Mike Ruff
Mike Ruff
Further Information
26th Feb 2024
Mike Ruff, Vice-President of Sales and Marketing, StealthColor©, provides the history of analogue and digital print in the textile and fabric industry. He goes on to explain why and how textile and fabric production is returning, in recent years, to Europe and North America

Looking back to 1977, an article by the The New York Times’  Editor, Philip Shabecoff, reported, “Murray Finley, President of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, said after coming from the US White House, that in 1976 alone between 25,000 and 45,000 jobs were lost in the male apparel industry and that if the current agreement is renewed unchanged, imports will account for well over half the market in 10 years.” 

Unfortunately, the increase in imports happened much faster than he predicted. However, there is now a great opportunity for the European and North American markets to take some of that market share back. The answer lies in technology, automation and better colour matching in digital-inkjet production.


It was not only about lower prices. Brand customers, retailers and consumers all wanted products faster, with the same high quality, tolerance and performance they were getting from analogue production. They also wanted the same perfect colour matching received from the rotary screen-printing suppliers. 

Analogue production was a well-established and accurate process. The final print production was supported by skilled press operators who could tweak colour, on press and perfect it under 1dE. But the analogue process of creating the spot-colour separations and then making rotary screens was very time consuming and extremely expensive.


Initially, digital printing was not a viable option to meet the existing production expectations. Speeds in rotary-screen production was 45–90m/minute. In early digital printing, speeds could only reach from 1–18m/hr. Digital was not close to competitive. 

Additionally, digital-inkjet prints were not accurate enough to hold below 1dE tolerances required by buyers in the textile and fabric production market. It is important to remember that, in the world of rotary screen and flexo direct-to-fabric (DTF) textile printing, it was all true spot colour. All of the inks were perfectly matched prior to printing. The professional printers would even make final adjustments on press, making perfect colour possible.

Electroplated, nickel-plated rotary screens with end rings and gear
Electroplated, nickel-plated rotary screens with end rings and gear

The early failure of inkjet did not cause the market to go offshore and was not a factor in the exit from the North American textile-manufacturing market. The US market was doing well with print speeds and quality in the true-colour, spot-colour market. However, the cost of setup of analogue workflow was prohibitive and, therefore, uncompetitive. The multiple steps to get the colour approved were too slow and expensive. These would often take weeks or even months for a design to be ready for production. The low cost of labour in Asia and other developing countries decimated the market and moved it offshore.


The market wanted new designs faster and more frequently. Digital inkjet soon found a niche in the textile-garment market. Digital inkjet produced prototypes faster and these did not need to be as colour accurate for ‘Market Week’ buyer shows. It required a pleasing visual appearance and digital inkjet was ‘good enough’ for a Market Week concept display. 

“The answer lies in technology, automation and better colour matching in digital-inkjet production”

Digital inkjet was also a more efficient method for keeping the costs down on presenting concepts that were accepted or might never even sell. Some designs, approved for production, might have multiple colour ways of the same design. There was finally hope of a future for digital inkjet as early as the beginning of the 1980s. The two things digital inkjet had to improve – to be able to run production volumes – were speed and accuracy. The colour had to be right for production.

As jobs exited the US to Asia and other developing nations, inkjet production was still healthy in Italy, due to innovation. Its manufacturers were developing digital textile-printing equipment, inks, paper and fabric. The supply line was still alive and well in Europe. In contrast, the main US market was home décor that required large runs for low margins. The US could not take advantage of the available, slower digital printers.

True Spot Colours at Sub 1dE high speed
True Spot Colours at Sub 1dE high speed

Digital-inkjet, textile-printing machines were becoming faster. Some were fast enough to compete for small and medium-sized runs. However, the colours were still not accurate enough for the home décor market. 

International Colour Consortium (ICC) profiling was finding a place in prototyping bedding designs and other hospitality designer needs in concept introduction. Still, it could not provide the accuracy needed for production. Most of the printing in this market was dye sublimation on polyester.

The sampling of prototypes was replacing 15 or more rotary screens and/or flexo plates for each colour way. Before digital prototyping the textile and fabric industries were comfortable in the past spending $30,000–$60,000 (€27,000–€50,000) to produce analogue samples for a single show of their new bedding colourway concepts.

The FR polyesters were already treated during the weaving of the fabric. So, with the CMYK ICC profiling success, digital printers became faster and successfully started to produce short runs when colour was not critical.

“Digital inkjet soon found a niche in the textile-garment market”

The Mimaki Tx2-1600
The Mimaki Tx2-1600

The very slow Mimaki TX2 was thought of as a good inkjet printer and was fast at the time that inkjet was evolving. It would print about 20m2/hr and so was perfect for sampling prototypes. The machine replaced making 15 or more rotary screens and/or flexo plates for each colour way. Digital inkjet quickly and dramatically dropped the manufacturer’s set up costs and, therefore, the colour samples for shows.

It was clear that the digital-printing market would evolve as soon as higher production speeds came along and colour matching consistently under 1dE was possible. Digital inkjet could be viable for larger production runs. But with speed advancing, colour was still a problem. 

“Introduced in 1931, Kubelka Munk was the beginning of a breakthrough”


ICC profiling remains a problem today. Print producers, in the graphic and display industry, are accustomed to accepting higher dEs. This is because the prints are mostly individual products that decorate windows, shop aisles, POP, car wraps, outdoor banner advertising and so on. Most of the time, products were not sewn together requiring a perfect visual match. The Idealliance test form, accepted for graphics printers is a 3.5dE as a ‘pass’ on primary colours (CMYK) in an ICC calibration. A dE of 4.2 is a ‘pass’ on secondary colours such as red, green and blue. If it is then grey balanced, the product looks great. But it is not good enough for many textile applications.


But before ICC would be viable in digital-inkjet textile production, it would need to improve accuracy and speed to match true spot colours. This has yet to occur. If the colour is off, it cannot be tweaked in the same way as analogue spot colours. The workflow for true spot colours is a slow back and forth print and adjustment process that can take days to match a list of 100 colours. ICC profile colours have always been – and will continue to be – a problem. Fixing the colour by remaking ICC profiles does not work. The colour is just shifted, not fixed. The operator will try reprofiling over and over, with the same erroneous result. Digital-inkjet printers even revert to manual Photoshop or Illustrator tweaking of the file for spot colours, taking them back to the ‘too slow and inaccurate problem’. 

“The cost of setup of analogue workflow was prohibitive and, therefore, uncompetitive”

Rotary screen-print machine with eight colours
Rotary screen-print machine with eight colours
Jim Memije, of IT Supplies, folds over the target samples of the target print. It matches under 1dE and is not in a light booth
Jim Memije, of IT Supplies, folds over the target samples of the target print. It matches under 1dE and is not in a light booth

Introduced in 1931, Kubelka Munk was the beginning of a breakthrough. It caught the attention of the StealthColor© development team, primarily because it was completely different to ICC profiling. The concept ticked all the right boxes. It was fast, simple, did not limit the colour gamut and the colour was extremely accurate. This was because the colour was not created by piling more ink on top of more ink as in ICC, where it cuts the hue hooks off once the colour starts shifting hues. Missing colour that was cut off was desperately needed for more accuracy. Kubelka Munk does not use this approach and is therefore faster and more accurate. It is also why Kubelka Munk uses 15–20% less ink. 

The team at StealthColor© was convinced that it knew why it failed and spent years attempting to correct errors in the Kubelka Munk algorithms. At that time, the Kubelka Munk theory was used in textile dyeing and had long been used in the analogue vat-dyeing industry. So far, it had only been used in the formulation of dyes and pigments. It had never been successfully implemented in a digital-print environment.

“With the simplified UI, StealthColor© is fast, accurate, repeatable and easy to use”


The StealthColor© development team simplified the process and abandoned every aspect of ICC. It was then able to make algorithms that worked. Global Graphics helped StealthColor© to add its blazing fast and accurate Mako© PDF software for vector-to-raster conversion. This is now embedded into StealthColor©. The company was fortunate to receive this help and experience. Other different file types – .tif, jpg, .png, even Illustrator files – were not a problem. After that, the team made a simple user interface (UI). The objective was to achieve user training in just one day. StealthColor© was surprised by how well it worked.


No preset patch sets, such as IT-8s or TC1617s, are used and colour management is switched off. No ink restrictions are applied by the RIP. The operator facilitating the colour buildups and characterisation in StealthColor© can rely on the software to build professional profiles in 30-40 minutes. It is called ‘Color Beyond Human©’ for a reason. With the simplified UI, StealthColor© is fast, accurate, repeatable and so easy to use, textile printers requirements of 1dE using digital inkjet is now a reality. Digital inkjet is fast, easy, accurate and, above all, simple to use and to train.


Digital-inkjet printing has evolved and improved production speed to become a viable alternative to analogue. The challenge of producing accurate colour management is no longer a limitation with the introduction of StealthColor©. High production, digital printers wishing to compete for production runs of decorated textiles and fabrics can safely say that colour is no longer a problem.