have created a fantastic opportunity to dramatically reduce this immediately and over the coming few years to a very small fraction of its historical level. This is achieved through a reduction in waste and much greener printing methods. I’d encourage all of those working in the creative sector to help this along by working with digital textile print and production partners that are actively taking advantage of all these new opportunities to create clean, green, and sustainable approaches to textile production and print finishing.

Lead Image courtesy of PIRO4D via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.

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Alex Marnoch's picture

Thank you Mike. This is just what l was looking for.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

This is awesome, definitely need to yry it

Studio 403's picture

Any where in the USA one can buy this? I want to find some large table cloth, thin about 10ft wide X 10 ft

Ben Deckert's picture

I think most exhibit/sign banner places could probably do this. For example: https://www.aceexhibits.com/printed-table-throw-dye-sublimated.html

Mike Mitchell's picture

its a good idea as print on paper is narrowing certainly in the UK but equally whilst it may be cheaper on fabric its like all things - on a need and want basis

Caroline Richardson's picture

Excellent post! For future info if anybody is still looking and finds this article, we can print onto fabric 320cm wide, any length without a seam or join - which may be of use to you? We are based in the UK but can ship worldwide, please visit our site and send through an email, https://www.printmytablecloth.co.uk - we could also supply eyelets, or fabric loops as required, happy to assist in finding a suitable solution for anybody interested.