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Fantastic Fibers

A Look at Digital Textiles

By Gretchen A. Peck

Analyst firm I.T. Strategies began studying digitally printed textiles at the advent of the market’s evolution, starting with the introduction of large format aqueous inkjet printers, and shortly thereafter with dedicated textile printers. “We published a report, and made the incorrect assumption that graphics printers would find a home in the graphic arts and the textile printers would be bought by textile companies for sampling and short runs,” explains Patti Williams, consulting partner, I.T. Strategies.

 

It proved to be an inaccurate assumption because the printing of textiles largely left North America and Europe to nations that could operate inexpensively.

The textile manufacturers that remained focused on long runs and mass-produced products and didn’t show any real interest in digital printing. However, digital textile devices sold and became adopted by photo labs and fine art reproduction businesses. “It was a perfect fit, because those companies were ready to deal with digital printing,” suggests Williams. “They knew about digital files and how to sell the service.”

 

It wasn’t just the high-end art market that took a liking to digital devices capable of printing on fabrics like canvas and polyesters. The sign market started to take a keen interest in those technologies as well.

 

“One of the big advantages is it isn’t vinyl,” explains Williams. “One print shop owner saved a customer a couple hundred thousand dollars in trade show booth shipping because she switched the company from rigid-backed trade show displays to fabric signage.” Another key factor, sustainability. Initially, the attraction to fabric was not about eco-friendliness. However, Williams states this continues to become a bigger issue.

 

Today, digital textile printers have found a home not with the textiles and apparels market for which they may have been originally intended, but instead within the sign industry.

 

On the Best Seller List

Fabric products created for digital printing are vast and manufacturers tout years of experience in providing textiles for print service providers (PSPs).

 

Aberdeen Fabrics, Inc. develops fabric-based media for several digital print processes across a spectrum of output intentions—everything from table drape, flag, and banner fabrics to hanging and wall banners and products such as a poly-Spandex stretch material designed for trade show exhibits.

 

Almost the entire Aberdeen textile product line is offered with pre-treatment to provide sharp images and a bold color gamut for direct inkjet dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printing.

 

However, Tim Gallagher, president, Aberdeen, admits that “transfer dye-sub printers are the majority of what is used in the market, and the Aberdeen product line is offered for this printing process as well. Key to the line is consistency in shrink value—the lowest possible, white point of the base material, and overall quality control of the fabric from yarn through finishing.”

 

Aberdeen also develops fabrics for use with the latest direct inkjet latex wide format printers, such as the Hewlett-Packard (HP) Designjet L65500 and L25500.

 

“Our best selling products are Act II for dye-sub and Malibu Canvas GF for solvent printing,” notes Michael Richardson, director of sales/marketing, print media, Aurora Specialty Textiles Group, Inc.

 

Act II is a plain-weave, 7.5-ounce fabric with a canvas-like texture scoured and heat set for dye-sub printing, but is also appropriate for direct, UV-curable digital printing. Malibu Canvas GF is ideal for UV or solvent grand format printing. The high-quality acrylic coating allows for fine detail at an economical price.

 

Dazian LLC’s Eco Grid Mesh is an eco-friendly fabric for dye-sub printing. It is described as a coarse architectural grid mesh made with 100 percent recycled poly. Eco-Janus, an environmentally friendly alternative to the company’s Janus, is a medium-weight IFR poplin fabric.

 

“Our fabric offers high quality, with little or no defects. Most styles are available with multiple flame retardant (FR) certifications,” explains James Gay, director of marketing, Fisher Textiles, Inc.

 

Fisher Textiles’ best sellers are its GF 4417 Soft Knit (FR), a wrinkle-resistant, 100 percent polyester; GF 4480 Heavy Knit (FR), also a 100 percent polyester, wrinkle-resistant fabric; GF 4853 Sheer (FR), a warp-knit fabric often used for banner and trade show applications; and 8799 Firesafe 3 (FR), as a woven, texturized yarn fabric that is 100-polyester, made with 41 percent FR yarn.

 

At press time, Fisher Textiles was preparing to introduce DD 9374 Tri Poly—a coated version of its popular GF 8874 Tri Poplin (FR), for direct dispersed printing. Direct disperse fabrics from Fisher Textiles feature a special coating that allows for direct printing onto the fabric and eliminates the need for heat transfer paper.

 

Popular products from Mehler Texnologies include VALMEX Frontlit, Mesh, Blockout, and Airtex lines. “The frontlits offer great lay flat with no edge curl and consistent coating. The meshes feature great strength, printability, are easily welded, and widely used in outdoor airport fence signage, building wraps, and large hanging signage,” explains Richard Stepien, CEO, Mehler.

 

Mehler’s blockout or opaque fabrics are identical, front to back, and double-sided printable, which ensures no bleed out or squish when welded. All of the fabrics are acrylic top-coated on both sides to improve ink adhesion, retard plasticizer migration, and aid in cleanability.

 

Neschen Americas offers fabrics from its PureColor and SolvoTex lines. “VersaFabric and Monet Canvas are two of the most popular products in our Pure Color line of media,” confides Tiffany Guard, product manager, inkjet media, Neschen.

 

VersaFabric is a seven-ounce, 100 percent polyester fabric with a specialty coating. It is ideal for both indoor and outdoor applications where color, wrinkle resistance, and drape are important. Monet is a heavyweight, ten-ounce coated canvas with a prominent tooth, ideal for giclée art reproductions, as well as point of purchase (POP) signage, museum displays, interior decorating, and store signage.

 

Among the best selling fabrics in Neschen’s SolvoTex media range are Artist Premium Heavy S—a heavy canvas textile—and SolvoTex PVC Supreme Mesh, a closed-hole mesh that is PVC-coated on both sides. In early 2010, SolvoTex Artist 310XC was launched. It is a 100 percent polyester with a heavy canvas structure, ideal for murals and theatrical backdrops. It replaces Neschen’s SolvoTex Artist 310.

 

Pacific Coast Fabrics (PCF) offers Deko-Tex 7057FLBS, a 100 percent polyester banner fabric that provides “soft graphics with excellent print definition, and is extremely durable in all environments,” shares Jeff Sanders, digital sales, western U.S., PCF. PSPs rely on it for banners, point of sale (POS) displays, trade show graphics, and even fine art reproductions.

 

The company’s Polyester Taffeta 9988FLBS is a 100 percent polyester fabric ideal for flags, banners, POP, and trade shows. It is lightweight and provides superior print definition with a silky hand.

 

Introduced at SGIA 2010, PCF’s Deco-Structure 7582FLBS is a non-optic white, 100 percent polyester fabric “similar to Poly Duck, but with a unique surface texture and soft hand,” adds Sanders. “The textured surface provides excellent print definition, and is ideally suited for portrait and close-up visual renderings.” It’s available in 60- and 120-inch widths.

 

“Our best selling textile is UltraPoplin PES C420,” notes Jaime Giannantonio, marketing manager, Ultraflex Systems, Inc. It is a polyester poplin textile bath coated and then coated again on one side for a universal print surface, allowing for printing solvent and UV on one side and UV and dye-sub on the other. This fabric is crease- and wrinkle-free.

 

“UltraTex Blockout C335 is a new textile in our line, which was brought in to meet the demands for a blockout textile in wide widths,” notes Giannantonio. This product is available up to five meters wide and features near-exact surfaces on both sides, and a black, blockout liner in between for ultimate double-sided printability.


Dreaming in Tension

Fabric Images, located in Elgin, IL, was ahead of the pack when it came to digital fabric printing. It was as far back as 1992 when the company first got into dye-sub printing with the largest solution at the time—a 60-inch inkjet printer specially retrofitted with dye-sub “guts,” recalls Valerie Weidner, material resources liaison, Fabric Images. By 2001, the company invested in its first transfer press from Italy. Today it relies on three HP Scitex XL1500 printers and a Mimaki USA, Inc. JV33-260 to produce tension fabric architecture.

 

“For years, our bread-and-butter was trade show graphics,” recalls Weidner. “But over the last two years we’ve received more requests for permanent installations, architectural design spaces, and retail displays.”

 

The obvious benefits of working with fabrics instead of traditional display materials, such as vinyl-based media, are readily apparent to Fabric Images’ customers, notes Weidner. But the greatest barrier to the sales process is educating clients about the diverse array of fabrics from which they can choose.

 

“It used to be, when people thought of tension fabric architecture, they thought that the fabric needed to have a high concentration of Spandex. But many of the materials we use have just a little bit of stretch. So that’s the biggest challenge we face; showing samples of fabric to customers who ask, ‘How are you going to take that and make it look like a wall?’ That’s when we explain how sewing plays a critical role, and we’re fortunate to have skilled sewers on staff here,” explains Weidner.

 

While she makes the selling process seem quite simple, it is due to hard work behind the scenes on behalf of the client.

 

When talking about fabrics, you’re really talking about dressing your brand. As the material research liaison, it’s my job to continually seek out new fabrics and support the sales force and the customers during the creative process,” notes Weidner.

 

She acknowledges that, with so many new fabrics for print coming to market, it can be an overwhelming, yet creatively challenging to find just the right substrate. “We look at all sorts of industries for inspiration, like upholstery, theater, and dance costumes,” she exclaims. “Sometimes it’s not just a matter of selecting a single fabric. We’ve used multiple fabrics lately—layering them, such as using a translucent fabric over another with the printed graphic—to achieve the perfect aesthetic.”

 

Though deep knowledge of equipment, ink, and fabric provide a good foundation for any print service supplier interested in textile printing, Weidner suggests that there are other skills necessary to success—specifically, a highly skilled team of sewers and finishers; the ability to transform printed graphics into actual displays; and the talent to help the customers’ creative visions.

 

Making an Impact

It was 1993 when Blaine, MN-based Visual Impact Signs, Inc. opened its doors and set out to make its name in hand-painted signage. “It wasn’t long before we realized we would be out of a job unless we started printing,” recalls Alan Mortenson, GM, Visual Impact.

 

The business model change prompted an investment in a NUR Wideboard—a five-meter printer—that enabled the shop to become a “full-service, grand format print shop,” notes Mortenson.

 

Today, the company is best known for large format graphics designed for sports facilities and special events. It also produces its fair share of vehicle wraps, fence mesh, and seamless walls murals. Its equipment expanded and evolved Mortenson reports, and now includes: a NUR Expedio; a HP Scitex XLJet; HP Scitex TJ8500; an EFI VUTEk QS3200; and HP Designjet 9000 and 10000. An EskoArtwork Kongsberg router, Advanced Greig Laminators, Inc. AGL 6400 laminator, and a FIAB HF AB welder support finishing needs.

 

Mortenson estimates that it was approximately five years ago when Visual Impact’s clients began to inquire about the use of fabrics for big print jobs, and textile manufacturers began to educate the PSP about new fabric media suitable for indoor and outdoor large format graphics. Most notably, the company’s clients choose fabric as an alternative to vinyl-based media for projects such as wall murals, backdrops, and retail signage. The PSP relies on the UV-curable NUR Expedio and EFI VUTEk QS3200 to produce them.

 

Among the fabric its clients prefer are Aurora Specialty’s Act II and Malibu Canvas GF, which Mortenson credits with good ink adhesion and color reproduction.

 

“In the case of Act II, we really like the repurposing of recycled pop bottles in its production,” shares Mortenson. “Our customers usually defer to us to use the most appropriate material.” Other materials used are Neschen SolvoTex TCS Flag Plus, SolvoTex Theatre 310 Plus, and SolvoTex Artist 310XC.

 

Stay Tuned

Dene H. Taylor, Ph.D., principal/founder, Specialty Papers & Films, Inc., a consulting firm based in New Hope, PA, recalls that more than a decade ago transfer and direct dye-sub processes were the only option for PSPs interested in printing on textiles. Today, even UV-curable printers are becoming more adept.

 

“UV technology has an opportunity, but I believe we need to wait for some different inks,” forewarns Taylor.

 

There’s nothing about the market, however, to indicate that consumable or equipment manufacturers will suddenly become complacent about introducing new products to satisfy digital print suppliers’ and customers’ needs.

 

As equipment manufacturers create better and faster systems, and ink manufacturers introduce more versatile and environmentally friendly inks, the media makers will surely keep the pace and bring to market new media and coatings to satisfy the growing appetite for fantastic fibers.

 

Nov2010, Digital Output

 
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