Selecting the Right Fabric for the Right Application

Living in the Material World

With any printing project, it’s all about choosing the right tools for the right job, and this is especially true when selecting fabrics for printing. Fabric selection for textile printing is critical to any successful textile printing application, especially considering the range of applications and printing methods that are out there.

With so many inks and textile fabrics to choose from, all with different properties, it is essential to select the right combination to fit your application. To ensure optimal print quality, all stages of the production process must be carried out with meticulous detail. As market demands continued to change, digital technology now has become the favored choice as a method for printing onto textiles.

Factors to Consider

According to Bruce Walker—a sales manager at HEYTex Technical Textiles, headquartered in Bramsche, Germany—several factors come into play to accommodate both the application and the specific customer requirements when choosing fabric. “The printing platform has a lot to do with it because the ink used can affect the overall weight and feel of the finished product,” he says. “Durability and intended use will also factor in depending on if the image will be moved to multiple locations, remain in storage or possibly be displayed outdoors where UV stability is a big issue. The breadth of the campaign being one location, regional or international is also a factor because international or country-specific fire certifications may come into play for indoor applications.”

Expand International printed these displays using fabrics from Fisher Textiles. (Image courtesy of Fisher Textiles)

“We have learned over the years that you have to stay focused on what materials work well with different kinds of inks,” adds Dani Locastro, director of operations at NY-based First2Print. “You need to know what your best parameters for each scenario are and what inks work best with different kinds of fabrics.”

Printing Check List

Locastro says the key to selecting the proper fabric for any particular application is knowing what the finished product will be. She notes that with each job they go through a stringent printing checklist that leads them to a number of options. The first thing to find out on the checklist is whether the fabric needs to be permanent, or will semi-permanent be good enough?

“Each answer can take the client in a different direction of fabric choices and printing methods,” Locastro says. “The next question we ask is what is being manufactured or created from this fabric? Will it be used for projects such as a garment, interior decor, fine art reproduction or fashion accessories? Does the fabric need to be opaque or sheer? Will it stretch or not, or will it shine or be dull? Will this final product be used for retail consumption? Or is this a prototype? And lastly, will this fabric be used to simulate a previously printed design on a different type of fabric? Once all these questions are answered, we have a better idea on the direction of the project,” she explains.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Applications

The next point to consider is whether the fabric is being used for indoor or outdoor applications. Mike Von Wachenfeldt, technical services manager for Glen Raven Inc., Glen Raven, N.C., reports that a good rule of thumb is that more of the indoor fabrics/textiles will be of a lighter weight construction and likely be a polyester-based fabric.

“Translucency will be another consideration as will flame retardancy,” Von Wachenfeldt says. “For flat panels there are many options. For contoured applications, stretchable knit fabrics would be a logical choice. For larger commercial indoor applications, some of the awning and other common outdoor fabrics may also be used.”

He says that when considering outdoor applications, colorfastness and UV-resistance of the base fabric and the printed graphic are of major importance. Polyester fabrics tend to lose strength and degrade in a fairly short period of time when exposed to direct sunlight. Solution-dyed acrylic fabrics tend to perform better for longer-term applications. “Another important factor for long term outdoor applications is the UV resistance of the ink and the availability of clear over laminates or coatings that may extend, and in some cases double the life expectancy of the printed image while also adding a degree of abrasion resistance to the graphic,” Von Wachenfeldt adds.

Meeting Specifications

Locastro at First2Print says their focus is more on custom printed fabric that is sewn into product. “Different product categories have different specification requirements based on industry standards if they are going to be used for retail consumption. All categories have to meet typical crocking, lightfastness, washability, and abrasion standards.” The standards range results differ according to markets, she says. For example, an interior commercial space may have much higher flammability and abrasion requirements for fabrics than a residential space. And requirements for children’s products are extensive.

This trade show display features 5 x 5 meter lightbox and seamless Digitex Heylux fabric. (Image courtesy of HEYTex)

Locastro says that if you visit the website of the testing facility Vartest Laboratories (www.vartest.com), you can find the textile testing criteria and requirements of the American Standard for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC).

“Major manufacturers and brands require third-party testing for mills. First2print works with the basics: crocking-dry and wet, lightfastness, and abrasion for different fabrics.”

“Outdoor applications typically require a high standard for light fastness and permanency for outdoor banners making pigments and solvents a good ink set for that which we do not use. Fabrics and inks have to be a match regardless of the printing method because of textile science. Certain fibers bind with certain dyes/pigments through the printing process to give you permanency. In digital fabric printing, some fabrics with some dyes need a pre-treament so this ‘marriage/binding/hooking up’ can occur,” Locastro says.

Printing Technology

Sharon Roland, advertising, promotion and publicity manager at Fisher Textiles, Indian Trail, N.C., believes that the most important factor that you have to take into consideration when selecting a fabric for an application is the type of printing that will be used to complete the project. “If the print method is UV-cure, these printers can print on virtually any fabric, coated or uncoated. If it is a latex printer, the fabric does not need a coating and uncoated fabrics will suffice. If the printer is a direct solvent or direct dye-sub device, coated fabrics are needed to hold the inks in place and prevent bleed. Once the print method has been specified, the next thing to take into consideration is the environment of the application, indoors or outdoors and keep in mind outdoor conditions that would affect durability such as sun and wind exposure,” she says.

Roland adds that it is also necessary to be aware of flame retardancy requirements and any standards required by a fire marshal. After these main points have been determined it is easy to narrow down fabric choices and look at weight, stretch and openness.

Glen Raven’s Von Wachenfeldt notes that polyester fabrics are required for any dye sublimation process, whether woven or knitted. For direct-print solvent, UV-cure and latex ink applications, a PFP (prepared for print) product may be more suitable and allow for printing without a high degree of test printing and adjustments to the printing process.

“Another process involves using heat and vacuum to apply thermal-activated adhesive-backed digital print films to solid-color outdoor textiles. Being thermally activated they offer a more durable bond than a pressure sensitive film, which is active at all temperatures. Thermal films are activated at an elevated temperature and then harden (while remaining flexible) at normal indoor/outdoor temperatures,” he says.

Under the Sunbrella

Von Wachenfeldt says Glen Raven’s direct-print fabrics—suitable for use with solvent, UV-cure and latex inks—include Sunbrella Inkjet White, which is an awning/marine fabric with a white-pigmented inkjet-receptive coating on the face. “It is suitable for long-term outdoor use in applications such as awnings, banners, pop up tents and car covers. Our Poly Oxford materials is a woven 8 oz polyester fabric also with a white pigmented inkjet receptive coating. It is suitable for seasonal outdoor applications.”

He adds that their Firesist product is suitable for dye sublimation printing for indoor use for awnings or banners as well as short term/seasonal outdoor use when dye sub printed.

“For longer term outdoor graphics we also offer our SGS thermal digital print film for applying digitally printed graphics to our Sunbrella solution-dyed acrylic fabric, and Firesist solution-dyed polyester awning fabric. It can also be applied to a variety of other fabrics woven fabrics to mesh PVC products,” Von Wachenfeldt says.

Fabrics from Fisher

Roland points out that Fisher Textiles has numerous quality fabrics for various print methods and applications. “Top selling indoor fabrics for dye sublimation and UV-cure printers include GF 4417 Soft Knit, GF 4480 Heavy Knit, GF 9049 EZ Stretch and GF 8874 Tri Poplin,” he says. “Applications for these include pop-up displays, geometric shapes, backlit textiles, silicone edge graphics and window displays. Outdoor products for these print technologies include 1010 Element, GF 4201 Flag, GF 5412 Flag and GF 5351 Waterfall. Uses include awnings, flags, outdoor signs and tents.”

Sunbrella fabric with digitally printed SGS digital print film applied. (Image courtesy of Glen Raven Custom Fabrics and Trivantage)

HEYTex Offerings

Walker says that generally speaking, most PVC-based fabrics will do well on solvent printers; and that combining a PVC-free material with latex printing technology fits well for environmentally friendly applications. UV-cure printing will work on all fabrics, he says, and dye-sub applications are best served with knitted polyester fabrics. “HEYTex has developed a ‘universal product platform,’ which makes many of our coated fabric products compatible with eco-solvent, solvent, UV-cure and latex printing,” he explains.

“On the other hand, our Digitex Decoflex product has a treatment rather than a coating to allow for a softer hand and has achieved great results on dye sub as well as latex and UV-cure print systems for frontlit applications.” Walker adds that their Digitex range is a versatile five-meter seamless wide-format fabric, and that Decoflex features a wrinkle-resistant soft feel that is great with latex inks.

Scott Fisher, president at Fisher Textiles (a U.S. distributor for HEYTex), says that Heylux is a five-meter-wide high-quality backlit material, and is the first of its kind being both compliant with European standards (REACH) and also PVC-free.

“It is a multi printer platform compatible media, but it really ‘shines’ with UV-cure printing,” Fisher says. “Having no PVC, Heylux allows for greater illumination showing off the true intended colors of the image in dynamic fashion. Heylux was designed to answer a growing global trend for large and grand format illuminated images in retail environments.”