Faering offers digital textile printing on luxury knitwear. Images discovers how the company tackles this demanding process
“We’ve both got a common interest in wool, that was how the company came about,” explains managing director Nick Morley. He and Jane Walker set up Faering, a company that digitally prints on wool, natural fibres and woven materials, in 2015.
Nick is a chemist who has been working as a sustainability consultant for the past 20 years. He has a particular interest in textile recycling and is the chair of Mistra Future Fashion, a Nordic research programme looking at sustainable fashion. Jane, founder of Bailey Hills Print + Wool, is a print designer who specialises in printing on wool fabrics. An experienced screen printer, she spent five years, on and off, researching digital printing on wool, explains Nick. “I was looking for something that promoted wool, and Jane found what she felt was the best machine for the job, the Shima Seiki SIP-160F3. It’s the first machine of its type in northern Europe to my knowledge. It’s a novel machine that does difficult things very well.”
Traditionally, digitally printing onto knitwear made from natural fibres is very difficult. Screen printing on knitwear is also a highly skilled business, and tends to be done only by specialised printers in Italy. “The main problem you’ve got when printing onto knitwear is that it’s difficult to use the same pigment inks that T-shirt printers would use because knitwear is very stretchy. If you imagine you’ve got an inflexible print on there with transfers or pigments, it may gap and grin and you’ll be able to see the background yarn colour as you stretch the sweater. Instead, we print with dyes, which puts us at the luxury end of the market, because it looks like you’ve just dyed the fabric and you get the same hand feel. It’s a lovely look.”
Their business, explains Nick, is based around the capabilities of their digital printer and what it can do in the way of luxury fabrics; the strapline for Faering is ‘Digital design and print for luxury knits and wovens’. The company has a strong design aspect, with three of its employees trained as textile designers, as well as printing customers’ designs. They’ve worked with a number of fashion designers, such as Lou Dalton and Claire Barrow at London Fashion Week, as well as working with high end brands such as Pretty Green thanks to their ability to print on cashmere, silk, mohair, cotton and other fabrics constructed from natural fibres.
The Shima Seiki SIP-160F3 is a flatbed printer, which ensures that the knitwear doesn’t move – on a reel-to-reel printer, there is a possibility the stretchy fabric will distort. A large part of the company’s work involves printing onto finished garments. These, and all the fabrics they treat, are washed then dried, then pretreated and dried again before being printed with the dye. After this they are steamed and then washed and dried one final time. “There are a lot more processes than in traditional pigment printing,” says Nick. “Pigment printing is very popular and a much simpler process, but for natural fibres where you want to have the lovely hand feel of the sweater, where you want to feel the lambs wool or the merino, where you want a really good appearance, then there isn’t anything to beat our system.”
The machine is a capable of printing in the thousands, although the typical order size is in the tens or hundreds, reveals Nick. “What we’re very excited about is on-demand printing – we’re very well set up for personalised prints with short lead times, at the luxury end of course. This could be short runs to support a luxury brand, or personalised products for their customers.”
Embroidery is the classic decoration for knitwear, and Nick agrees that for small logos it probably works out cheaper than using the Shima Seiki. “If you wanted a large size [high stitch count], however, then we would probably be cost competitive,” he adds. “But there are other advantages too: for example, the weight of the embroidery would probably be quite significant by that stage. If you’re going for a very fine knit material then embroidery may distort where print doesn’t. And if you’re doing close fitting, next to skin garments like base layers, people may not want embroidery there from a skin irritation point of view.”
Faering’s approach is also cheaper than knitting in a design. “Shima Seiki is a knitting machine company and probably the best in the world, the most advanced technically, but even they found there were certain things they couldn’t do, which is why they developed the printer. Printing is a good alternative to knitting in if you’re going for very fine knitwear with lots of colours as otherwise the knitwear will need to be slightly chunkier and thicker; or, if it’s a very complex design, then printing really is the only option.”
Faering services a tiny, high-end – niche – sector of the market, explains Nick. “We do some really exciting things for people who need the product quality and who have the budget to do it.” He is convinced there will be a long-term trend towards finer knitwear, driven in part by our living and working in more temperature-controlled spaces. “There will always be a market for thick and chunky [knitwear], but I’d say overall, if you look at the mega trends, there will be more demand for finer knitwear, and so it follows that there will be more demand for printing. I also think that people are looking for differentiating factors in design – being able to print on knitwear, which was so much more difficult previously, opens up a whole load of new options for designers.”
As well as knitwear, Faering prints fabrics for interiors, and the company can also print on cotton T-shirts. But it would have to be for a luxury brand, laughs Nick: “The sort of people who want an absolute, top-of-the-range T-shirt where they want the hand feel and the relatively more subdued tones, and where they could cope with the extra cost of the printing process. But merino T-shirts for outdoor and cycling, that’s a different matter and right up our street, particularly as our ink types are the most washfast that you can get.”
Eco-credentials and experimentation
The interest in wool as a sustainable material is not without its controversy. “It’s been given a bit of a bad press – sometimes it doesn’t score very well in sustainable material selectors, and I think that’s a bit unfair,” shares Nick. “You need a lot of land to raise a lot of sheep to grow a lot of wool. What they [critics] often assume though is that the land can be productively used for something else – but typically sheep are reared on the kind of land that wouldn’t be suitable for arable farming, or there’s a reason why it’s being rotated through pasture. In Australia, for example, you couldn’t grow wheat where they are rearing the sheep – it would just wither and die in the heat!
“It’s a natural product, it’s biodegradable, it’s fantastic to wear, it’s got some wonderful technical properties – it’s a very sustainable material and one that we’re happy to promote.”
Jane and Nick also have a development project where they are experimenting with printing on leather and suede. “We’re getting some very good results, we’re very excited about it,” says Nick with evident enthusiasm. “We’re using the same Shima Seiki machine and working with a tannery and a brand on developing it into commercial products.”