Fisher Textiles booth

Printing onto Stretchable Fabrics

Advances in print and ink technologies have made printing on fabric more accessible and with that has come an influx of new types of printable fabrics, including stretchy ones that can be used for everything from apparel to trade show booths and backlit signs.

Most industry experts agree that it poses less of a challenge to print on more rigid fabrics, but stretchy fabrics are very versatile, especially when it comes to retail signage, silicon edge graphics, backlit signs and trade show booths.

Scott Fisher, president of Fisher Textiles in Indian Trail, N.C., says that graphic designers need to take the stretchiness of fabric into account when making their designs. They also need to figure out how taut they want the fabric to be as it moves through the printer. That will determine how small or large a design looks when it comes out the other side.

Transfer printers have an easier time of printing on stretchy fabrics because the image is printed before it reaches the fabric. As long as the fabric goes through the heat press without too much tension on it, the image should turn out fine. If there is too much tension or not enough tension, the printed design will turn out larger or smaller than expected.

Fisher advises print shops to make sure the tension isn’t too high on either end. On some printers, there is a place to put a roll of fabric and another roll at the end to uptake the finished product.

“On the exit side of the transfer machine, the fabric’s very hot and can be almost permanently stretched, not 100 percent, but it definitely can elongate the fibers. This goes for stretch materials and non-stretch materials,” he says.

If the fibers are stretched upon exiting the machine, the print will be longer than you want it to be.

“You have to take the stretch into account when you lay out your design and decide how much tension you want on the fabric while it is on the frame. Some people may purposely undersize the graphic so that they can stretch it two or three inches on every side so it is nice and taut. Whereas with rigid fabrics, you wouldn’t be able to do that,” Fisher adds.

When printing direct, the same advice holds true for the intake and outtake of the machine. Many printers have tensioning devices on them so that a printer will have better control over how the fabric moves through the machine, but stretch fabric is still hard for direct printers to handle, he adds. “The stretchier the fabric, the harder it is to handle.”

Fisher Textiles tries to design fabrics that have less stretch in the machine direction for that reason. It has a popular fabric called Power Stretch, which is 94 percent polyester and 6 percent Spandex that is about 20 to 25 percent stretch in the machine direction and 50 percent in the width direction. It can be printed both directly or transferred.

“If it was the opposite, 50 percent in the machine direction of the fabric, it would be very challenging for someone to print that,” he says. “Twenty to 25 percent makes it easier for them to handle.”

The good part about fabric is it has good wrinkle resistance. If the fabric has at least 20 percent stretch, the fabric doesn’t have to be sewn within a quarter inch of the edge to make it fit. The fabric can just be stretched to fit.

“If a client is very particular that a logo needs to be dead center, that becomes an issue. Depending on the image and the client’s expectations, stretch fabric can be a benefit or something that is a challenge,” Fisher says.

Many retailers are using stretch fabrics in pop-up frames and in overhead signs that are pillowcased for trade show use. That means they are stretched over aluminum tubing that is formed in various geometric shapes.

Fisher Textiles performs stretch tests on fabrics that aren’t considered stretch materials.

“They have no elastic fibers in them but we know that customers are stretching the rigid fabric and they still need consistent stretch on those,” he says. “In the textile world it is not a stretch fiber if it doesn’t have a stretch fiber in it like Spandex or Lycra, but in the world of the printer, if they can pull on it and make it wider, it is a stretch fabric and so we end up treating a lot of rigid fabrics the way we treat stretch fabrics in quality control.”

Printers need to know how much a certain fabric is going to stretch. If they believe it will have 2 to 3 percent stretch because it is technically a rigid fabric but it stretches 10 percent instead, the image won’t look right. It needs to be consistent.

True stretch fabrics like Spandex or Lycra don’t take dye sublimation inks the same way polyester does, so it is something to be aware of, Fisher says. The dyes can rub off or crock off when packaged next to white fabrics. The percentage of elastic yarns in stretch fabric can affect color and color fastness.

“There’s always going to be certain applications where vinyl is probably going to be a much better option,” says Scooter McIntosh, senior sales support manager at Value Vinyls Inc. in Grand Prairie, Texas. For instance, large banners that stretch across streets. But fabric has made it so easy to put together exhibits and switch out graphics without having to hire a company to do that.

“Some of the graphics you see come out of these soft images are just so vibrant. They look so good. I think a lot of it has to do with … the more satin or soft hand products have such a smooth feel to them and that kind of transfers to the image you get with it too,” he says.

Exhibit companies like stretch fabric because “it gives them the ability to have a little room for error when it comes to fabricating and actually sewing the edging,” McIntosh says. “If the fabric tends to stretch a little bit, it gives them a little bit of room there.”

Value Vinyls has sold vinyl sign media since 1984, when the company was founded. As the industry has evolved, the company added textiles to its repertoire. The textiles the company sells are designed for both solvent, eco-solvent and dye-sublimation inks.

It has a stretch twill that has a very soft satin hand and a light stretchy application. It is for backlit products. He says that you can get a nice taut finish on it if putting it on display. In addition, it produces another stretchy fabric that is good for flags or display system applications. It is a 100 percent knitted product, which comes in sizes up to 5 meters. It is good for front lit illumination inside and outside. Many people use it for pole banners.

“Especially in the higher rent districts, you see a lot of textile being used outdoors, as opposed to vinyl now,” McIntosh says.

Another stretch fabric it offers is 100 percent woven polyester with a special ribbed back, which allows good light diffusion. That comes in a wide width as well, he adds, which is good for roll-to-roll printing. It is good for exhibition or display systems or any kind of projection on a backlit.

He says that a printer doesn’t need to do anything special to the company’s fabric to get a good print on it.

“All of these products are formulated to give you very vibrant prints and the color really stands out and becomes very vibrant,” he says. “It accentuates the color from the way these are formulated. It is the treatments they put into the fiber that allows for that.”