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Opportunity Looms

Digital Printing Leverages Fabulous Fabrics

By Gretchen A. Peck

 

Print buyers are on a constant quest for creative distinction. They want to buy print products that stand out among all competitive brands. Print service providers (PSPs) appreciate distinction too and want to be seen as exceptional in quality and capability. Leveraging fabrics for large format graphics serves both of those goals.

 

Show-Stopping Print

Digital printing profoundly impacts many forms of graphic and visual communications. Blending digital printing with fabrics creates show-stopping results, according to Olle Lindqvist, president, U.S. operations, Big Image Systems. The print supplier’s home base in the U.S. is in St. Louis Park, MN, but all production takes place at the company’s European operations in Germany and Sweden.

 

Big Image Systems’ founder has a professional background in the performing arts, and upon the advent of digital printing, began to brainstorm about how to leverage the technology for theatrical performances—ballet, opera, theater, any genre of stage production, according to Lindqvist. The founder developed his own printing technology to meet the demands of theaters, and that to led to an airbrush printer that printed on fabrics up to 40x20 feet.

 

Today, the performing arts work comprises approximately half of the business. The original airbrush printer was broken down, its best components recycled and reused to form a new proprietary digital inkjet engine—known as Infinitus—used for this type of print work, including a job for the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ.

 

The Paper Mill Playhouse set out to stage an updated and reinterpreted version of Walt Disney Pictures’ The Little Mermaid, which required digitally printed backdrops and scrims. Rick Reiser, technical director, and Ken Foy, scenic design consultant, Paper Mill Playhouse, chose Big Image Systems for the PSP’s ability to print wide, long, and seamlessly.

 

The Infinitus printer allows Big Image Systems to print seamless swaths of fabric of up to 40x160 feet. And the print service supplier can print to almost any type of fabric, including Lycra, cotton, velvet, and polyester, such as textiles from Trevira GmbH.

 

Beyond theatrical installations, Big Image Systems also caters to an array of clientele seeking big dynamic print. Lindqvist says it targets event productions, museum, fine art, retail, and signage. “We have a number of other digital printing technologies used for this work—solvent ink printers and those that use UV-curable inks,” explains Lindqvist. This includes several printers from Durst Image Technology US LLC.

 

Working with fabrics can be challenging, he acknowledges. “It certainly is the case that there’s not one fabric printing technology that is the answer for all your needs. We have seven different types of printers and tested over 2,000 different fabrics. The key is to find the right combination of fabric and print technology.”

 

Using fabrics for large format graphics has its advantages. “I think there are two factors driving the transition to fabric,” confides Lindqvist. “One is environmental, but there are many aesthetic and practical reasons too, such as ease of use and transportation. You’re not bound by flat or two-dimensional shapes. And you save money.”

 

That may be one of the misconceptions in the industry today, which is choosing fabric over a non-fabric alternative is a more expensive endeavor. Certainly, it can be, but it’s not always the case, stipulates Lindqvist.

 

“Vinyl is heavy and expensive to transport. Most of the fabrics that we print on can be shipped, folded, and stored folded, so from printing to delivery, from storage to shipping, there’s a cost savings at every step, because of the ease of handling,” he qualifies. “Installing big vinyl usually requires a lot more people. You have to look at the total cost of everything—even installation.”

 

One of the ways in which PSPs distinguish themselves is to pay careful attention to not only how they creatively fuel their clients’ imaginations, but how they bring them to life. Finishing fabric is more complicated than other types of large format print. And while there are some highly efficient finishing tools upon which to rely, Lindqvist says that having the equipment isn’t enough.

 

“We use digital finishing equipment that’s all computerized, but we know how to do the edge finishing and sewing work without it. What we find with our theater business is that customers expect us to understand theatrical hand finishing. In the end, it’s a matter of having the skilled people putting the finishing touches on,” he notes.

 

The print provider’s sewing and edge finishing skills are appreciated services. Big Image Systems’ theater clients understand that while a backdrop comes off a printer looking wonderful, if the finishing isn’t done properly, it won’t hang correctly or will wrinkle. That finishing touch is critical.

 

A Wholesaler’s Perspective

As the president of Chester, SC-based Custom Printed Fabrics, Andy Graven says he made an executive decision—for both strategic and geographic reasons—that his company would be a wholesale print supplier.

 

Custom Printed Fabrics supplies dye-sublimation (dye-sub) print work to an array of customers and industries, but trade show and signage tends to make up the largest part of the revenue. Among the types of designs the company brings to life are tension fabric structures, pop ups, banner stands, retractable print, and table covers.

 

The company also acts as the manufacturing arm, using Sawgrass Technologies’ dye-sub inks for Blue Moon Printworks, Inc., a fabric converter to the home fashion industry.

 

According to Graven, the greatest growth for his business has been in the bread-and-butter projects deriving from trade shows and traditional signage, which are now digitally printed on fabrics for a host of reasons.

 

“There is a significant reduction in drayage. That’s the first driver,” he suggests. “The second driver is that the booths themselves—the actual graphics that make up the booths—are reusable, with essentially no decline in quality. If you print on vinyl, and it’s folded or rolled up after a show, sent off to a warehouse, and then opened up for the next show, it is not going to look like the original graphic. With dye-sub printed fabric, that’s never an issue.”

 

While fabric offers print buyers advantages in look, feel, and cost, printing to fabric does present some unique challenges for print providers, including more creative consultation.

 

Graven says that his company produces swatch books for its customers, featuring 12 of its most commonly used fabrics. “It’s an unbranded swatch book,” he clarifies. “We can then advise them on which fabrics work well for specific kinds of applications. That consultation goes on all the time.”

 

The other challenge that fabrics create is determining how best to communicate about content and color. In other words, how do you proof?

 

The partners with whom Graven and his team work with are often supplied with a number of proofs, depending on the job itself, the critical nature of color, and how comfortable the customer may be with the workflow they previously established. Sometimes those proofs manifest in simple PDF documents, with the graphics scaled down to depict the content. It really depends on the customer’s preference.

 

If a customer requires a color match, a proof is produced, using one of the company’s dye-sub printers from Roland DGA Corporation, on the same fabric used for final production. “We communicate about color every day,” asserts Graven. “We often produce these types of proofs. It’s not 50 percent of the time, but it’s often.”

 

“The other option that happens is that people want to see the image on the fabric, so we send two proofs—hard proofs on fabric, not electronically,” he continues.

 

“The first might be a mini version of the entire graphic. The second version may be a full-scale crop of a section. They may be looking at resolution or a particular detail, but they generally ask us to take a closer look at a section,” he adds.

 

Graven has the utmost respect for the craft of digital printing. He believes while it has the complexity of chemistry, its success is truly dependent upon the right blends of consumables, technology, and human ingenuity. It is this combination that make for such a fascinating industry that many hope to be part of.

 

“Dye-sub printing on fabric is not a slam dunk,” he forewarns industry colleagues. “We are a bunch of old textile people here. This company was started as a textile company, not as a graphics company. We’ve printed on fabric for 50 years.”

 

A Print Buyer’s Perspective

Julie Cox, proprietor, Jules Johnson Interiors, located in Brentwood, TN, prefers to leave printing to the professionals. Though she began her career as a medical sales representative, design was her true calling, she’d later realize. Cox credits digital printing—in particular, digital dye-sub printing—with enabling her to reboot her career.

 

She started a company called Greek Graffiti, producing high-quality sorority gear, fashions, and interior décor, using a small format Brother International Corporation GraffiTee GT-541 digital garment printer.

 

“That was my first digital printer. It’s very simple. You have to print on very light colors, and it doesn’t print white ink, but it has an easy-to-use design that I liked. I began by producing pillowcases on it, and it gave me the print quality that I needed,” recalls Cox.

 

The Brother device helped Cox to creatively forge a path for her business, but its small format dimensions proved limiting. “I wanted to create larger prints, like fabrics with logos, graphics, and monograms. For that, I had to turn to dye-sub,” she adds.

 

Cox scrutinized print suppliers in the area, but was disheartened to learn that while many owned dye-sub equipment, it wasn’t used frequently. Rather, dye-sub was more often a complement to other types of printing.

 

Today, she contracts out the dye-sub work to Print Trends, Inc., a Chattanooga, TN-based PSP. “Before I found Print Trends, I encountered a lot of printers that had dye-sub machines but didn’t use them every day. That ink has to be used every day. It has to be moving, or it will dry and you’ll never get the color you want,” she forewarns.

 

“You can really start a business and keep your printing costs under wraps, because with digital printing, you can produce individual pieces and custom work. That’s allowed me to create my own fabrics for sororities, for example, and whole themes for their dorms,” notes Cox.

 

Each project presents some form of a learning curve for both the designer and print supplier when it comes to using fabric. “Every color is going to come out a little different depending on the different kinds of material you’re using. A CMYK orange is not going to be the same on a knit fabric as it is on another type. Colors simply don’t translate the same way,” she explains.

 

After lots of testing and live job use, Cox says that she prefers to use Fisher Textiles’ 1010 Element 100 percent polyester fabric for sorority and home décor graphics. “It rivals umbrella fabric in terms of durability,” she marvels. “With dye-sub, the colors are vibrant and the quality so good, especially if you use the best printers and materials.”

 

Onto Fabric

There’s no arguing that the right blend of fabric, ink, and print technology can transform and invigorate the special graphic a PSP, wholesaler, or retailer is tasked to represent. Print buyers from all backgrounds understand the creative possibilities—and the potential cost savings when implementing digital printing onto textiles.

 

Nov2013, Digital Output

 
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