Dye-sublimation (dye-sub) presents revenue opportunities for print service providers (PSPs) in the business of printing fabric. Applications from clothing and furnishings to outdoor signage and trade show graphics are created using direct and transfer dye-sub print technology.
To service this booming market, sublimation ink is evolving to better accommodate niche applications—such as wallcoverings and interior textiles—improving color saturation, durability, and the longevity of output created through this process. In return, PSPs are becoming creative with the job types they can produce.
Matching hardware, inks, and media depends largely on the application and its end use, but one thing is for certain—the process of sublimation is an ideal choice for many polyester-based applications.
Suited for Dye-Sub
Popular fabric-based sublimation applications include sports and fashion apparel, trade show displays, gaming tables, flags, banners, and interior furnishings. The process of dye-sub printing has evolved over time, allowing PSPs to print more than the average sign.
“In the beginning of inkjet sublimation, printing via heat transfer paper to fabric was the only option,” states Syd Northup, inkjet division manager, sales and technical, Gans Ink & Supply Co. “Over the past five years, the direct to print fabric market has grown tremendously in the flag, trade show, and banner sectors,” he adds. In the direct to print sublimation market, most fabrics require coatings to heat set the sublimation dyes into the desired fabric.
Paul McGovern, national sales manager, textile, Mimaki USA, Inc., also notices an overall increase in display-type fabric banner materials used for trade show events, indoor soft signage, and decorative table covers and displays. “In the industrial sector, there is continued sales development in home furnishings, polyester flag printing, fashion apparel design for prototyping, and short-run manufacturing of various fabric sample materials for review and approval requirements prior to rotary screen production,” he shares.
Fabric is gaining popularity as a lightweight, eco-friendly, and more malleable media solution. “It possesses a professional look to it and conforms to the shape of the framing to be used for three dimensional sign and display applications,” says Larry Salomon, VP, wide format North America, GS/inkjet segment, Agfa Graphics.
In addition, dye-sub lends itself to a variety of customized gifts, awards, and promotional products. Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc., notes that the same dye-sub equipment for sportswear and soft signage can be used for mugs, plates, and metals.
Transfer Versus Direct
Dye-sub is ideal for anything with a polyester base or coating. Which method is best—direct or transfer—depends on the application and use.
When trying to decide which method to use, Mark Freeman, director of product management, Sawgrass Technologies, offers a couple general gauges. “Direct offers better penetration of graphics and ease of workflow. Transfer, on the other hand, works well with fabric attributes depending on how it feeds into the printer, for example, for certain types of stretchy fabrics. There is also a wider availability of fabrics for transfer over direct options,” he says.
The choice is often based on ink penetration requirements. “For example, for knitted goods, direct to fabric is preferred. Another example is swimwear—in the sublimation process, ink lays on the surface of the fabric like icing on a cake. This works for woven goods such as tablecloths, where it is not important to see the dye on the reverse side,” notes Sangeeta Sachdev, CAD/digital print manager, Stork Prints America, Inc.
Of course, both methods have positives and negatives. “Transfer yields good resolution and pop and can be used on all uncoated polyester blends,” explains Terry Sickle, VP, Hilord Chemical Corporation. “Direct print offers higher saturation and good color blow through the fabric, which is needed for applications involving flag material.”
Each method is perfectly valid, but in terms of quality, Pedro Martinez, CEO, Afford Industrial S.A., advocates that transfer dye-sub offers the best option. However, for many applications the quality obtained with direct printing is sufficient and less expensive. Salomon adheres that direct to fabric dye-sub with an inline heat press is the most efficient.
Most current fabric applications are transfer to polyester. “Transfer dye-sub is better in our opinion, because it provides the capability to sublimate to a wider variety of substrates, including any dye sublimatable mugs, caps, pens, and promotional items, where as with direct sublimation, PSPs are limited to pre-treated PFP polyesters,” says Christian Sam, marketing director, Graphics One, LLC.
On the other hand, natural fabrics such as cottons, silks, and nylon need direct printing and inks optimized for the fabric. “The fabric needs treatment in order to control the dot gain from printing, and requires post processing to wash this coating off and return the natural feel or hand of the fabric,” explains Anderson.
McGovern believes that paper transfer printing is preferred by many users because of the degassing properties of the dye-sub inks. “This allows for sharper and richer color saturation on the printed side of the fabric,” he says. With that said, dispersed dye direct printing is necessary for flag printers and other durable textile materials that require greater ink saturation so that the graphics penetrate through both sides of the printed material.
“For applications that may be more flexible in terms of image quality, direct to fabric processes have become increasingly popular,” says David Hawkes, group product manager, Roland DGA Corporation. “This process provides a soft hand and eliminates the element of the transfer paper from the workflow. While there is a trade off in image quality, for many applications the reduced waste and complexity make it worthwhile.”
The ink itself plays an important role in the process. Dye-sub inks are well suited for textile applications for a number of reasons. “Dye-sub adds brilliance, pop, and color,” explains Sickle. “It usually also provides better washability and wear due to the fact that the fiber is dyed and not simply printed on.”
To better understand the benefits of this ink set, it is important to explain what sublimation means. “Sublimation consists to change the solid state of a print into a gaseous state with the intervention of heat—ranging between 180 to 230 degrees depending on the substrate,” explains Martinez.
In a tablecloth, for example, sublimation ink embeds into the fabric whereby solvent/UV sits on top of the material via direct printing. “The longevity of sublimation is greater and bonds permanently to the polyester. Ultimately, this creates a longer lasting product,” says Northup.
“Dye-sub is an advantage in that the colors are richer and the fabrics that are used are softer. In addition, dye-sub does not change the hand—you cannot feel where the ink is and where it is not,” says Mike Wozny, strategic product manager, EFI.
Of course, dye-sub is challenged with its own set of limitations. “The use of dye-sub allows no film to build, and therefore offers an acceptable hand. However, dye-sub may not offer the necessary outdoor durability,” explains Ken Kisner, president, INX Digital International Co.
In the case of outdoor applications, the longevity of dye-sub is less than that of solvent—lasting about six months to one year. “Because dye-sub is aqueous ink, it has some limitations for outdoor graphics,” notes Salomon.
As Joseph Terramagra, technical service manager, Sensient Technologies Corporation, points out, dye-sub allows people to almost instantly wear the output. “This is partially because when the transfer dye-sub process is used, the PSPs can use polyester fabrics off the shelf with no pre-treatment necessary,” he adds.