It's much easier to print on fabric than it was a few decades ago when your only option was to iron each piece of fabric onto freezer paper to stabilize it before printing. You can still use that method, but more options exist now that manufacturers produce treated fabrics that are ready to pop into the printer.
Inkjet manufacturers continue to improve their printer inks, as a growing number of people depend on home printers for fabric printing solutions and paper photographs.
Commercially Prepared Fabrics
Pre-treated fabrics are available by the sheet and by the roll, both types in varying sizes. Printable fabrics are already backed with rigid materials that make the fabrics sturdy enough to flow through a printer without rippling. The backings peel off easily after printing is complete.
Each manufacturer explains how to print their products and how to treat the fabrics after printing to remove excess ink and make sure the remaining ink is colorfast.
- Commercial printables are convenient but more expensive than fabrics prepared for printing at home.
- Commercially prepared fabric sheets are typically designed for inkjet printers, not laser printers.
- Commercial fabric printables are typically made from white cotton.
Make Your Own Printable Fabrics
Freezer paper makes an excellent backing for your home-prepped printables and is suitable for fabric printed on inkjet and laser printers.
Freezer paper has a dull side and a shiny side, and the shiny side sticks to fabric with ease after a few passes of a medium-hot iron. The paper peels off nicely when printing is complete and leaves no residue on the fabric.
Treat Fabric for Colorfastness
Pre-treat your fabric with a commercial product before printing in an inkjet printer. The C. Jenkins Co. offers several options, depending on the type of printer you use. Follow instructions exactly or the prints may fade. Choose a product that's compatible with your printer inks, which can be either pigmented or dyes (or a combo of the two).
Krylon makes a product called Preserve It! that can be used to help 'set' pigmented inks on fabric after printing.
Print the Fabric
Use 100 percent cotton fabrics, and try white for your first experiments. We've had good luck with most quilting cotton, but heavy fabrics with a thicker weave have not performed as well. Your results may differ.
- If you are using a product to pre-treat the fabrics, treat and dry following the manufacturer's instructions.
- Tear off about a 12-inch section of freezer paper and cut away a section that's a little over 8 1/2 inches in width.
- Press a piece of treated cotton fabric that's a little larger than the freezer paper. Do not use steam on pretreated fabric. Remove loose threads that remain on the fabric's surface.
- Place the freezer paper shiny side down on top of the wrong side of the fabric (if there is a wrong side) and press the paper side with a medium-hot iron (no steam).
- Use rotary cutting equipment to trim the bonded duo to 8 1/2 by 11 inches, a size that works with most printers. If an edge of the fabric separates from the freezer paper, hit it with an iron again. It's important that all edges of the fabric are secured tightly to the paper and are free of loose threads.
- If you don't use rotary cutting tools, create and trace around an 8 1/2 by 11-inch template (a piece of cardstock works nicely, and so do templates made from file folders). Use scissors to cut out the bonded fabric.
- Insert the sheet into the printer's manual feed area after checking to see if the fabric should be positioned face up or face down.
- Print the bonded fabric. Printing options differ. Choose the highest quality setting your printer offers, often labeled as a 'photo' setting. Using an image with a high resolution provides the best results (photos downloaded from the Internet are usually of lower quality).
- Allow the inks to dry and carefully remove the freezer paper backing. Rinse or wash as instructed if you used a commercial fixative product to pre-treat the fabric. Some people recommend rinsing in a vinegar solution to set the inks—that doesn't always work. If you're printing photos, you want them to last, and commercial solutions work nicely.
While it might be easier to work with small pieces of freezer paper rather than trying to manipulate larger yardages, your experience could differ. Try both to see which method you prefer.
About Inkjet Inks
Gloria Hansen offers excellent advice about the different types of inks used in printers, including a look at pigmented ink prints versus dye-based ink prints, and how the same images printed with each type of ink have weathered the years.
Inkjet printers and their inks change constantly. You may find excellent results with both HP and Epson printers with different types of inks, and good results with a small Canon printer. Read printer reviews and explore manufacturer websites if you don't already own an inkjet printer.
Laser Printing on Fabric
Laser printing on fabric is similar to printing on an inkjet, except you needn't treat the fabric beforehand.
- Bond the fabric to freezer paper as explained above and run it through the printer's manual feed area.
- Leave the freezer paper attached to the paper and place the print on newspapers outside or in a well-ventilated room.
- Coat the fabric with several light layers of Krylon Workable Fixatif (or another similar product).
Because the toner can be thick, and the fixative adds more depth, laser printed fabric is stiff and difficult to hand quilt. You may want to reserve laser printed fabric to make fabric postcards, for areas of wall hangings that will be machine quilted, and for other crafts that may not need to be quilted at all.
You can use a laser printer to print some of the writing needed for a TARDIS quilt pattern.
Experiment to find the methods and products that work best for your needs. The size of the fabric you can print is limited only by the maximum dimensions that will feed through the printer.