There are several methods for doing this and lots of websites giving lots of advice on the subject. One very good website is pixeladies.com. Their focus is primarily on online sources where you can order fabric printed with your own images. Other sites will discuss methods for printing images on fabric at home with your inkjet printer.
Most of my fabric printing has been done at home using my inkjet printer with self-treated fabric using Bubble Jet Set (again, lots of info on the web about its use). This results in quite good images, although I would not want to subject the resulting fabric to a lot of washing or exposure to the sun. I have seen some quilts with photo images that have faded significantly, although I haven’t had the problem myself. Another disadvantage is that this process can result in a printer jam if you are not careful; printers are not really designed to feed the fabric through the rollers. Also, the size of the image is limited by the size of your printer.
A local art quilter recently had a large fabric print made of a photo on fabric. She used a service called Fabric On Demand (fabricondemand.com). Her large image (about 28 by 40 inches) looked very good. She selected this service because their process is known to produce better blacks than some other services such as spoonflower.com. Both services have a selection of fabrics available, including 100 percent cotton. Fabric on Demand has two different weights of cotton – 4 oz and 6 oz. The 6 oz is probably better for doing a large piece that will be framed; 4 oz is closer to the usual “quilters” weight of fabric.
I have used spoonflower and been pleased with the results, but I have only used them for a “repeating” design, not just printing a single large image. In my research I found that Fabric On Demand allowed me to order a single image printed on a “fat quarter” rather than forcing me to purchase one yard at a time. Also, the size of the image can be specified in the order.
So recently I placed an order with Fabric On Demand for three fat quarters, each with a different photo image. During my interaction with them, I specified that I wanted the longest dimension of the photo to print 9 inches long on the fabric, and I wanted the image centered on the fat quarter.
What I received, while good for my purposes (which was to test their service), wasn’t really what I ordered. I had a brief discussion with their staff about what I received. They were very willing to have the order re-done at no cost, but I chose not to do this since what I received was OK for the purposes of my test.
The actual printing of the photo on the fabric is very good; the image is clear and the colors very true to the original photos – at least for my purposes.
Here is what I was expecting – three fat quarters with a single image in each:
I received the order twice (not sure why), and each order looked like this – about 59 inches wide and 18 inches long:
So I actually received four copies of each image when I was expecting one. Two of the images (the elephants at the right end) were not usable because the image was printed over the selvedge. And as you can see, the 18 inch dimension is rather irregularly cut, and was not always a full 18 inches.
The sizing of the images was not completely consistent, and was not exactly the 9 inches I specified. The actual images varied from 8 ½ inches wide to 8 ¾ inches wide on the longest dimension. In addition, the images were not square. As you can see in the photos below, one of the orders I received was out of square about ½ inch and the other was out of square by about ¼ inch.
I cut off the elephant images on the ends that went over the selvedges to use for further testing. I have put one of them through the wash with my laundry, and I will be using the other one to test for sun fading. In the first and second wash process, the image shrank slightly more than 1/4 inch – not unexpected for cotton, of course. Over the next few weeks I will send that piece through the wash several more times and see if there is any noticeable fading of the colors (none so far), and if it shrinks any more. I have put the second elephant image outside in the sun and will wait a few weeks to see if there is any noticeable fading.
The shrinkage and the dimension problems, once known, can be anticipated and compensated for by cropping the image with some extra around the edges, to allow for squaring it up and getting an accurate final dimension (probably only necessary if making multiple images to use in quilt blocks where the size is important). If my original image had strong vertical lines (such as a flagpole or a building), I would need to be prepared to rotate and crop the image to get the vertical line truly vertical.
In summary, so far so good – but proceed with caution. The images look good, and the fabric is good. We have to be prepared for size issues resulting from the shrinkage, the out of square printing process, and the fact that the printing fabric did not have the exact size of image as originally specified. I will post again when I am finished with the washing test and the sun fading test.