By Melissa Donovan
Fabric optimized for digital printing of performance and athletic apparel is in high demand. Coupled with the short run and one-off mentality, buyers from multiple markets seek workout gear customized for certain events.
Specific features in these fabrics define them as performance or athletic wear. For example, wet wicking and other characteristics must contend with perspiration while simultaneously conveying comfort with a soft hand and stretch. Typically performance or athletic apparel is polyester based. Not only does it perform well while being worn, but it is also suitable for dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printing, which is the preferred print method.
An Exercise in Benefits
Performance and athletic wear benefits from wide format digital print. Buyers expect customization and short runs at low costs and today’s technology helps to achieve this in a number of ways.
Jeff Sanders, digital fabrics sales manager, Pacific Coast Fabrics (PCF), provides the example of a custom cycling jersey printer that is able to offer hundreds of images to the general public as a one-off option that can be printed and shipped in a matter of days. All thanks to wide format digital print.
Another example of the ideal buyer, the growing crossover athleisure market. “It utilizes performance fabrics that can also be worn for fashion, such as leggings, which has also adopted this model of on demand printing,” he continues.
“Corporate apparel also benefits,” adds Ken Siecinski, activewear manager, Top Value Fabrics (TVF). “There are options beyond solid cotton styles. Performance fabrics with flashy, extravagant imagery are often seen in corporations sponsoring large public events.”
Back stock is minimized thanks to digital. “Traditional athletic wear utilizing dyed fabrics requires a tremendous amount of fabric inventory, since you need to stock each fabric in every team color. Wide format printing can make any color jersey from a white fabric,” adheres Chris Hopkins, director of sales, Yarrington Mills Corporation.
Digital print also eliminates steps found in traditional performance and athletic wear manufacturing. Hopkins says it, “blends multiple processes, such as fabric dying, embroidering logos, and adding tackle twill names and numbers, all into one.”
Combining these processes serves a dual purpose. In addition to saving time and labor costs, it heightens the experience for the eventual clothing wearer. “The process of sublimation embeds the image into the fabric, nothing is on the surface disrupting the comfort, and graphics are more vivid than other print methods,” explains Sharon Roland, advertising and PR manager, Fisher Textiles.
Siecinski agrees, noting that today’s technology provides a process where the inks offer no added weight nor do they diminish the softness or performance a fabric offers.
Built for Performance
A fabric designed for performance or athletic apparel must address features such breathability, moisture control, softness, weight, and memory. Prominent characteristics center on comfort.
“Athletic fabrics are typically lightweight, breathable, and contain a moisture management chemical. This is a chemical that wicks away perspiration, controls odor, and promotes comfort. All of these are essential characteristics for fabrics used in performance environments and subject to harsher wear,” shares Roland.
Softness and weight play a role. “Airy yarns and open weave constructions add breathability, which makes a garment more comfortable in warmer clients. 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,” advises Siecinski.
Fabric memory is another interesting factor to consider, as modern performance and athletic wear utilize more spandex than ever before, cites Hopkins.
“Any stretch textile continually stressed by a contorting body must have the ability to return to its original form, or the result is a sagging fabric that no longer looks pleasing when worn,” explains Sanders. PCF addressed this issue in its Jennifer S/914 four-way stretch performance fabric by using Invista Lyrca yarn as opposed to generic spandex.
Sanders says that when crafting PCF’s performance apparel line, designing a fabric that will not pill, snag, or fray is a must for it to even be considered as part of its portfolio.
Let’s Get Physical
Polyester is the overwhelming choice when it comes to fabric used in printable performance and athletic wear. Fisher Textiles’ Roland says whether 100 percent polyester or a polyester/spandex blend, these two options are ideal.
Most of TVF’s customers choose fabrics made up of 100 percent polyester to create their performance apparel. “The main reasons for this are that the fabrics print beautifully while providing the performance aspect of drying quickly. Drying time is important in aiding the performance properties of the wicking fiber. Additionally, advancements in technology have yielded polyesters with fibers that are cottony soft,” explains Siecinski.
It is easy to treat a polyester-based fabric, according to Sanders. It can be coated with advanced moisture management or water repel finishes.
“Polyester performs the best in terms of moisture management. Adding spandex improves the overall feel, stretch, and flexibility of the fabric,” admits Hopkins.
Of note, multiple fabric manufacturers utilize polyester made from recycled yarns. For example, Fisher Textiles added three styles to its portfolio in 2015 that consist of Repreve recycled yarns produced from recycled plastic PET bottles. “This characteristic is very appealing to consumers,” adds Roland.
Working Out the Print
When it comes to printing on textiles, there are three main practices—transfer dye-sub, direct dye-sub, and direct print. For performance and athletic wear fabrics optimized for digital print, dye-sub is a common choice due to the nature of the fabric—polyester—being used.
“Dye-sub has always been the go-to method for performance apparel printing. Highly detailed photographic images and graphics can be printed on polyester with great color coverage and fine line definition. An image can be printed on fabric before it is assembled—allowing for all-over coverage on the finished garment,” adds Sanders.
Between transfer and direct dye-sub, both are used in printing onto performance and athletic fabrics. “Both dye-sub methods are suitable for athletic apparel, but if printing dye-sub direct with disperse inks, the PSP should use fabrics that are stable—with little to no stretch—and specially treated for the inks to stay in place. Also, run the fabric through a heat press after printing dye-sub direct,” recommends Roland.
While both methods are suitable, dye-sub transfer tends to be preferred due to that fact that polyester cannot be direct printed without a pre-treatment, according to Yarrington’s Hopkins. This can add a step to the process and change the hand of the fabric.
“Dye-sub transfer is best as the imagery is fantastic, the costs are competitive, and it is a relatively straightforward process to operate, which means the printer can focus on creating dynamic printed apparel for their customers. Dye-sub transfer does not add weight and allows the hand of most material to maintain the softness and performance aspects of the fabric,” agrees Siecinski.
Commitment to Fitness
The vendors mentioned in this article offer performance and athletic wear fabrics optimized for digital print. These are just a sample of the products available.
Fisher Textiles introduced ETP 2319 Athletic Mesh to its Digital Apparel fabric line in October 2015. Compatible with dye-sub printing, the fabric is comprised of 100 percent Repreve recycled polyester and 100 percent post-consumer waste. ETP 2319 contains a moisture management system that allows perspiration to move away from the body, dries quickly, controls odor, and promotes comfort. It is available in widths of 60 inches and suggested for use in athletic, fitness, or activewear.
Made in the U.S., PCF’s Jennifer S/914 is a four-way stretch performance fabric featuring an advanced moisture management and wicking technology coating. Available in 58/60-inch widths, it is 88 percent polyester and 12 percent Invista Lycra. It is ideal for workouts or athleisure, used for yoga pants, leggings, performance shorts, and compression tops. Dye-sub printing is recommended.
TVF offers its 90/10 Polyester Micro Fiber/Spandex, 4-Way Stretch fabric. The stretch fiber provides comfort and flexibility for the eventual wearer. It is well suited for dye-sub printing and available in 58/59-inch widths. Popular uses include board shorts, swimwear, and surf wear-inspired apparel because it is lightweight and dries quickly. TVF also suggests its use for wrestling and other sports involving quick movement.
Designed with sublimation printing in mind, Yarrington’s newest offering in performance apparel is FE795MF Power Stretch Doubleknit Spandex. It is 92 percent micro-polyester and eight percent spandex. Available in widths of 60 inches it offers a combination of softness, durability, and stretch/recovery. Common applications include cheer and dance, warm ups, compression garments, wrestling singlets, yoga pants, and leggings.
Performance and athletic wear fabrics optimized for digital print are rising in popularity. Thanks to the latest technology advancements more one-off and personalized pieces of apparel are created quickly and cost effectively. While this trend continues, it is important to use the correct fabric. Materials crafted for this specific application are generally polyester based, dye-sub compatible, and include features such as breathability and moisture control.
Feb2016, Digital Output