Digitally printed textile applications promote durability, mobility, and customization. To print onto fabric, print service providers (PSPs) utilize either direct digital print or dye-sublimation (dye-sub) methods. Depending on end use, a digitally printed textile could end up on stage or as a tablecloth. A PSP’s expertise and knowledge of the printing method as well as a thorough understanding of the ink’s reaction to fabric is key to producing optimal results.
Direct-to-Rock ‘n’ Roll
Sew What? Inc. is a premiere provider of custom-sewn theatrical drapes and fabrics for the entertainment and special events industries. In addition to serving prominent entertainment figures with stage graphics, the company manufactures curtains for elementary, middle and high schools; community theatres; church and college auditoriums; trade shows; fashion shows; and conferences.
Incorporated in 2001, Sew What is headquartered in Rancho Dominguez, CA, serving a worldwide clientele. With a staff of approximately 30 employees and one location, the company primarily focuses on providing backdrops and other textile elements for music tours.
Sew What employs a ten-foot wide EFI VUTEk wide format printer to produce direct to fabric output. In addition to printed materials—as large as 30x40 and 30x60 feet—they offer non-printed services. Before implementing digital print, Sew What realized an increased need for high-quality, large scale digital print options from a provider that knew the market and its specific needs. This pushed the company to focus on that side of its business. Since the implementation of the VUTEk two years ago, the company experienced a steady growth in demand for its digital printing services, which serves as a strong complement to its non-printed offerings.
Lynda Vaughn, GM, Sew What, says much of the business ties together. She explains that many customers purchase both printed and non-printed elements for one job. “They often come to us with a set design and we help them achieve it through digital printing and non-printed drapery and other soft goods. They usually have a vision, but rely on us to help them figure out how to accomplish it,” she adds.
The company feels the direct to fabric method is the best fit for its client’s needs, although they are familiar with dye-sub. “We have worked with dye-sub in the past, but we prefer direct to fabric printing. We find that at this point the technology is such that you can achieve a similar resolution quality to dye-sub, when in the past that may not have been the case. We get excellent print quality with direct to textile printing, and it is more cost effective,” says Vaughn.
Digital printing influences many industries, including music concerts. At one time, all stage graphics were hand painted. While it is still done on occasion, Sew What is now able to offer affordable and versatile backdrops completed within a short turnaround time. Vaughn estimates that many backdrops are printed, sewn, and out the door in a matter of days compared to the weeks it takes to produce hand painted products.
After the printed graphics are in a client’s hands, Sew What hangs its reputation on its ability to provide quality products that withstand trying conditions. Fabric has a lot to do with a graphic’s longevity, and its reaction to the appropriate ink can help a product resist wrinkling and ink cracking. Because of this, Sew What tends to choose fabrics with little or no coating.
Because different ink and media combinations offer varying results, Sew What has completed extensive testing with a number of different fabrics to see which materials they feel offer the best color saturation as well as minimal ink cracking and wrinkling on the end product. “Regardless of what inks you use there are always going to be differing appearances depending on the media,” says Vaughn.
In addition to output quality, durability is essential to Sew What’s clients. The company’s digital direct to textile approach provides the versatility needed to achieve the best results. “A music tour may go on for six months to a year and a half. These large backdrops are put up and taken down every night. They travel all over the world, so the fabric needs to be extremely durable. It’s not something that gets hung up and not touched for a while, or hung up for a few days and then put away. It has to withstand a lot of wear and tear,” says Vaughn. “When something can withstand a tour of 50 states and 20 countries in a year and a half and sustain the look it had at the beginning, that’s a durable, high-quality product,” she concludes.
Hospitality brands rely on a mix of quality, comfort, and style to support an image. MANX, Inc. offers digital dye-sub fabric printing bedspreads and curtains. They company also offers dye-sub printed activewear, athletic apparel, banners, gaming tables, and home furnishings. MANX is a digital-based PSP that sprang from its parent company Castle Industries LLC, a rotary screen sublimation printer. The company celebrates 12 years in digital dye-sub printing, making them well versed in their craft.
Based in Greenville, SC, MANX is equipped with Mimaki USA, Inc. digital imaging equipment for dye-sub transfer. The company uses water-based ink and prints to a variety of fabrics. The choice of digital dye-sub transfer printing was an easy decision due to the company’s roots with Castle. “We already had the transfer equipment, it was our base,” says Jeannine Mason, Studio Manager, MANX.
MANX uses dye-sub transfer for all fabric output. Although the process incorporates more steps than direct dye-sub methods, they prefer it. Mason explains that dye-sub direct is an emerging print method that prints directly to fabric and then sublimates within the machine. She suggests the process may be ideal for someone new to sublimation printing, but still doesn’t provide the same high-quality results as dye-sub transfer. “I’ve seen the dye-sub direct output and I still believe that sublimation onto paper and then fabric is much crisper,” she adds.
The company also sees environmental benefits with the dye-sub transfer method of printing. “It’s more environmentally sound. We recycle all of the transfer paper we use, and the water-based ink doesn’t emit hazardous vapors,” she says. Additionally, the process does not require any washing or finishing of the material, eliminating ink run off into the ground and wasted water.
MANX uses a combination of water-based inks and a range of polyester blended fabric. Vibrancy depends on the percent of polyester content of the fabric, and not the ink choice. “If it’s a 70/30 polyester/cotton combination you’re not going to get as deep of a color as you would with 100 percent polyester. The cotton resists sublimation ink and it doesn’t react as well with cellulose fibers,” explains Mason.
With an expertise in the dye-sub process behind them, MANX stands out with its attention to color. The company uses a combination of RIP software, design software, and 12 years of experience to provide a competitive advantage when it comes to color matching its output. “It’s probably the most challenging part of textile printing for hospitality clients as well as customers that want to spot match on their banners—especially team apparel,” adds Mason.
Mastering the Art
There are benefits to each digital textile printing process. Depending on the application’s requirements and a PSP’s expertise, the combination of ink and material are put to the test. For textile applications, fabric choice often determines the vibrancy of output as well as the application’s durability. For more on textile printing, including a look at fabric, look to the July print issue of Digital Output.
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