High-end fabric printing

Fashion Statements

As output providers continue to push the envelope by looking for cutting-edge services that are profitable, cost effective and more environmentally friendly, many are finding that digital fabric printing could be the answer. 

Over the past few years it has seen its re-emergence due to digital design and printing on fabrics based on clients’ customized demands. The markets for direct-printing and dye-sublimation fabric continues to expand for wide-format print providers as suppliers have responded with a host of new hardware and media solutions. 

This scarf and pillow are digitally printed with acid dyes on silk. (Images this page courtesy of [TC]2’s InkDrop Printing, Cary, N.C.)

In addition, today’s fashion designers are faced with increasing pricing pressures from global competition, the need to keep inventories low, and the demand to bring the newest prints to market faster than ever. They are now looking at large-format, digital fabric printing services as a viable solution. 

“For many years, the industry has been talking about short run high-end fashion apparel printing as well as printing of décor items like upholstery, drapes and fabric wall coverings. The technology in both hardware and ink has finally developed to the point where these applications are realistic, and we expect them to grow in the near future,” says Andrew Oransky, director of marketing and product management for Roland DGA Corp. “We will also see the range of fabrics in use expand to include silk, cotton, leather and other synthetics which will serve to grow the entire digitally printed textile space,” he adds.

A COMEBACK FOR FABRIC PRINTING 

Michael E. Compton, national sales manager at Mimaki, USA, sees the fabric printing business making a comeback in North America. 

“Large traditional textile printing mills in the U.S. began to disappear quickly beginning in the late 1990s. For the most part, industrial textile printing moved overseas due to price competitiveness, low labor cost and very few environmental restrictions—particularly in countries such as China, Korea and Taiwan,” says Compton. “But the business in North America is beginning to shift. Companies and customers are less willing to wait two to three months to have printed textile product shipped from somewhere else. The down economic climate also has people in the U.S. looking internally to support the local economy and rebuild business.”

Compton predicts that “digital printing on textiles will double in the next three years compared to what it’s done in the past 10 years.” 

He adds that analysts are predicting steady growth in digital printing on textiles for home furnishing and apparel in North America. 

“Digital print production offers wide flexibility compared to traditional textile printing of the past in the U.S. To add production capability, you add printers; labor and overhead expenses are practically nonexistent compared to antiquated textile manufacturing,” he says.

With this shift back to the U.S., Compton is seeing a trend for more fabric printing on one-offs and short-run apparel for the fashion industry. He reports that Mimaki has recently rolled out the TX400/1800D introduced last year, a new printer that can print onto virtually any fabric. 

“It was designed specifically to print onto fabric,” he says. “We are focusing on the polyester market to begin with. The first ink set we have introduced will allow it to print on any polyester fabric material. The next set of inks will be reactive dye inks for cotton; and we are working on acid dye inks for the printer as well. The printer will be available in another version—the TX400/1800B—which will have an adhesive belt-type media transport system. That’s a key feature when you are dealing with stretch fabrics,” he adds. The adhesive belt keeps the printed design in registration and prevents the fabric from stretching while the image is being printed.

Compton adds that digital textile printing on fabric is widely accepted and showing tremendous growth in the sign, flag and banner markets. “Printing digitally on fabrics in traditional textile markets as well as the graphic market offers up a great variety of highly customized product with environmentally safe technology. Digital printing on textiles will eventually replace analog printing. It is critical for shops to be prepared with the right equipment and ink solutions to capture this market as it continues to grow,” Compton concludes.

[TC]² OFFERS TURNKEY SOLUTION

[TC]², located in Cary, N.C., is one company that keeps its finger on the pulse of this market. It operates the InkDrop Printing service as a resource for on-demand production of short lengths of digitally printed textile yardage. The service provides a turnkey solution for artists, designers, photographers and business owners wishing to produce digitally printed textiles and sewn products. “Our customers are offered a selection of standardized products that can be customized with their own imagery,” says Kerry Maguire King, manager of Product Development and Sustainability Initiatives at [TC]². 

A trend that Maguire King of [TC]2 is seeing is more personalization and customization in the printing of home décor items such as furniture covers, saying customers are looking to personalize their own space.

She says that their organization’s role is to help educate the industry to adopt digital printing technology. 

“Our InkDrop Printing service offers a means of demonstrating the concept of digital printing and the idea of print on demand and an opportunity for interested parties to access the technology. In addition, with our sewing capability, we can provide a total solution to smaller design firms in helping them to bring their products to market.”

The company introduced the service a few years ago and sold silk scarves on its website that it had produced in-house. “We found that people were interested in having their own designs printed. Most of our customers come to us because they have great design ideas and great artwork but not the means to output it and put it in the marketplace,” Maguire King says.

She says that silk scarves digitally printed with acid dye inks are still the “meat and potatoes” of their business. 

“We stock a selection of fabrics for dye-based printing that have been specially prepared for the digital print process to enable print precision and permanent color fixation.”

Another trend she is seeing is more personalization and customization in this area, like much like a Snapfish-type web business model. “Fabric print home décor items also continues to grow. Consumers are looking to personalize their own spaces.”

The company utilizes a range of technologies and resources within their technology demonstration center for digital printing. They currently print with acid and reactive dyes, as well as with specially developed nano colorant pigments. They are equipped with a Stork Sapphire I printer, which is a Mimaki TX2-1600 that was resold by Stork with Sapphire branding and Stork software as well as a Mimaki TX-1600s printer. She says they typically use a Jacquard Steamjet (batch steamer) for finishing what they output. 

“The Stork Sapphire I machine is loaded with reactive and acid dyes in our demo center. It offers us tremendous flexibility in that we are able to have two chemistry types loaded on the machine with both the reactive dyes and the acid dyes. It’s been a tremendous workhorse machine for us,” she adds.

SUPERSAMPLE—CREATIONS FOR THE RUNWAYS

New York City-based Supersample Corp. first opened their doors in 1993 with the mission of developing inkjet printing as a textile production method and finding markets for its textile printing service.

 

Supersample’s client list includes some heavy hitters from the fashion industry. Here Kelly Rowland is seen wearing a Christian Siriano creation on stage.

“Back then, our first customers were manufacturers who used our printed fabrics to make samples and prototypes,” says David Kushner, president at Supersample Corp. “Now our short-run printing is also used for finished items, scarves, fine art, high-fashion apparel, costumes and props. Our colors are fast to washing on silk, nylon, wool, linen, rayon spandex and cotton—and some leathers and papers.”

Kushner says over the years their service has grown in the number of markets they serve. “Today, artists exhibit their work with our printing in museums, couture designers drape models for the runway with their fabrics (and our printing), costume designers use our printing for Broadway shows and television, and our sample prints become the prototypes for mass market apparel.”

The company’s client list includes a who’s who in the fashion industry from Christian Siriano to Francesco Lowe to Rag and Bone. Most popular items include gowns, scarves, tops and other woman’s wear apparel items. Kushner says many of the current fashion designs they are working on feature jewel tones, deep colors, “green” themes (natural scenes), kaleidoscopic geometric patterns and multi-layered cinematic compositions. “Our clients like our color brilliance and the pattern complexity we can achieve.” 

Kushner credits their 12-color inkjet printing process as one of the keys to their success. “We use a Mutoh ValueJet 1618 modified with a fabric handling base (by Yuhan-Kimberly, a Korean subsidiary of Kimberly-Clark that has since dropped out of the textile printer business). We print with reactive dyes, pretreating our client’s fabrics with proprietary coating. After printing we steam and wash the fabric. We also help our clients their designs using our proprietary layout program and we print with our patented RIP software,” he points out.

Kushner reports that they print onto silk, rayon, nylon, linen, wool, and various blends with fiber reactive dyes and adjust the coating, steaming and washing for each fabric substrate. “We do extensive chemical testing when we get a new fabric, especially if it is a new fiber. And, there’s lots of fabric development going on in the textile world. We profile new fabrics and adjust the digital printing profiles for each individual image to get the best color while hitting the sharpest mark.”

FIRST2PRINT — FASHIONS WORLDWIDE

Another major player in the fashion industry is First2print. Located in the heart of the garment district design communities in both New York and Los Angeles, the company supplies digital textile design and printing services to customers worldwide.

An emerging market for First2Print is in historical clothing reproductions, such as this pioneer era dress created for The Colonial Williamsburg Historical Foundation. (Images courtesy of First2Print)

First2Print produced this custom automotive interior of a 1960s era VW Bus for interior designer Lisa Jennings. “Jennings who has three children and didn’t want to drive a minivan; she always wanted a VW bus. The customized interior was done for her family and only her family alone,” says Locastro. (Images courtesy of First2Print)

First2Print was established in 2000, initially as part of a design service bureau for the global fashion and home furnishings industries. “Those same designers who needed help with fabric design also needed a better and faster way to get sample prints, without using the costly and time-consuming overseas mills. So, First2Print was conceived as the ideal spin-off of a textile-design business embracing cutting-edge, digital printing technology,” says Dani Locastro, director of operations at First2Print. “As the business grew, so did advances in digital printing—which allowed us to expand to the production segment of the market where printed fabrics are wearable, washable and ready for the retail market.”

Locastro says that outside of the traditional textile world, there are wonderful ideas and beautiful designs converging for unique and novelty items. 

“These designers and artists face a completely different sort of issue—where to go to print their small-scale yardage needs,” Locastro says. “These designers are looking to bring out an exclusive product line for bathing suits, for handbags, for stuffed toys, for theater costumes, for yacht or private jet interiors. Just a few yards will suffice for their project. That’s where we come in. Artists, designers and photographers come to us because we can see the vision of what their product is and how they need to produce it.”

For short-run production, First2Print can produce five to 1,000 yards of a specific wash-and-wear retail design. 

“As this is a more made-to-order application, during these more custom-oriented projects, we work with its customers throughout the entire design process to engineer a final product assembled with textile,” Locastro says. “In this case, the product could be an apparel garment, a restaurant booth, a swimsuit, or a corporate jet interior.” 

Their marquee clients include high-end women’s apparel retailer BCBG, women’s fashion designer Jeremy Scott; ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition TV show and Sony Pictures.

The company’s output arsenal includes a number of Mimaki printers as well as ones from Mutoh, Roland and DuPont. They can print onto a host of fabrics. 

“We have learned over the years, you have to stay focused on what materials work well with different kinds of inks. You need to know what your best parameters for each scenario. What inks work best with different fabrics. For example, we work with swimwear manufacturers such as Graffinis, and the Nylon Shiny Tricot they use is very popular in the swimwear market right now. It holds the color very well and looks great to boot,” Locastro says.

AMG — SUSTAINABLE FABRIC PRINTING

The Apparel Manufacturing Group (AMG), Portland, Ore., is an innovator in the dye-sub apparel and soft signage industries with a special focus on sustainability. Over the years they have serviced major athletic apparel manufacturers such as Nike and Castelli, a leader cycling apparel.

 

Over the years AMG has done work for cycling apparel leader Castelli.

“The beauty of digital fabric printing is its sustainability,” says AMG co-founder Devin Wright. “With water based dyes you can pint onto recycled fabrics such as polyester. How great is that? It is one greenest printing processes being utilized in the industry today.”

AMG utilizes two Roland FP-740 sublimation printers for their heavy production schedule in their 24,000-square-foot facility. “We mostly use polyester fabric on the Roland dye sub printers. We feel that polyester works well. It’s probably the substrate that receives the dyes the best,” he points out.

Wright says that while they still produce some cycling apparel and team sports apparel, they are looking at other markets going forward. “We developed a whole line of football and basketball jerseys that were done on a dye-sub base layer as well as under armor type garments for Nike last fall,” he explains.

One of the new areas is working with the hospitality and hotel industry on producing custom upholstery items. They want us to do digital dye-sub printing instead of their traditional rotary and offset print processes. Dye sub may cost a little more but there are no set up fees so it allows them to offer great custom fabric products for lower volume.”