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Digital Fashionistas

Printing Walks the Runway

By Melissa Donovan

Digitally printed textiles—whether created direct to print or via the transfer process—are a popular alternative for creative professionals. Apparel is cost-effectively crafted through digital printing, providing fashion designers with a unique outlet to convey their vision.


For many in the fashion industry, digital print is unfamiliar territory. With advancements in technology, manufacturers are toting devices not just for soft signage, but a variety of applications. Educating the end user is the first step in gaining the attention of the fashion world.


Trends to Realization

The benefits of using fabric are endless. Environmental and cost savings directly effect this niche’s growing popularity.


It is possible to make customized short runs of printed textiles at an affordable cost today, which opens up exciting possibilities for the design industry,” notes Sara Fortea, large format competitive analyst and product manager, Hewlett-Packard (HP).


While many realize the benefits, the challenge is determining how to integrate textile printing into a business model. Who to target and what materials to print on are daunting questions to a print service provider (PSP) unfamiliar with fabrics.


Michael Labella, product manager, US Sublimation, says hesitation is common with most new technologies. People need to wrap their mind around it to fully understand where they fit.


Home furnishings, signage, fashion, and accessories all fall under the fabric printing umbrella. The apparel industry offers vast possibilities. Mass production or one-offs of unique designs, to pitch a line to a client or to display clothing at a prominent runway show, are reasons why a designer might consider digital print. It offers shorter turnarounds and the ability to convey a design aesthetic that is truly a one-of-a-kind alternative to screenprinting or mass-market fabric.


Generating Awareness

Digital print is an anomaly. Most designers are unaware of the option to order custom printed fabric. The ones who are, struggle to find a PSP to meet their needs.


“There is a general awareness, but the penetration of digital textile printing equipment is limited to the larger markets and these companies generally focus on soft signage,” admits Dan Barefoot, president, Graphics One, LLC (GO).


To educate PSPs on the added capabilities of digital textile printers—thinking outside of soft signage—manufacturers display innovative applications at trade shows, demo facilities, and seminars.


David Robinson, North American sales consultant, d.gen International, Inc., says the company holds educational seminars and exhibits at trade shows.


“Designers not yet using digitally printed textiles will likely start realizing the benefit once they see examples,” shares Fortea. HP leverages industry events that showcase textile applications printed with HP Latex inks. Outdoor umbrellas, curtains, furniture coverings, lamps, and bags were on display at one show in Taiwan.


Outsource and Gain Experience

Finding a PSP willing to create a unique design on fabric in a specific amount of time can prove to be trying for a fashion designer looking to quickly bring his or her vision to life. While creative professionals wait for PSPs to adopt a deeper understanding of the vast capabilities of their digital textile printers, some might decide to take up print production on their own.


Many vendors recommend working with a PSP first to fully understand the technology and avoid a large investment—which may in fact lead to loss of time and profits. “Printing textiles is quite complicated and experience is needed for best results,” advises RJ Sullivan, product manager, EFI.

Steve Urmano, marketing director, Mimaki USA, Inc., believes a designer investing in a digital device is not practical.


High-end printers require daily use, regular maintenance, and are costly, he points out. Conversely, a low-end system does not feature the color accuracy of a high-end device.


Working closely with a PSP allows a designer to determine which methods work best based on their technique. Once the homework is done at the basic expense of paying the PSP to print, a designer should research manufacturers that cater to their needs, shares Marty Silveira, sales manager, DigiFab Systems, Inc.


Designers looking to print on their own should also consider production numbers. Printing one-offs or samples may not require a deeply knowledgeable operator or a costly device, making a purchase financially feasible. However, mass production of a high-end clothing line should be created on a quality machine with an experienced operator to ensure success.


“The amount of production per year, maximum retail cost of the finished end product, and investment in equipment dictates the best approach,” reveals Roland Biemans, sales and marketing manager, Hollanders Printing Systems (HPS). “For some, a high-capacity industrial roll-to-roll system is best. For many it’s enough to work with a system that allows for single-piece, one-off production.”

On the Runway

Nothing screams high profile more than television. When season seven of the popular reality television series, Project Runway—a contest between aspiring fashion designers for a spot to premiere their collections at New York Fashion Week—held a digital printing challenge, it was clear this technology had made its mark in the apparel industry.


Seven contestants were tasked with pinching, rotating, flipping, or dragging various tools across HP’s TouchSmart PCs to create custom textile designs in one hour.


“The HP technology, the way it’s set up, is very basic. I was excited to be able to draw freehand and then see it translated to print,” explains Seth Aaron Henderson, winner, season seven, Project Runway.


He notes that features of the HP technology such as repeating, scaling, and window paning influenced his final design. Unlimited creativity was the appeal. The ability to use your fingers, a paintbrush, or even a shoe, he says, evoked a unique texture.


Once created, contestants printed prototypes on paper to ensure the colors matched the intended design. A color book of fabric swatches was on hand to guarantee desired hues would translate to the final product. All of the files were then sent to a local PSP to create digitally printed textiles.


Dyenamix Inc. of New York City, NY was up to the challenge of a short turnaround and precise color matching for the seven different prints, at two yards each.


Established in 1991, the company’s focus is on high-profile projects for the fashion, interiors, fine art, film, and theatrical industries. In addition to digital print, Dyenamix’s techniques include hand painting, dyeing, silkscreening, foiling, batik, tie dye, and discharge printing. One of the only studios to offer such a range, Raylene Marasco, president, Dyenamix, believes it’s a strength.


“We approach the concepts of each designer with an artistic sensibility. We solve the issues of realizing a design by combining many of the traditional techniques with digital technology,” she explains.


Ten years ago Dyenamix realized the benefits of digital. According to Marasco, technological advancements were opening possibilities for high-quality printing of photographic and watercolor images.


The company was introduced to digital through a trial process of a TX-1600 60-inch printer from Mimaki USA, Inc. When that period ended, it was decided that a 65-inch Mimaki TX2-1600 would complement the shop nicely. Today, multiple TX2-1600s run in the studio, printing directly to fabric with dye inks.


Lifetime Television—the network that televises Project Runway—contacted Dyenamix to exclusively print the contestants’ designs for the digital textile challenge. Tim Gunn, CCO, Liz Claiborne, and mentor on the show, selected two fabrics—cotton twill and cotton sateen—for the contestants to choose from and Dyenamix to print on. The shop stocks 43 types of silks, linens, and cottons—ranging from organza to heavy canvas. To complement Gunn’s fabric choices, reactive dye ink was used.


“We are one of the few studios that provide production-quality fabrics. Due to the history of our services and the quality that we are expected to maintain, we tested many dyes and fabric coatings to determine the combination that was best suited for washability and longevity of color,” notes Marasco.


The day of the challenge, the studio received the files mid-afternoon and printed and delivered the individual designs that same evening, around midnight. The fabric was at the designers’ worktables when they arrived at eight the next morning.


Henderson reflects on the challenge as a whole, stating that it was structured to set yourself apart from the competition, and truly show the judges your design aesthetic. When asked if the open-endness of the challenge made it one of the harder contests of the season, he says it was difficult for designers struggling with their direction.


Although Henderson did not win this particular challenge, he was named winner of the entire season, as announced in April on the finale. Part of the winner’s prize package is a $50,000 technology suite from HP, which includes the TouchSmart PCs.


Currently, Henderson has an active label in small stores along the West Coast. At press time, he conveyed his goal of establishing a manufacturer in Los Angeles, CA and mass producing a line of his clothing by the beginning of the next fashion season.


Digital Fashionistas

Both Henderson and Marasco agree that digitally printed fabric will eventually play a larger role in fashion design. “As technology advancements continue, printers will become faster and find their place in large production runs. The possibilities are endless, once the printers catch up to the industry’s demands,” says Marasco.


In reality, Henderson shares, the process is relatively inexpensive and it’s much easier to create your own fabric than buy it. It prevents you from going into a fabric store and taking a chance that someone else will use the same fabric for his or her collection, he concludes.


To read more about various printers used in the creation of fabric designs, visit and search keyword “System Highlights.” Also, visit the Target Chart section for a Web-exclusive chart on textile printers and corresponding inks and textiles.

Jul2010, Digital Output

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