Orbus Custom Vector Frame

Fabric Printing: Dye Sub and Beyond

Bill Schiffner is a freelance writer/editor based in Holbrook, N.Y. He has covered the imaging industry for 25 years and has reported on many evolving digital imaging technologies including wide-format printing and newer electronic digital signage. He was the editor for a number of imaging publications and websites. He can be reached at bschiffner@optonline.net.

The past few years have seen significant advancements in fabrics, fabric coatings, inks and printers—and they have all played a major role in helping expand the array of printable fabrics being used in various applications today. Manufacturers have taken a systems approach that includes printer hardware, ink chemistry, software and auxiliary equipment that all work together.

The biggest growth area for printed textile applications continues to be in dye sublimation printing systems. These developments have led to more direct-to-fabric dye-sub equipment hitting the marketplace each year with new technology and productivity enhancements, including more wide-format capabilities, increased printer resolutions and output speeds, inkjet technologies, upgraded textile coating technologies, and lower equipment costs. New fabric printing solutions for latex, UV cure and/or eco-solvent systems are also gaining ground as well.

Developing a Niche

“It appears that everyone is trying to separate themselves from the competition. Providing new, creative niche products to the trade is trending with our clients,” says Courtney Cooper, marketing manager, at Beaver Paper & Graphic Media, Lawrenceville, Georgia. “Our desire is to develop these products, rather than just providing me-too fabrics at lower prices. The quality of the textiles is a major focus these days. Consistency of fabric specs (stretch, shrinkage, hand and color) is critical in this competitive market. With advances in ink and printing technology, small differences in the quality of the fabric stand out. This is why the focus of our direct-to-fabric textile line has been in the details. We have concentrated on developing a line that maximizes color, opacity and shrinkage for each of our fabrics,” she adds.

Technology Playing a Huge Role

“Technology is progressing rapidly through all areas in our industry, including fabrics for direct disperse and latex ink technologies,” says Karen Stuerenberg, marketing director at Carmel, Indiana-based Top Value Fabrics. “The right printer, ink, media and profiling working together make latex prints rival the dynamic look of dye sub printing, and with the additional benefits that latex provides. Several of our fabrics are optimized for use with HP latex technology,” she adds.

She points out that the developments in printable fabrics are creating more options, and the division in quality is becoming more apparent. “For example, all backlit fabrics aren’t created equal and the graphics that are printed using higher-quality backlit fabrics are engineered to truly outshine other graphics. Customers love the clean, precise look of backlit, SEG (silicone edge graphics) applications. When printed properly with the right ink, printing equipment and fabric, backlit graphics are second to none. The intense color and appeal of high quality backlit displays is why the demand for backlit fabrics is growing dramatically.”

Printed Fabric Trends

Stuerenberg believes that as the demand for fabric prints continues to grow, selecting only quality backlit fabrics with proven performance consistency is a way that printers can gain efficiency in production. She points out that this also makes for SKUs that printers must manage, leading to tighter inventory controls.

“These trends represent a significant opportunity for PSPs as display graphics business continues to grow overall," she adds.

Jaime Herand, vice president of Graphic Operations at Orbus, Woodridge, IL, says that there have been several big trends present in printable fabric technology in the past year or so. “These include opaque/blockout fabric and backlit textiles, which have been popping up everywhere for use with illuminated exhibits and displays," she says. "The increased demand for backlit SEG graphics for retail applications, events and exhibits can be fulfilled due to the backlit fabric options produced via multiple printing processes including UV, direct-to-fabric and transfer dye-sublimation printing. Blockout fabrics feature a non-transparent backer coupled with standard fabric textile, and are popular for 100 percent opaque fabric graphics. Blockout fabric is an option for banner stand graphics or other tradeshow graphic applications.”

Changes in Fabric Printing Technology

Herand says that the industry has experienced significant changes in fabric printing over the past few years. “Between advancements in printhead technology, more stable and flexible inks, consistent coatings and a wider variety of fabrics, printer providers are given much more flexibility and options to produce graphics with optimal results. Coated fabrics are now available that work across both UV-cure and dye-sublimation (direct print and transfer) processes have become more prevalent.”

“In addition, the heightened flexibility enabled by UV inks cured with LED lamps has increased capabilities for printing graphics on certain fabrics using a UV printing process. Finding a good fabric with a consistent coating and pairing it with the right ink for direct-to-fabric printing can be a challenge, but improvements have certainly been seen in fabric coatings over the past few years. The color gamut has expanded and problems with ink migration with direct-to-fabric printing have decreased significantly,” she explains.

Going Beyond Dye Sub

“There definitely is a trend where more fabric manufacturers are adapting their products so that they’re compatible with dye-sublimation ink. There are many different types of polyester fabrics on the market intended to imitate the look and feel of materials such as nylon, cotton and silk, which are all materials that are incompatible with dye-sublimation ink,” reports Ryosuke Nakayama, manager, Textile & Apparel Business Development and Marketing, at Mimaki USA in Suwanee, Georgia. “Fabrics for direct-to-fabric inkjet printing have to be pretreated, which is optimized by ink types, to hold the ink that avoids bleeding, and to produce better colors.”

Stuerenberg points out the difference in the manufacturing process to provide various options in ink compatibility is all based in the proprietary coating and finishing processes. “Depending on how we coat or finish the media, it will yield compatibility with direct dye sublimation, dye sublimation transfer, UV, solvent, screen print or latex inks.”

Why Treat Fabrics for Printing?

Fabrics are treated at the manufacturer with special coatings that allow the inks to perform better. Coatings are applied during the finishing process in textile manufacturing. “The key is to find the right formula or recipe for each type of fabric,” says Cooper. “The biggest advances in direct-to-fabric printing are a result of chemical technology used in the processing of fabrics along with improvements in inks and in printhead technology. The result of these advances have made the differences—between a product printed using direct printing and one made using transfer technology—almost imperceptible,” she adds.

Latex Solutions

Cooper says that fabric products aimed at latex printers are coated depending on the fabric type (polyester, cotton, etc.). Between the improvements in latex inks and the coating finishes on the fabrics, shops can use latex printing technology in many different applications—anything from 100 percent polyester to bamboo fabric materials for curtains.

“The development of SEG frames and light boxes has been instrumental in the development of fabrics for these types of applications," Cooper says. "Our Triple White fabric is very popular for light boxes. People are still trying to find the perfect backlit material—one that stretches and disperses light would be considered the Holy Grail.”

“We expect our TexStyles direct-to-fabric line to be recognized as one of the most consistent in the marketplace for quality. Our focus has been the details in development, giving customers an edge when using our products. We are excited about the opportunities that lie ahead,” she concludes.

More Backlit Options

Stuerenberg says Top Value Fabrics offers five backlit fabrics engineered for display in lightbox frames. They are Supernova, Impact Prime, Supra Fabric Elite, Lightbox Fabric Elite and Tri Poly. She points out that fabrics in this collection are specifically designed for use in illuminated displays, and all are ideally for use in SEG frame applications.

“Backlit polyester demands attention, and our backlit fabrics feature outstanding color consistency, a bright white-point and excellent image sharpness when printed," she says. The weight, construction and finish of Top Value's backlit fabrics are ideal for use in creating illuminated displays for retail advertising, expo graphics, theatre, museums, interior decor and P.O.P. “A key to differentiating your backlit offerings from the competition is both in choosing a solution that includes the right equipment, ink and printing technology and also selecting a fabric that is engineered with the proper construction for success in illuminated graphics,” she adds.

Treatments for Specific Applications

Herand reports that printable fabrics have different coatings, depending on how the fabric will be used—such as coatings for fire-retardancy, or for fade and water-resistance for outdoor use, and coatings to heighten color output backlit applications. There are also coatings for stain resistance, for direct-to-fabric printing processes.

“One of the most common reasons fabrics are treated for printing is to accommodate the direct-to-fabric printing process," Herand says. "A good, consistent coating is required to help the material accept the ink, help the ink penetrate into the fabric and prevent it from wicking away.”