By Dana Hatic
In a consumer-driven market, the demand for customizable apparel is on the rise. Digital technology for producing such apparel has evolved to allow for optimal wearability while still accommodating personalization needs in small or large quantities. Today’s textiles optimized for digital print offer ease of production, heightened specialization, and greater comfort.
Specific for Digital
Digital print meets the increasing request for custom printed apparel. Consumers, corporations; in home or out of home, the demand is there for personalized product.
“Consumers want at least some level of personalization and customizing. Also, brands are looking to offer more designs and apparel that lend itself to shorter runs. Digital printing lets manufacturers and brands offer more designs and do more test marketing,” explains Mark Sawchak, managing partner/owner, Expand Systems, LLC.
Ken Siecinski, activewear program manager, Top Value Fabrics (TVF), agrees, citing printers’ ability to print outstanding digital imagery for custom apparel as one of the main reasons the demand for digital apparel is so high. “The detailed graphics printers can create on athletic wear, yoga clothing, and for corporate event apparel is incredible. When corporations sponsor large public events, many of which are at professional sporting venues, we are accustomed to seeing customized digital apparel and the unique looks are attention getting,” he continues.
Companies involving screenprinting in their daily processes may spend anywhere from $350 per screen, but if digital printing is used to achieve the same effect, it eliminates the need for screens, and therefore the extra cost, allowing businesses to save thousands of dollars and gain flexibility and variety in the types of prints they produce.
“When you have no screens and no minimum, you break all the rules and break away from conventional rotary and flatbed printing. After you know how to design fabrics for digital, you know how to work with customers to meet specific needs—then you meet their demands,” suggests Mike Sanders, VP, Pacific Coast Fabrics (PCF).
Michael Katz, president, Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems, points out that although the variety of digitally printed fabrics is tremendous and the process brings such possibilities, there is a little being done in large production runs. “It is mostly for prototype work and small couture runs in small studios,” he admits.
If the infrastructure allows, the textile industry could move towards an increase in production-level digital printing because of the diminished cost that comes from removing the need for screen setups.
“Wherever there exists an industry of cutting and sewing for garments, all the supporting industries such as printing, dyeing, weaving, finishing mills, and logistics will follow. Gradually, digital printing in the U.S. is changing the paradigm, or if not changing it, it is certainly encouraging supporting industries to grow,” shares Katz.
The Importance of Dye-Sub and Material Type
There are a number of methods for digitally printing fabrics, including dye-sublimation (dye-sub), in which printers use inks that turn into gas when exposed to heat and essentially fuse with the textile and become part of the fabric, allowing the images to sustain through multiple rounds of washing.
Once absorbed into the fibers of the textile, the dye does not usually change the feel of the fabric, but sometimes an initial washing will expel any base coating that makes the textile more absorbent.
James Gay, director of marketing, Fisher Textiles, says the benefits of the dye-sub method become tangible in the feel of the finished fabric. “The quality of overall sublimation colors without the feel of something screenprinted on it has become one of the most appealing aspects.”
“Today’s technology provides a process where the inks offer no added weight nor do they diminish the softness or performance a fabric offers,” agrees Siecinski.
Another versatile method of digital printing involves pigments, which can bind to both natural and synthetic textiles. The challenge with pigment ink is getting it to integrate with fabrics, but with the proper binder, pigments become highly functional.
“The great part about pigments are you can put them on any fabric or any blend of fabrics,” says Sanders. “Pigment printing will be a huge revolution as far as digital printing goes.”
The type of fabric customers request for their customized apparel influences the materials used in the digital printing process, and it all begins with the textiles.
“Polyester is most commonly printed with sublimation or direct printed with disperse dye,” according to Sawchak. “Cotton is typically printed with reactive ink or pigment. Nylon, wool, and silk are typically printed with acid dye inks. Blends are often printed with pigment ink. These different solutions give the best results.”
Features to Look For
The wearability of a fabric factors heavily into the digital printing of those designed for apparel.
“Hand is a key attribute as this property directly impacts the ‘feel’ of the garment,” says Sawchak. Hand refers to the way a fabric feels—soft, firm, pliable, and elastic. “Other attributes including breathability, moisture wicking, and image durability—such as washability—are also important.”
Wicking technology comes in handy for items like running apparel, cycling gear, and triathlon attire, according to Sanders. Cotton stays wet with sweat, but other fabrics tend to work better with wicking formulas and can last longer despite heavy use.
Fisher Textiles specializes in products used for sports, as well as athlesiure garments that are skyrocketing in popularity due to comfort and versatility. For such fabrics, moisture wicking capabilities are essential.
“Polyester with moisture management is very desirable,” shares Gay. “Fabrics contain various amounts of stretch, which allows garments to move and the moisture management system on our fabrics gives a cool feel,” he continues.
Weight is another consideration. “For example, garments for high-impact sports like lacrosse typically need heavier weights due to abrasion resistance, whereas a sport like track and field can sacrifice wear and tear for the priority of cooler comfort,” explains Siecinski.
Products in Brief
Expand Systems recently launched its DuraVibe line of digitally printable fabrics.
Fisher Textiles offers ET 3000 Yoga, which is dye-sub printable. Available in 60-inch widths and a weight of 14.5 oz. per square yard it is a circular knit construction and suggested for use in athletic, fitness, active wear, and yoga pants. ET 3000 Yoga is comprised of 86 percent Repreve recycled polyester and 14 percent Spandex. It is inherently treated with Sorbtek, Unifi’s moisture management system.
The company also offers ET 2600 Jersey Spandex Knit. Dye-sub printable, in 61-inch widths and a weight of 10.5 oz. per square yard, it is a jersey, circular knit construction that is ideal for athletic, fitness, or active wear. ET 2600 Jersey Spandex Knit is comprised of 92 percent Repreve recycled polyester, eight percent Spandex, and is inherently treated with Sorbtek.
Jacquard’s ProCoat fabrics are designed to be used with reactive or acid textile dyes. The treatment maintains resolution of the print and aids in fixation and color yield. ProCoat fabrics are completely washable and dry cleanable, making them ideal for many applications including wearable and commercial textiles. ProCoat fabrics must be matched to the correct ink for the fabric type. Color is generally post-fixed by steaming or heating. Cotton, silk, linen, and nylon are available.
PCF’s fashion apparel line of transfer dye-sub sheer fabrics include Jennifer S/914 – 4 Way Stretch, Jersey Knit S/3507 – 4 Way, Scuba Deluxe S/661, Sheer Knit Polyester, and Stealth (Heavy) S/913. These are all polyesters. It also offers a sports apparel line of polyester fabrics, which include advanced moisture management and wicking technology, tensile memory, and unsurpassed print definition.
Of note is Jennifer S/914 – 4 Way Stretch—part of both the fashion and sports apparel portfolios. The product is available in both optic white and black. Content is 88 percent polyester and 12 percent Invista Lyrca. Jennifer S/914 is a versatile textile, designed for athletic workouts, but can also be worn for casual occasions. It is ideal for yoga pants, leggings, performance shorts, and compression tops. Jennifer S/914 is 100 percent made in the U.S. including yarn, knitting, bleaching, and finishing. Black is a specialty solution dyed for color blocking on digitally printed garments. It is to be used as trim with digital prints, or as solid black garments, but not for sublimation printing.
TVF offers a variety of Knit, Stretch, Tricot, and Woven fabrics for activewear apparel. This line of fabrics is engineered exclusively for dye-sub transfer printing. The company’s newest offerings include full dull polyester/spandex, a heavy polyester spandex with great stretch characteristics, a heavy eyelet mesh, and a pin dot fleece.
Apparel for Textiles
The uses for customizable printed textiles span broad categories of apparel from leggings, swimsuits, and bicycling jerseys to t–shirts, board shorts, and beyond. Textiles developed for digital printing are designed to print well with dye-sub and pigment processes and offer characteristics inherent to the hand of the wearer—breathability, softness, and moisture wicking when applicable. With comfort in mind, textiles optimized for digital printing processes that are eventually used for the purpose of apparel are gaining traction in a blossoming niche.
Nov2016, Digital Output