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Digitally Printed Textiles

New Opportunities for Print Service Providers

By Thomas Franklin

For traditional print service providers (PSPs), fabric printing creates new opportunities—not just in the display and graphics market, but for higher end applications. For instance, PSPs offer digitally printed bedding, curtains, window treatments, and even shower curtains—all color coordinated thanks to one digital print run—for applications such as hotel interiors.

PSPs constantly look to diversify their offerings. Another option is to provide textile printing—direct or dye-sublimation (dye-sub)—to garment designers. Instead of sending handmade designs overseas for a short-run sample, designers can partner with U.S.-based printers to produce a washable, marketable item for enticing potential customers.

Traditional mills have minimum yardage requirements and lengthy turnaround times. Stateside printers promise to cut costs and deliver products quickly. “It’s cost-effective to design digitally,” explains Steve Greaves, president, DigiFab Systems, Inc.

Short-run production is increasingly possible, says Michael Katz, president, Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems. Designers looking to produce exclusive products don’t want the hassle and expense of the traditional textile business model. “The money in fabrics is a gold mine and a watershed for digital printers. It’s keeping an industry in the U.S.,” observes Katz.

As the U.S. catches up with Europe, more apparel—ties, scarves, swimsuits, etc.—will fall to digital printers. “We are probably ten to 15 years behind what they’re doing in Europe,” says Mike Sanders, VP, Pacific Coast Fabrics. The chemistry is all ready, he adds, it’s just a matter of the hardware catching on.

“We are always looking for the next hot thing,” says Sanjay Sakhuja, founder, DPI, based in San Francisco, CA. The company began offering digitally printed textiles two years ago—both direct and transfer prints—for signage, apparel, and interior markets. “What people look for are solutions. You need to offer printing and finishing,” he continues.

What’s New
Fabrics for digital printing are in large demand and manufacturers are answering the call.

3P InkJet Textiles AG reached out to buyers with the Value line of 100 percent polyester fabrics for aqueous and solvent dye-sub. Fabrics for both transfer and direct printing include gloss, satin, flag, and taft.

Aurora Specialty Textiles Group, Inc. helps protect the environment with its Weaves of Green fabric line, made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic—like water bottles. The first product in the line is the 7.5-ounce Act II. It is a plain weave polyester for dye-sub transfer or direct printing, available in 60 or 120-inch widths.

Cooley Group pulled its Dynajex textile line from the market but is currently sampling new fabrics and may launch new textiles early next year, shares Bryan Rose, VP of sign and digital products, Cooley. Recently, the sign and awning division introduced Weathertyte Lite, an 11-ounce waterproof awning substrate.

DigiFab’s Cotton Canvas was recently honored by the Digital Printing and Imaging (DPI) Association with a DPI Product of the Year award. All fabrics from DigiFab are custom treatable, the company developed several different coatings for each fabric/fiber group to maximize print quality.

Capitalizing on the rising interest in eco-friendly products, Fisher Textiles Inc. launched a new line of fabrics using recycled materials. The ENVIRO-Tex line uses repreve recycled polyester yarns from NC-based Unifi and is available in seven varieties with sizes up to 125 inches wide.

Jacquard offers a range of fabrics—polyester, silk, cotton, linen, and nylon—with two coating options. One product, FabriSign, is geared toward traditional signage applications and does not require steaming to set color. Its coating accepts any water-based ink and fabric and produces a water resistant image. For other applications requiring a washable product, the company recommends its ProCoat coating.

Neschen Americas continues to supply grand format printers—95 inches or wider—with printable textiles and recently began targeting printers under 98 inches, explains Andreas DeGroot, product manager, Neschen. Printers under 98 inches wide typically can’t generate enough heat required to flash ink off the textile so the company introduced a new coating on five polyester and poly-cloth-base textiles in the Pure Color product line.

Pabric Inkjet Printable Fabric, a relatively new entrant into the market, sells fabric up to 54 inches wide. This includes Pabric Soft, a 99 percent polyester fabric for dye-sub printing.

Pacific Coast offers a new line of fabrics for window treatments—Deco Flag 60-50J, which allows people to see out, but not in. The company is also the North American distributor for the European-based Georg + Otto Friedrich—a premium textile line.

Ultraflex Systems, Inc. recently began offering textiles in sizes from 54 to 198 inches for UV, solvent, and dye-sub printers. The line includes UltraTex Organic, made from 100 percent organic plant fiber, which is biodegradable and recyclable. The company’s East German partner created an environmentally stringent manufacturing process to ensure an environmentally sustainable approach from input to output, says Dwight Bessette, VP of product and business development, Ultraflex.

Offering Digital Textile Variety
The role of innovator has its privileges. For years, Dani Locastro co-founder, First2Print, immersed herself in the intersection of textiles and technology. Prior to co-founding First2Print with colleague Neil Breslau, she was a consultant working with clients such as Liz Claiborne and Gap, helping fashion company designers integrate CAD and digital fabric printing into their product development cycle.

First2Print currently stands at the epicenter of digital textile printing—or rather, epicenters, with offices in New York, NY and Los Angeles, CA. The company’s work is featured on Fashion Week runways, in Vogue, and on the big screen. The firm printed the black suit worn by Toby Maguire in Spiderman 3. The shop is no stranger to the small screen either. Its interior design skills were put to the test for an episode of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, when the company produced pillow shams, a bedcover, and curtains to adorn a renovated bedroom.

All of this was made possible by digital technology and an acute understanding of customer needs.

Founded in 2000, First2Print boasts an array of wide format printers from DuPont, Encad, Mimaki USA, Inc., and Mutoh America, Inc. Specific printers include a Mimaki TX2-1600 and a DuPont Artistri. It partners with DigiFab for treated textiles and uses the company’s heat welder and textile RIP. The list of fabric used is voluminous—from cotton twill and silk charmeuse to polyester poplin and everything in between.

From hardware to inks to RIPs, the theme at First2Print is consistent—variety. “We use anything we can get our hands on because our business varies between client, fabric, and image types,” shares Locastro.

A good portion of the company’s business is sampling—providing printed fabrics for traditional manufacturers to shop around to retail buyers. The company also provides short-run production, usually between 30 and 300 yards of made-in-the-U.S. clothing or textiles.

The product, she says, is “washable, wearable, and retailable.” For designers, such short runs are used as exclusives and limited editions. They print using dye-based inks for sampling, and acid, reactive, and dye-sub for production.

While the garment industry continues to enthusiastically embrace digital textile printing, interior designers are a bit slower to adopt, observes Locastro. “Architectural firms get it, but interior designers are used to their swatch book.” She estimates it will take design firms a bit longer to adapt to this type of print run.

Breaking into either market requires more than just the right hardware, the right mindset is needed. “Printing graphics is a two-dimensional world. This is three-dimensional,” she explains.

The printing is the easiest part of the process. “It’s coordinating the pre-treatment, ensuring that the gray goods are consistent, and understanding the post-processing requirements.” Color matching is fully customized, Locastro adds.

Keeping tabs on your supply chain is also a must, as pre-treated textiles have a limited shelf life. “There are many puzzle pieces,” she concludes.

Digitally Designed Hospitality
Greenville, SC-based Manx, Inc. actually originated in the U.K. before transferring to the U.S. in 1995. The company is the digital short-run arm of Castle Industries, a commission rotary screen press textile mill.

“When we started, the idea was to support the screen production machines,” says Mike Hollis, president, Manx. The company initially provided digital textiles and furnishings for high-end hotels and motels, providing cost savings to customers looking for limited yardage.

“When they only need 400 or 500 yards, it’s better to do it digitally,” Hollis explains. The bedspreads, pillow cases, drapes, comforters, and shower curtains can all be harmonized. Rather than source expensive cotton fabrics with the latest designs from Italy or Paris, the hotels can bring them in to be reproduced on lower cost polyester, shares Hollis.

If a Manx customer requires longer runs, they are handed off to Castle.

While servicing the hotel industry remains the company’s mainstay, it has evolved to offer sportswear, gaming tables, banners, and art reproduction. “Athletic and team apparel is really coming on,” Hollis adds.

The company, which boasts ten employees and 10,000 square feet of space, employs several Mimaki printers, JV4s, and stocks a range of polyester fabric for dye-sub transfer printing. While the company has examined direct to fabric printers, for now, it’s sticking with heat transfer. “It’s what we know and are comfortable with,” says Hollis. The company provides finishing services for banners and works with partners for finishing interior design and garment products.

Castle “took a very ‘green’ approach from day one, in 1995,” says Hollis. For its production center, recycling was the watchword. That was continued at Manx.

“We reuse everything,” Hollis shares.

High-end customers are well versed in digital textile printing. Digital short runs keep business inside the U.S. “It is very attractive for customers to print fabric in the U.S.,” adds Hollis. They save in shipping and freight costs.

Sampled Print
In business, agility is decisive. When Willetta De Young founded Eco Digital Printer (EDP) Textiles in 2004, after a long stint in textile research and development for mass merchant Target, she had grand plans to reach interior designers. “I spent two and half years trying to build a business in that market,” she says. Yet, she discovered a major disconnect between how interior designers and other graphics professionals work.

Interior designers were less interested in building designs from the ground up—working in the blank and expansive pallet that digital printing offers—and more focused on collaborative work with their clients.

So, De Young pivoted. She began to provide customized products for commercial interiors and sampling for garment makers.

Now, she says, “I pay an awful lot of bills by printing samples.” She developed a line of branded textiles that incorporates a corporate identity onto a host of textile-based products—bags, shirts, etc. Last year, she began to promote the environmental benefits of digital textile printing to an increasingly receptive audience of fashion designers.

The Minneapolis, MN-based EDP uses a DuPont Artistri 2020 printer with dispersive inks for polyester and corn-based textiles, and pigment inks for cottons, linens, silk, and bamboo. The later has been quite popular for active wear manufacturers, shares De Young.

One challenge for printers targeting the fashion market is the relative lack of textiles, she says. The flag and banner market is well supplied, but “fashion people want different fabrics,” De Young points out.

Another challenge in textile printing is overcoming the preconceptions of customers. “In the U.S., we were very eager to throw the textile industry overseas. So when you’re a U.S.-based company, it can be difficult. Many customers don’t believe digitally printed textiles will hold up to performance testing in terms of lightfastness and durability. They think the colors will wash off.”

Digital holds great promise for textiles. “It’s quicker, cleaner, and safer. You can accomplish a lot more with your designs. And I can deliver it much faster than a plant overseas,” De Young concludes.

Fashion Forward
Digital textile printing offers traditional graphics suppliers a high-end, environmentally sensitive alternative to PVC signs and banners.

For those in search of new markets, textile printing opens the door to garment sampling, commercial interiors, and more.

While digital print will never overcome production textile printing, it provides a prosperous niche for stateside printers to flourish. PSPs looking to grow their business might find it helpful to adopt any one of these innovative applications. All of which are considered profitable and environmentally friendly.

Jan2009, Digital Output

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