NEW YORK — Textile designers often take a deep breath before opening that Fed Ex package stuffed with strike-offs from Taipei. Fingers crossed, many find themselves whispering, “Please let it be the design I sent.”
It’s a scene that’s repeated in print-design studios across North America as, more often than not, prints designed in Manhattan are engraved and printed in Seoul or Hong Kong or Singapore or any number of cities ringing the Pacific Rim.
“About 80 percent of prints designed here are executed in the Orient,” explained Dennis Harrington, North Central regional sales manager for Computer Design Inc. “Someone overseas is reinterpreting a design that was approved in the United States.”
Ensuring that a design makes it through the engraving and printing processes in something close to its original form racks the nerves of many American designers. Even designers who’ve established longstanding relationships with Asian mills fret a bit about quality.
“Sometimes I’m disappointed because I know how crisp my artwork was,” commented men’s wear designer Jhane Barnes.
“We’re always crossing our fingers before we open the Fed Exes with our dress prints,” commented Shannon Carr, a CAD operator with designer Nicole Miller.
Boston-based CAD consultant Alison Grudier explained why even top designers sweat.
“In many Asian countries prints are engraved manually,” she said. “That means they will have artists repaint each color separation, and when that’s done, reinterpretation inevitably creeps into the process. “But there are other opportunities for reinterpretation too. The engraver may order colors differently than the designer sitting in her studio in New York. The designer may have laid down the separations in an order like blue, pink, yellow, green. But the engraver, mindful of his particular printing process, might lay them in the order green, yellow, pink, blue. Even if just two colors in the order are swapped, the look of the pattern will change.”
The spacing of repeats is also a concern.
“The designer’s artwork may not be in repeat, or the repeat may not be in a number of colors the printer can handle,” Grudier said. “And fabrics are another factor that can throw the design off. The spacing of repeats can get distorted depending on what fabric is used.”
Grudier said all the above factors came disastrously into play with a coordinated outfit she produced while working at Mast Industries, the sourcing arm of The Limited. Murphy’s Law prevailed.
“We had designed a cotton-knit T-shirt with matching rayon skirt and cotton/Lycra leggings,” Grudier said. “But in order to get the best prices, quality and delivery, we used three different converters in three different countries for the separate pieces. Even though we sent the same artwork to all three mills, the prints did not match. You would never have guessed they were the same print. The fabric was unusable.”
Target Stores has run into similar difficulties in its private-label business, according to Becky Leu, CAD manager.
“We had a few cases like Alison’s where our buyers thought that if they sent the same CAD printout to different converters they’d get back strike-offs that match,” Leu explained. “Hopefully, they’ve learned their lessons.”
There are, however, two avenues designers can pursue to minimize errors. One is cultivating strong relationships with reliable foreign converters cognizant of concerns about design integrity. The other involves technology — modeming CAD files or sending discs containing print designs directly to the foreign mills.
A combination of the two, however, is probably the best route. Barnes, obsessed with the integrity of her designs, has taken the tandem approach in many instances.
“All my print ties are printed in Japan,” she said. “We use three different printers, and I’ve been dealing with these people since the early ’80s. The most intricate patterns go to the best printer. A lot of people in our industry go hopping around from factory to factory to find the better price, I just can’t do business that way.”
But sending CAD files on disk or via modem adds an extra level of assurance to the already trusting relationships Barnes cultivates with her best printers.
“This year, my tie prints came out crystal clear,” she said, “the best ever. I don’t really know why. The Japanese printer I used sends the designs out to be engraved, so I’m not really looking over his shoulder on that part of the process, but I send as much information as I can to help him reproduce the prints correctly. I send him a disk and an ink-jet printout. It’s helpful for him to have the floppy in case he has to make minor changes to the design.”
Barnes’ acceptance of the fact that printers often must make such changes is rather rare in the fashion industry. Her attitude, however, is understandable when you consider the central place Barnes gives fabric in her work and the ex-math major’s affinity to CAD.
Danielle Locastro, CAD manager at Cranston’s Print Works New York design studios, is trying to cultivate that level of understanding with designers and apparel makers she works with. She said proximity gives U.S. printers an advantage over foreign competitors.
“American printers have a tremendous advantage,” Locastro said, “because they can more easily communicate with their customers here. It comes down to understanding the ‘process’ of what you are doing when you engrave and print. I try to relate that process to CAD and then educate the designers who use the CAD systems. You have to try and reach out and give people an idea of what is and what is not printable.
“If you’re a designer working on a CAD system and you understand the engraver’s guidelines, you can feel more secure about what the strike-offs you get back will look like.”
Locastro understands all too well the chasm between what can be produced on a CAD system and what can be commercially printed on fabric. Consequently, she’s very careful about the designs she shows apparel makers who come to Cranston looking for fabric.
“I can produce beautiful effects on a CAD system and print them directly onto fabric with an Iris printer and really impress customers,” she said. “But I won’t, because very often those effects can’t be mass produced. No printer in the world would touch a CAD design that couldn’t be executed for mass production. You don’t want to present any potential customer with a CAD printout that you are not going to be able to produce.”
Lori Eichel, creative manager at Cone Mills, echoed Locastro’s views.
“So much of the artwork you see from the studios is beautiful,” she said. “You can hang them on your wall, but they are not always printable. And you definitely don’t want to show that artwork to an apparel company looking for fabric. You don’t want a customer to fall in love with something that can’t be produced on cloth.”
Fine lines are one example of decisions mills face in bringing paintings and CAD output to life on cloth. CAD systems can produce extremely thin lines of just a few points per millimeter. But a designer or apparel company expecting to get that level of clarity on a strike-off would be sadly disappointed. The printer would be forced to thicken the lines, markedly altering the appearance of the design and probably angering the designer.
“Line weight and stippling are recurring problems,” Eichel said. “You have to know what has to be opened up or thinned down to conform with the restrictions of printing. Stippling, using tiny dots for shading, is especially difficult. To get designs ready for printing, you may have to make the dots a bit heavier.”
“There are different types of screens to be considered too,” Locastro added. “Depending on the mesh sizes available, you may not be able to get fine detail.”
Locastro, Grudier and Barnes agreed that designers will minimize disappointments if they understand the limitations of the printing processes at each of the mills they deal with — and create CAD designs that work within those limits. The rule holds true whether the engraving and printing is done in the United States or abroad.
Locastro is not an engraver, though Cranston does do the bulk of its engraving in-house. Much of her job involves tinkering with original artwork on the company’s CAD systems to insure that it will be printable. Once that’s done, Locastro shows a revised inkjet printout to the designer or apparel maker for an okay before strike-offs are produced or the fabric goes into production.
“I’m not engraving ready, but I’m engraving prepared,” Locastro said. “I get the image as clean as I can — as close as I can to what I want the fabric to look like when it is printed. You have to understand your plant restrictions.”
Locastro said that it’s easier for her to keep within engraver guidelines on a CAD system than were she working in natural media.
“What you produce on a CAD system is as close as you can get to what the engraver would do to prepare a design — provided you work within the guidelines the engraver gives you.”
Locastro said printers and engravers are often ready to help designers develop an understanding of the limitations of the printing process. With a little effort, she believes designers can reduce their “strike-off” anxiety.
“There really has to be communication on every level,” she said. “The engravers are very willing to work with their designer customers because it is in their interest to receive printable designs. They spend a little time educating the designers but that cuts their production time. They have to do less clean-up work.”
“Some studios are becoming more aware of printing concerns,” Eichel added. “But it’s an educational process. In our CAD department, we feel the engravers and printers are our best teachers about what can be printed. Once we get the correct specifications from the printers and engravers, we try to communicate that information back to the studios as well as our customers — apparel companies and retailers who do private label.”
Educating the studios is a priority for Cone since they can spend less time cleaning up artwork when designers are mindful of the printing process.
“Mostly, we purchase original art — paintings that are not in repeat — from artists,” she explained. “We put them in repeat and get them to the right proportions on CAD systems. We turn beautiful pieces of fine art into producible designs.”
When the design comes from a customer, says an apparel maker, the situation is much different. In such cases, Cone shows the customer a cleaned-up, printable version of the original artwork before producing a fabric strike-off.
“Our customers give us CAD output quite often,” Eichel said. “An OshKosh or Healthtex might come to us with their work and want us to produce it. Rather than taking the artwork and saying we’ll do it just to get the job, we’ll show then what a printable interpretation of that artwork would look like as CAD output. Then they can make an informed decision on whether they’re still happy with it.”
Barnes, for her part, feels she’s found the right formula with the Japanese printers. Unfortunately, the high yen prohibits her from producing anything but ties in Japan. Using the same printers for her equally intricate shirts would be prohibitively expensive.
Nautica is also working to improve the already strong relationships it has with Asian printers.
“Sometimes the strike-offs we get back are wrong, but we take the time to make corrections,” explained Claire Garrison, CAD manager at Nautica, who recently left the company.
Nautica faces the same problems Grudier outlined about having coordinates produced by different mills. But for David Chu and company, strong relationships have averted catastrophes.
“We have long-standing relationships with most of the mills we work with in the Orient,” Garrison said. “We send our people over to Asia regularly, and we know what those printers are capable of producing. The final decisions rest with Nautica, not with some printer somewhere.”
Garrison said Nautica keeps in contact with its printers in Korea, Taiwan and Japan through the company’s Hong Kong agent. The company is more careful about having fabric printed in China because of quality control concerns.
Barnes too has experienced a little bad luck in her China dealings.
“A Chinese printer did a really awful job on printed silk shirts for us,” she said. “We couldn’t ship them. The Koreans are the best printers to deal with outside Japan even though they sometimes cheat on the quality of the fabric — a problem I don’t have with the Japanese. I even tried Peru on some printed knits, but they just couldn’t get it right. But they did try.”
Nicole Miller’s ties are printed in Korea. Like Japan, Korea is one of the Pacific Rim nations with a reputation for printing accuracy.
“The Korean guy who does our tie prints is always right on the money,” Carr said.
Unlike her dress prints, Miller’s tie prints are all hand drawn, but preserving design integrity is a concern for any prints that are produced overseas whether they were produced on computers or in natural media.
Target’s Leu said her initial experiences sending CAD files on disks to foreign printers have gone surprisingly well.
“We’ve played around with sending the designs on disks and would like to do more of that in the future,” Leu said. “But we need a little more help from our MIS department to make sure that everything goes smoothly.”
Ray Kinlock, who teaches surface design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, said technology can help designers and mills find common ground. He urged designers to take advantage of it.
“The interface between design CAD and the mills is becoming seamless if you want it to be,” Kinlock said. “But a lot of designers don’t want to surrender. They want to be at the mills for the first samples.
“If the designer is familiar with CAD and printing and engraving concerns, they’ll put more trust in CAD. If he isn’t, he’ll pile on frequent-flier miles because he’ll want to go to the mill to check out the result.”
Barnes said she especially likes the quality of the printing in Italy. And even though the Italian printers are notorious for deliberately altering designs, Barnes said she has to sigh with admiration when she sees the Italian strike-offs.
“Of course I like the printing in Italy,” Barnes said, “even though what I get back is not necessarily what I sent. When you’re dealing with the Italians, you’ve got to expect that they’re going to change the designs. More than in any other country, the printers there have a real design sense. Sometimes what I get back is better than what I sent.”

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