The first thing you need to know is that you will never, ever, ever find "a deal" with custom fabric printing. Even when they run that once-in-a-blue-moon sale, it is still more than a yard of fabric at Joann's - at full price.
That being said, it is a great way to make your clothes unique, and even have your child help you design a fabric.
In designing fabric, you need to know how to do a basic repeat, so it will seamlessly run together. Heather Ross has a book that details pattern designs, though I haven't read it. I figured out how to do it through some online tutorials and playing with designs in Photoshop.
Which is the other thing, you need a design program. I use Photoshop, but I imagine you can use Illustrator, or any other program where you can have layers and can move around shapes individually.
Now then, once you have a pattern, there are a few options for printing. In the U.S.A., there are a few commercial printers that will print small runs of fabric, with just swatches and fat quarters up to yardage. They have many different types of fabrics, too. The two that I have used are Spoonflower and MyFabricDesigns.
In sewing for my tween, I know that she likes soft knits. She prefers to wear things I make in those fabrics, and not something like quilting cotton.
One thing I have found with both Spoonflower and MyFabricDesigns is that they have a hard time printing a non-faded looking black on a natural fiber base. That means a cotton knit with a black background will look like you have washed it 20 times already. If you want an all poly base, then you are good to go. They can usually print a decent black on those, so for Spoonflower I like the Modern Jersey option. It is a soft, drapey knit that can take a black.
I have also found that you won't necessarily end up with a yard of fabric. In printing, the fabric stretches. You would think that they would know this, but I have been shorted inches of fabric before even getting to the shrinkage from washing it. MyFabricDesigns was worse than Spoonflower on this, and when I contacted customer service they said they would look into it and then *crickets*. So, yeah, not a fan of them right now.
You can order a swatch book, and see the quality of the fabric, too. That might help in choosing what base you would like to print your design on.
Many are now offering a lycra that can be used for exercise leggings. I have some of that, but haven't made it up yet. It is more expensive, but a good quality from Spoonflower.
If you are on Facebook, there are several custom fabric groups, where many of them get their fabric printed in China. I have gotten the name of a supplier there, but have yet to pull the trigger on that. It is a bit of a risk with going international. If you decide to buy from a custom fabric group, there is also a bit of a risk. Several in the last year have gone under, and Paypal protection has been the only way everyone did not lose all their money. If you do layaway, though, no protection.
So! What to do?
Well, I have followed some of the custom groups, and if they don't have delays and seem to get the fabric out right after getting it in, that is a good sign. You can definitely tell the ones that are more organized and seem to understand how to run a business. If there are any warning signs, just stay away. Here are a few I follow that have seemed to steer clear of the drama (there is a lot of drama in the custom fabric world):
- Zenith and Quasar - they have STEM type of fabrics. I have a "Fly Like A Girl" panel with Amelia Earnhardt that I have to make up into something for my daugther. It's on the list. Right now they have "Vote Like A Girl" pre-sale with Suffragettes on them. I need to figure out what I want from that run!
- Sugar Ink - They tend to have some pop culture and fun prints that are relevant. I like the gamer prints they have had, but I also got a Le Petit Prince panel and print that I have no idea what to make with it, but my high school French teacher would have died for it. ;)
- Affordable Fabrics - Don't let the name fool you...it's the same price as the others. I got some Deadpool and Harry Potter fabric here. Nice quality and good customer service.
- Star Dust and Moon Beam Fabric - I have a pre-order here for some music note fabric for my violin and violist. We'll see how it all works out with this one, but they seem fairly good so far.
You can first order retail from a host and see the type of fabric, and if you think it is worth the price. Pre-orders are how they all basically run, and you might not get retail unless you stalk their page right after they put it up. I have mostly purchased retail after getting burned by one host.
This is a shirt I made from the Sugar Ink custom fabric group. It is from the Fallout video game and perfect for a tween boy. A lot of these groups have busy prints. Use these sparingly, as they can make them look like pj's on older boys. The panels are definitely the way to go. I have another few shirts to make for my son out of panels. The pattern here is a modified Ottobre pattern.