Sat, Jun

IR talks to... Debbie McKeegan, Founder, Digetex

On the first day of the recent Fabric Printing Now event, Digetex co-owner Debbie McKeegan gave the presentation ‘A Commercial Designer’s Journey Through Digital’.

Given her design background and knowledge of textile production, customised digital manufacturing, product development and sales, she is well placed to comment on how to profit from digitally printed textile possibilities for the interiors market. I asked her how Digetex is doing so, and how she thinks other PSPs can also benefit.
By Lesley Simpson

As a young designer you specialised in home furnishings so digitally printed interiors textiles/wallcoverings was perhaps a natural progression. Do you think there’s much scope for large-format inkjet print businesses to get involved?

I began my career at the advent of CAD technology and I was immediately hooked. A design world pre Photoshop, where designers used drawing boards and the now redundant colour copier was a valued design too. Designs had to be created within the technical boundaries of rotary screenprinting. Generally no more than ten colours and a repeat of size just 64cm! We would use a vast selection of painterly skills to create extra colours using halftones and fall-ons, terminology that’s lost on the digital generation. Designers would create a collection in months, not hours. Pre-production sampling took six weeks, and to get a design from the drawing board through production and into the store would take on average at least three months. This was mass production. A good selling design sold a million metres. Textile warehouses housed vast stocks and a design might stay in a range for years.

Business has most definitely changed. The retailer now demands trend driven ‘fast fashion’ and manufacture, delivered to store in weeks not months – and to this end many large retailers have invested in their own digital print technology, mainly for polyester printing, which is somewhat easier than natural substrates. And buying patterns have changed. Designers offer seasonal main line collections as before, which are then continually topped up with trend driven collections.

This is the age of the designer, and many become brands of their own, offering unique products online via many bespoke e-commerce resellers, and the consumer is willing to pay the extra pounds for boutique, designer products.

For the creative the digital era has evolved. Textile design isn’t necessarily created using digital methods as it once was through the ‘90s. Thankfully, there a huge resurgence for painted artwork and artisan drawing skills. Patterns once created are only then digitised to become files that can be prepped for digital production. The creative integrity of the artist is preserved; every brush stroke cloned, copied and simulated, then manufactured using a combination of digital technology and innovative fabric technology.

The heritage of British textiles is still a crucial part of digital manufacturing. Everything has changed except the core fabrics we print onto - cottons, linens, silks, polyesters, fire-retardant substrates all have to be both prepared for print and post finished afterwards. Here at Digetex our staff hold years of service and a vast textile knowledge. We actively train and pass on those skills to the next generation.

As a young designer specialising in home furnishings, my earliest digital prints were created on a desktop printer - spray starching cotton fabrics, and manually feeding them through the printer. These early digital fabric prints were used to create fabric swatches and mock-ups for storyboards. The prints would last a few months until eventually they faded away in the sunlight. Soon software could create colour separations, plot films and then engrave conventional rotary screens for colour sampling and production. However, design to production would still take an average 12 weeks if not longer.

Having embraced the creative freedom offered by CAD in the late 1980's and 90's, I was to witness the digital revolution in textiles. And global textile manufacture will be transformed again over the next five years. As companies seek to reduce distribution costs, and increase their speed to market localised sourcing will create a strong demand for new print resources.

So I'd like to see better, cost effective printhead technology, cheaper inks and entry level digital print machines to facilitate the development of new markets. Many highly successful high street retailers now print their own fabrics – cutting out the wholesaler whilst offering the consumer exceptional design and great value. Digital print should empower designer makers and new emerging fashion and interior brands.

Digetex is ‘a specialist bespoke printer of textiles and wallpaper’ by its own definition, but it presents its production capability in a very creative way. Is that because you know how to appeal to a creative market?

Digetex is a design lead, specialist print resource. Our commercial offer reflects our own knowledge base. Yes, we are a creative team but our company strength undoubtedly, is our rich textile heritage.

So who are your main customers, and do you see that changing over time?

Digetex serves clients worldwide, across many different market sectors, working equally amongst independent creatives and large corporate clients. Digital is an evolving marketplace with multiple applications. I’m constantly surprised by our next client, who knows what our innovative team will print next.

Digetex runs a white-labeled division called Surface Pattern Print (http://www.surfacepatternprint.com) that has been nominated for the Digital Entrepreneur Awards in the Best Small Business category. Why did you feel it important to set this up a separate online entity?

The digital marketplace has grown, creating the need for clear product placement across all our brands. We developed Surface Pattern Print to ensure that our website engages with this target customer base. It’s a design community for designers and creative – talking the same language and offering design support alongside our print offer.

Digetex/Surface Pattern Print were involved with the New Designers London 2015 fashion week. How important do you think it is for specialist/niche ‘print producers’ like yourselves to get involved in things like that?

It’s important to stay on track with trends globally - both in terms of design and technical developments. Our team regularly visits and engages with the trade at shows or events to ensure that we bring our clients the products they need.

You are making a mark on the speaking circuit, having just presented at Fabric Printing Now and at various other events this year like Heimtextil. Obviously that builds yours, and the company’s profile. But it seems that educating creatives about print digital inkjet possibilities is also a key driver – is that the case?

I have never forgotten that I was lucky to enter this industry early on. I had the opportunity to learn from some extremely talented professionals, all of whom had spent a lifetime in textiles and design. Unfortunately the demise of the British textile and wallcovering industries during the ‘90’s stripped the industry of a massive database of knowledge. Many young designers don’t get to experience any elements of manufacturing. Digetex works with universities across the country to give vital access to design, production and training. I personally mentor and run both internship and placement programmes.

I’d also like to see the digital print sector invest more in education. Printers and educators need to communicate to stimulate opportunities.

What are the company’s key objectives/goals now?

As a group Digetex predicts a 39% growth in turnover for the next 12 months. Our specialised digital textile factory is built on a strong textile heritage but the market demands ever faster production methods and increased speed to market, matching the consumers’ thirst for new product. We plan to source and invest in new technology over the next two years, enabling us to serve an ever evolving market and its demands.

How do you think we’ll see the digitally printed textiles market for interiors products play out in the next five years and how can PSPs benefit from that?

Our company has witnessed the digital sector grow from strength to strength over the last ten years, creating new markets for our industry, and we envisage a huge growth in the market over the next five years.

As companies seek to reduce distribution costs, and increase speed to market localised sourcing will create a strong demand for new print resources. Fast fashion will demand a new generation of manufacturer and an increased demand for good design.

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