As the demand for more versatile, printable fabrics increases, textile companies are devising new fabric coatings that meet that need, from adhesive and fire-resistant coatings to coatings that allow shops to print on the fabric with any type of digital printer, including latex.
Wall coverings, soft signage and trade show exhibits are just a few of the markets driving the demand for better printable fabrics.
Photo Tex Group, Inc. takes credit for starting the removable polyester fabric industry.
“We came out with it. It revolutionized getting away from the vinyl,” says Walter Gierlach Jr., president of Photo Tex Group.
He says it all started when he was searching the Internet in 2004 and found a self-adhesive printable fabric on an import/export website. The inventor of the material was in South Korea. Gierlach purchased one roll of the material and after handing out samples of it at an equipment show in Canada, he realized the market for it was unlimited.
One man bought the entire roll and then kept coming back for more. Gierlach realized he was onto something and flew out to the factory in South Korea where he signed a one-year contract for the U.S. distribution rights for the product. He purchased a full container of the material. That container sold within a month and Gierlach has not looked back since.
The material revolutionized the peel-and-stick fabric industry because you can’t rip or wrinkle it and it doesn’t shrink at any temperature, he says. “That’s been one of the major selling points. It doesn’t matter if it is indoors or outdoors or air conditioned or [is put] through seasonal changes, it doesn’t ever shrink. That’s why a lot of people switched out of vinyl.”
The adhesive also won’t peel off the paint beneath it when it is removed and it doesn’t leave a sticky residue.
“They can leave it up for a day or a decade,” he says. Photo Tex trademarked the word StikAbility to apply to the fabric’s ability to stick and be removed with no mess.
The company has two patents on the adhesive in the U.S., and it is non-toxic. The material is biodegradable and is fire-resistant.
“It keeps reinventing itself into new markets,” Gierlach says.
He still isn’t sure why the inventor of the material gave him a chance.
“He could have gone to Fuji or Canon or HP or whatever, but he chose little old me. He knew my passion would be to take this 24/7. I was the first American to go over physically to meet him; the first American in the door,” Gierlach says. “They print polyester textile for shirts and pants. He invented the coating to print on top and the adhesive to stick with. The whole thing was timing. I call it a blessing though.”
Photo Tex Group now has lifetime exclusivity contracts for the Americas, Europe and Australia.
LexJet, based in Sarasota, Florida, also offers a self-adhesive printable fabric called LexJet Solvent Print-N-Stick Fabric. The product is aqueous and compatible with UV and latex printers. Supermarkets, office buildings and other built spaces are using wall murals to change the environment people are walking into. The company also offers Photo Tex fabric.
“The difference between the two is Photo Tex has more of a wider weave vs. the LexJet Print-N-Stick product having a tighter weave. So the tighter weave gives better image quality,” says Jaimie Mask, product specialist, digital creative at LexJet. There are markets for both products, she adds.
Fisher Textiles does not have a self-adhesive fabric yet, but it has one in development, according to Scott Fisher, president of the Indian Trail, North Carolina-based company.
He adds that it is really advances in printer and ink technology that have driven demand for printable textiles.
“It is not so much what we have done to the fabric but what printers have done to print those same fabrics,” he says.
The industry has tried to provide fabrics that can be printed on multiple output devices. Many of them can be used with dye sublimation, latex and UV printers.
Being printer-friendly means “trying to reduce or eliminate as many defects as possible given roll sizes and the presentation of the roll so that they are able to put it right on the machine without having issues with the edges interfering with printheads,” Fisher says.
The industry is seeing more architectural uses for printable fabrics, especially in the last two years. That means end users are paying more attention to whether the fabric stretches or doesn’t stretch, if it is matte or satin finish and the different opacity levels.
Silicon edge graphic frames are a big part of the architectural movement.
“Those are getting placed on walls where maybe paintings were being put before,” Fisher says.
Some companies will use large SEG frames as walls between rooms. They want to be able to put fabric on both sides of the wall and light them from the front. That’s where the opacity and texture of the fabric really comes into play, he says.
Fisher Textiles is also seeing some need for anti-microbial coatings for textiles because many of them end up on the walls of restaurants or the fabric is made into shower curtains.
LexJet’s Mask says that the trends for soft signage for digital are starting to shift. Trade show graphics have shifted to fabric. In the past, people printed the graphics with dye sublimation, UV curable and direct to textile.
“One of the major downfalls in the latex market was durability, compared to dye sublimation,” she says. LexJet offers a new material called EnduraFab Frontlit Premier, which was designed specifically for use with third-generation HP latex inks.
“You can get that look of and feel of other competing products with different technologies with a latex printer now,” she says.
In the past, materials printed with latex inks would show scratches or white breaks where the material was folded.
“This technology allows the ink to adhere with the fabric material and you don’t have a scratching issue at all. You can fold and do everything you do with dye sub fabric,” she said. It also has a nice hand and excellent drape capabilities.
The material also passed a wash cycle test, meaning it didn’t fade after five washings.
Typically, a fabric that was printed on a latex printer would have to be run through a heat press before it could be washed. “You have to affix the inks to the material. With this specific product, you don’t necessarily need to do that,” Mask says.
The reason this technology is important is that print runs on a latex printer are shorter and don’t take as much labor to complete. Dye sublimation requires transfer paper, a heat press and printer.
“This is a game changer for our latex users,” she says. “In our signage world, you can produce a lot more on latex than on a dye sub printer. There’s still room for dye sub too. It depends on where your focus is coming up in the next few years and what choice you are going to make as a business owner.”
Top Value Fabrics, Inc. is also working on coatings for fabric that make latex ink more scratch-resistant and more durable. The company has a commercial product on the way. It will be a little stiffer but similar to dye-sublimation, says Mike Compton, product marketing manager for Top Value Fabrics in Carmel, Indiana.
“Where you get an advantage with latex is it is such a media-friendly product and totally environmentally safe. It does away with eco-solvent and solvents that are not environmentally friendly,” he adds.
The coating helps the ink adhere to the fabric better and makes the ink scratch and scuff-resistant.
“We’ve made many of our fabrics, the majority of our fabrics, friendly for any type of ink set. That’s what customers are looking for. At the end of the day, a customer wants less SKUs in the inventory,” Compton says.
LexJet also offers an aqueous product. It is a water-resistant satin cloth. It has a satin back and an inkjet-receptive coating on the matte side. This is good for stiff, hanging displays.
Fire resistance has also become more important for the printers because their customers are demanding fire retardancy. That’s in large part because these products are being used more and more in venues that have fire codes, like trade show venues, shopping malls and retail stores.
“We have expanded our fire-resistant testing as a result of the new environments the fabrics are going into,” he says.
The majority of Top Value Fabrics Inc.’s offerings are fire resistant because they are widely used in high-end retail environments and trade shows. Many of them are also EU REACH certified, which means they use a limited amount of chemicals to make sure they are safe for the environment.
“We expect the U.S. to do something similar. They have not yet,” says Compton. “When you are REACH-certified, you are ahead of the game.”
Top Value Fabrics also offers a product called Midnight Blockout, which has a dye sub fabric on the front and an acrylic base on the back. It works well for displays where the customer doesn’t want light to pass through it. It is great for banner stands and roll up banner stands.
“One of the biggest growth areas is backlit fabric,” he says.
Compton adds that, “we’re going to continue to look at new fabrics and coatings that will improve the overall look of the fabric as well as what we offer to end users.”