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Custom Textiles

Technological Advancements Create Innovative Applications

By Kim Crowley

Textiles are a soft alternative to more traditional media used to print signage. With digital large format printing technologies short runs and on demand turnaround is an option.

The benefits and beauty of printing on fabric are apparent. As technology and print buyers mature, digital textile printing usage continues to grow. According to I.T. Strategies’ Research on Emerging Print Markets: Digital Textile Forecast 2008, vendor revenue for hardware, media, and ink from digital textile printers will grow from one billion dollars in 2007 to $2.4 billion by 2012, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18 percent. I.T. Strategies also predicts that the value of the printed output from digital textile printers will grow from $1.9 billion in 2007 to $6.1 billion in 2012, a CAGR of 27 percent.

In this three-part article on digital textile printing we cover print processes, trends, and end users creating everything from banners to garments. The first part of our series provides an overview of textile printing technologies.

Dye-Sublimation Transfer
The dye-sublimation (dye-sub) transfer process prints graphics in reverse on transfer or carrier paper, which is then transferred to polyester fabric using a roll-to-roll heat press. Heating creates a chemical reaction that bonds the ink to the fabric.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) offers the HP Scitex XL1500 dye-sub upgrade kit, which allows print service providers (PSPs) to easily enter the textile printing market with minimal capital investment. “The upgrade kit delivers high-quality textile signs that can be washed or dry cleaned without affecting quality,” says Grad Rosenbaum, VP, North American Signage Business, HP.

When the HP Scitex XL1500 upgrade kit is used solvent sublimation ink is printed onto a sublimation transfer sheet and then the sheet runs a heat transfer at 402 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 to 40 seconds, putting it in direct contact with the desired textile. “During this time, the ink turns into a gas, and the gas is pushed outward to the textile substrate and creates a chemical bond,” says Rosenbaum. This process is similar to most dye-sub transfer printers. After the print is completed, the textile is separated from the transfer paper using a different press.

“Dye-sub transfer printing yields the highest quality image and best color on polyester substrates, but requires the expense of transfer paper, as well as an investment in a transfer press,” admits Andrew Oransky, director of product management, Roland DGA Corporation. Roland’s Hi-Fi Express FP-740 is a 74-inch printer equipped with eight piezoelectric printheads. HeatWave SBL2 ink is specially formulated for the printheads and ink delivery system to eliminate clogging, print defects, and color issues often associated with third party ink.

Although dye-sub transfer traditionally works best with polyester fabrics due to ink limitations, manufacturers are working to expand the market. The ColorTextiler 64DS from Seiko I Infotech is a dye-sub printer using oil-based ink. The printer is specifically for entry-level digital service bureaus. It prints on media up to 64 inches wide at 720x540 dpi. According to Seiko, the ColorTextiler’s ink provides longer lightfastness on polyester fabric compared to typical water-based dye-sub ink.

EFI VUTEk offers oil- or solvent-based devices for printing onto transfer paper or directly onto textiles. The VUTEk FabriVu superwide printer is an oil-based dye-sub solution. Another alternative is the VUTEk 3360 with the Fusion option, which uses UltraTex solvent dye-sub ink.

“The Fusion option enables customers to easily switch between traditional solvent and dye-sub solvent inks in a single printer without much waste,” says Chuck Dourlet, VP of marketing, EFI VUTEk. Changeover from traditional solvent to dye-sub takes about 15 minutes.

Direct Dye-Sub
Another option is a dye-sub printer that prints directly to fabric, rather than to a transfer paper. A coated fabric is often necessary when printing direct dye-sub to control dot gain, which may add an extra expense. “Anybody in traditional dye-sub transfer looks at direct dye-sub and says, ‘Great! I can eliminate the cost of transfer paper.’ They are not taking into consideration that direct printing fabric has to be coated. Once you coat the fabric, the cost of the coating actually replaces the cost of paper,” explains Michael Labella, product manager, US Sublimation. The company manufactures the Velotex line of direct dye-sub printers.

“Direct dye-sub is commonly used because it increases productivity,” explains Patti Williams, consulting partner, I.T. Strategies. The removal of transfer paper from the finished output is eliminated, speeding up the process. When a direct dye-sub device incorporates an inline heat fixation system, the amount of fabric handling time is also reduced, shares Mike McEvoy, director of commercialization, Sawgrass Technologies, Inc.

Splash of Color offers the HeatWave DFP-74 direct to fabric printers, which utilize a Roland print engine in combination with a media feeding system and an on board sublimation unit. A precision feeding system draws digital information from the printer, enabling adjustment on the fly. The HeatWave system is equipped with a heated Teflon covered steel cylinder, which handles the act of sublimation.

Image quality differs between direct dye-sub and dye-sub transfer. Typically, dye-sub transfer produces a crisper output. “Transfer paper generates a better line definition and sharper images because the dot gain on paper is controllable. Ink wants to wick into fibers and spread out on a textile. Without the transfer paper to prevent this from happening, dot gain becomes uncontrollable,” states RJ Sullivan, product manager, EFI VUTEk.

Direct Digital Print
To print on natural fibers such as silk or cotton the sublimation process is not an ideal alternative, due to ink compatibility and dot gain. Instead, a digital printer places a dye directly onto pre-treated fabric during the actual printing process. The type of fabric determines the best ink choice. A reactive dye is used on cotton, while acid dyes are used for fabrics such as silk and wool. Textiles produced by direct digital print then go through a finishing process, which includes steaming, washing, and drying.

Mimaki USA, Inc. manufacturers the TX2-1600 and GP-604D for direct digital printing. The TX2 creates high-quality output at 720 dpi with either reactive or acid dye ink. The GP-604D is primarily used for printing directly to t-shirts using textile pigment ink.

Digitally printed textiles drive productivity. “Color activation and printing are done simultaneously. There is no need for separate steaming or heat activation. This is a revolution and evolution,” says Kilhun Lee, CEO/president, d.gen.

The Heracle textile printer prints at up to 460 square feet per hour. “Limitations on speed originally masked the true benefits of digital textile printing,” says Lee. “Because of speed limitations, digital textile printers were only used for sampling. Now, printers like the Heracle are fast enough for mass production.” d.gen also manufacturers the Teleois line of direct textile printers.

The amount of labor required to finish a textile after it is directly digitally printed is deterrent to wide spread adoption. “New ink technologies requiring no post-processing will grow the market for digital textile printing,” explains Williams. “The ability to print directly onto natural fabrics without post-processing will expand current opportunities in signage as well as open new areas such as furnishings and apparel to current and new print shops,” she adds.

Sawgrass recently released the new M-Textile water-based, pigment, binder-free ink, which is specially formulated with reactive elements enabling binding to all fabrics—natural and synthetic. Others may argue that inks used to print direct digital are more expensive, however ink price has little to do with the overall print cost. “Ink quality has a much better impact on total costs. An ink that runs better in a machine reduces maintenance costs and improves uptime. An ink that dries faster produces crisper dots,” explains McEvoy.

The HP Designjet L65500 printer with HP Latex Inks prints directly to textiles and eliminates the need for further processing. “A one-step process delivers excellent productivity. Due to this integrated solution, the ink is dry immediately after printing,” explains HP’s Rosenbaum.

Mark Sawchak, textile product manager, conVerd, explains the cost savings associated with direct fabric printers like conVerd’s Green Machine P3. “As far as printing direct versus sublimation in terms of cost, you eliminate transfer paper, which runs from $0.07 to $0.10 per square foot. Plus there is no excess ink left on the media which translates to lower ink consumption. In general you can expect a cost savings of $.10 to $.12 per square foot by printing directly onto untreated fabrics,” he shares.

Gandinnovations launched the Aquajet textile printer last year. The solution prints on any polyester-based fabric using water-based inks. Pre-treatment is required on some fabrics before printing. The Aquajet features a built-in infrared heater, rather than a separate system. “We feel there is better control on the quality of the output with a built-in infrared heater. It eliminates relying on another product,” admits Cory Brock, director of marketing, Gandinnovations.

In May, Graphics One, LLC (GO) began shipment of the GO RIO TX 42-inch direct to fabric printer, designed specifically for the flag and banner market. Priced at $14,995, the RIO TX images on multiple types of fabric with an integrated, high-performance ink delivery system, fabric drying system, and fabric media handling system. The RIO TX uses GO’s Xtreme Ink.

Your Design—By the Yard
“About a year and a half ago my wife asked if I knew of a company that would allow her to design her own fabric. I’m an Internet geek, but my wife is an avid crafter who loves fabric and sewing,” says Stephen Fraser, co-founder, Spoonflower. The exchange led to the birth of Spoonflower, a company that produces short runs of on demand custom fabric for order over the Internet.

Printing custom fabrics struck Fraser as an intriguing idea. “The Web is a pretty good front end for designing everything from coffee mugs to shirts, calendars, and photo books. Why not fabric,” he asks.

After some research, Fraser and co-founder Gart Davis launched as a beta site in June 2008. “Although Davis and I were both newcomers to printing and textiles, we had a bit of experience because we were part of the team that built—an on demand book publishing company,” explains Fraser. Enthusiasm from the online crafting community was overwhelming, so the site opened to the public in October 2008. Currently over 28,000 people use the site and the company employs seven in its Mebane, NC headquarters.

Customers use Spoonflower to create everything from clothing and bags to dolls and cloth books. An average fabric order is about two yards. “Our customers are perhaps best described as crafters, but within that generalization there are quilters, graphic designers, interior decorators, clothing designers, artists, and professional textile folks,” says Fraser.

Spoonflower prints directly onto cotton fabric using pigment inks with a modified Mutoh America, Inc printer by Yuhan-Kimberly of Korea. The inks are nanocolorants printed onto untreated fabric. At press time, Spoonflower was actively negotiating the addition of several new printers, considering two of Yuhan-Kimberly’s MC3 printers. They also started a product test with a Mimaki textile printer and a new set of pigment inks from Sawgrass. Fabrics include cotton Moda from United Notions and Kona from Robert Kaufman Fabrics.

Fraser admits textile printing has its unique issues. “Maintaining our equipment and consistent quality is an enormous challenge for us. Banding is our most vexing problem, but we’ve also had trouble with fabric feeding and sourcing fabric that is well-suited for digital printing,” he states.

Garments created at Spoonflower handle wash and wear well, although Fraser says once or twice a fabric’s finish slightly impairs washability and crockfastness—transfer of dye.

Illustrator, surface pattern designer, and art teacher Samantha Hahn serves clients ranging from Glamour magazine to card shops like Hallmark and indie fashion companies like Vaute Couture. Hahn also pens a blog called Maquette about art, style, and design. “I have a variety of styles. Each client lets me know which they are interested in for an editorial spread, greeting card, lookbook, or fabric,” says Hahn. She learned about Spoonflower through an assignment commissioned by Craft Magazine. The magazine asked her to design a fabric to test out Spoonflower. She loved the result and proceeded to create fabric for her own use, specifically to re-upholstered a chair.

Since her introduction to Spoonflower, Hahn has ordered about 15 yards of custom printed fabric and found new ways to enhance her business. She collaborated with bookmaker Tyler Bender on some journals made with fabric and received inquires from people looking to buy her prints for their own projects.

Jill Baron, another Spoonflower customer, is a freelance illustrator who produces custom invitations, caricatures, children’s book and game illustrations. Baron collaborates with friend and seamstress Lucy Bohnsack. “Bohnsack makes beautiful hand-sewn stuffed animals out of wild vintage fabrics and vintage buttons for eyes,” says Baron. “After showing her the Spoonflower Web site, she thought of doing a limited edition featured artist line.” Baron prints her illustrations on fabric and Bohnsack sews them into stuffed animals.

Unlimited Possibilities
New areas of possibility are unleashed by transfer dye-sub and direct dye-sub processes and printing directly to textiles with the use of a digital printer. Although each technology has its pros and cons, all three provide PSPs with unlimited potential for innovative applications.

Spoonflower is a perfect example of this. Short run, on demand printing is pushing creative professionals to market their designs in a cost-effective way. Advancements in ink and speed accommodate digital printing as the next big player in the textile market.

Next month we review the growing fabric market in more detail—spotlighting the demand for printed fabrics in the apparel and interior design industries. Also, we discuss the challenges of printing on fabric, as well as its environmental benefits.

Jul2009, Digital Output

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