Growth in Fabric Sublimation

Paula Aven Gladych is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colo. She can be reached at pgladych@gmail.com.

Advances in digital printing technology and innovation in the textile industry have come together to create an incredible and fast-growing dye sublimation printing industry.

From sportswear to retail and trade show exhibits, fabric is being used for just about everything and the demand continues to grow.

In the dye sublimation market, the most popular trends are in apparel, retail and trade show displays and home décor.

When compared side-by-side at a trade show, dye sublimation looks dull and the colors less vibrant, but printing is only part of the equation when it comes to sublimation.

“The magic happens at the heat press,” says Lily Hunter, product manager for Roland DGA in Irvine, California. “With eco solvent or UV, they have vibrant colors right away. If you look at mine, they say, ‘Huh? Your fabric feels like paper.’”

Roland has two dye sublimation printers. Both are 64 inches wide and both have a bulk ink system. They both have a heavy duty take up reel and both are made for production, but one is slower than the other, she says. The slower one is ideal for a startup company, one that sees that they could get into the business for the amount they pay a wholesaler, she adds.

Both machines can do either four-color or eight-color. In June 2016, the company launched fluorescent inks.

“That has been popular with a lot of apparel folks just because you see fluorescents everywhere: sports uniforms, décor. It is not just a fad that has come and gone, we definitely see it prominently,” Hunter says.

The shops that are getting the eight-color option are the ones looking for a wider variety of colors. They are either doing a lot more rigid substrates, like Chromolux panels, metal photo panels or manufactured wood panels.

Tara Lamb, president of Global Imaging in Louisville, Colorado, says that her company got into dye sublimation in 2011. Back then there were only a few dye sub machines out there making their way into the market. Most textile printers were solvent-based.

Its first machine was the water-based Evo33 DS, an industrial dye sublimation printer that can print both direct to fabric or transfer paper. “That has been our best-selling printer,” she says.

In the past five and a half years, a lot has happened.

“Because there is competition in the market now from a distribution and manufacturing standpoint, what we’re seeing is a lot of demand in the market for it. We primarily play in and see the most demand in exhibits and point-of-purchase,” Lamb says.

Printable textiles really took off in the exhibits and display market because fabric is neat, washable, foldable and inexpensive to ship, she says. With reusable extruded aluminum systems, textile is a “no brainer for the exhibit industry. Surprisingly, there is still a lot of room for it. Not everybody is using it. The fun part about it: in exhibits people get really creative,” she says.

Framing systems, including silicon-edge graphics, are very versatile and customizable. They aren’t just rectangular or square anymore. People are creating everything from lightning bolts and circles to other funky shapes to grab the attention of passersby.

“There’s still a lot of room in exhibits to utilize fabric and really expand on the creative aspects of what you can do with fabric,” she says.

Global Imaging is playing more with lighting, like inserting programmable RGB lights into the fabric.

Point-of-purchase displays are also a growing market. If one retailer, with 1,000 stores, decides to go with one type of P.O.P. display, all stores go with the same display. “It can mean massive growth within our industry,” Lamb adds.

There is a lot of demand for in-line sublimation printers, meaning a dye sublimation printer attached to a calendar heat press system. Some printers claim to do that but only use heat, she says. To be a true in-line dye sublimation system it has to add heat and pressure, she says.

“Real estate is part of the profit equation. You have to look at every square foot of floor space. If they are, in fact, able to get a piece of fabric printed and sublimated in the same square footage, then they are able to use that space they maybe used for a calendar for something else, like a flatbed printer or sewing machine or cutter,” she says.

Mike Compton, product marketing manager at Top Value Fabrics, which is headquartered in Carmel, Indiana, says the textile printing industry has seen straight up vertical growth since 2000. As cleaner and more efficient digital textile printing options become available, solvent numbers have dropped off.

“We continue to add product to our line. What you see now with customers in the market is they are asking for more specific product to meet their needs,” he says. A decade ago, there were no choices in the fabric that could be printed on.

Now people want certain weights, structure or coatings depending on the uses they have for the fabric. Compton says he has seen an increase in the use of dye-sublimated textiles in the trade show and retail markets. Backlit signage or displays have grown significantly and so have the company’s apparel divisions.

“We added 11 new apparel fabrics,” Compton says. Its Shockwave material has been successful because of its use in yoga apparel, leggings, head wear and sports bras. It is a poly spandex blend that can be printed in very vibrant colors but has really soft fibers with great stretch.

“You can print unbelievable images on it and it is very comfortable,” he says. Everyone is getting into dry apparel, fabric that wicks away moisture.

Another item that is becoming popular in the dye sublimation market is customized sneakers. Clients can go online and choose the colors or designs they want on their footwear for $250 to $300 a pair. Printers can print on the cloth and the rubber parts of the shoe. Trade show backlit applications are a huge market. Also, in-store retail banners, point-of-purchase displays, banner stands, roll up banner stands and all types of backdrops are becoming popular, he says. The industry is also seeing more digitally printed fabric in interior décor.

Top Value Fabrics introduced a new fabric called Midnight Blockout that can be used for dye sublimation. The back has an acrylic black finish to block 100% of the light coming through but the front can be printed with dye sublimation.

One of the biggest trends Compton sees in the dye sub market is the move to direct dye sublimation as opposed to transfer paper. With new printheads and new technology, direct to textile printing can get the same crisp image that was once only possible with transfer paper, he says.

The size of the printers is also getting bigger. There are companies out there that are trying to bring 5-meter dye sublimation presses to market, which would dwarf the current 10-foot-wide models.

Tommy Martin, product manager for textile and apparel business development at Mimaki USA in Suwanee, Georgia, says he recently returned from a textile show in Germany where the whole focus of the show was on cutting-edge fabrics in the high-end design and fashion markets as well as home textiles.

“The amount of textile was overwhelming,” he says. “But it really encourages me that there’s more on the industrial textile and home textiles than what most people think. There’s a lot of development in home textiles, everything from upholstery to wall coverings to carpet to drapery to bed coverings. You name it. Everything you would normally see in an IKEA, you saw at this show and to the extreme. I was surprised.”

The biggest takeaway from the show was the major advancements in fabric coatings. There were many applications and not just for digital printing but for UV protection, durability and anti-microbial.

The polyester of today is nothing like the polyester kids were forced to wear in the 1970s, he says with a laugh. Those were scratchy and hard to wear for long periods of time. Performance or athletic fabrics are now so soft and smooth you don’t realize you are wearing polyester blends anymore.

“There are so many different specific markets that are advancing because we are finding different ways to be able to use them and apply them for different processes, which opens up markets for direct textile printing or transfer as well as other ink sets as well,” Martin says.

There was a lot of buzz last year about dye sublimating hard substrates. “That has kind of calmed down a little bit,” he says.

It was used a lot on the ad specialty side. Now Martin sees a rise in interest in taking great photographs and making art reproductions of them on hard substrates, using dye sublimation.

One area he thought would be trending but hasn’t quite taken off is custom-printed safety apparel. With fluorescent inks, it is now much easier to customize this type of apparel.