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Your First Textile Printer

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

Printed fabrics continue to grow in popularity so it is no surprise that many sign and graphics shops are looking to get into the fabric-printing market. But what should you look for in an entry-level fabric printer?

The answer is, it depends on what you want to produce, says Tommy Martin, product manager, textile and apparel business development and marketing for Mimaki USA.

“Selecting the right printer relates more to the ink set and process rather than the printer,” he says.

Transfer dye sublimation is probably the best option for an entry-level fabric printer, he says, adding that shops that are looking to get into this market should determine how easy the printer is to use, whether or not it has an expanded ink set, meaning the color palette goes beyond CMYK and is office compatible, meaning that no special room or power is required.

“Transfer media is inexpensive and the range of final fabrics is quite broad, as long as the materials are either polyester-based or polymer-coated,” Martin says. “This two-step process requires a heat press to sublimate the ink into the fabric. The advantage with transfer dye sublimation is that the transfer media is easy to handle in the post-transfer process, and the images display sharper colors and clearer images that offer increased wash-fastness.”

Mimaki offers the TS30-1300 entry-level transfer dye sublimation printer, which starts at $9,995. Martin says it is economical to use and is best suited to “just-as-needed production of flags, banners, apparel, soft signage and custom goods.”

The printer can be configured with four- or six-color inks, plus fluorescent pink and yellow.

Shops can purchase entry-level direct-to-fabric printers, which eliminates the need for transfer paper, Martin says. If you want to print directly on fabric, look for printers that can print on a variety of fabrics, natural or synthetic, with varying thicknesses, have a range of ink capabilities, material handling and built-in systems for productivity, such as bulk ink, nozzle check and recovery systems.

Randy Anderson, product marketing manager for textile at Mutoh America, believes that ease of use and maintainability are the most important items shop owners should look for when shopping for an entry-level fabric printer.

“If you’re just getting into the business, having a reliable machine and reliable service is going to mean the most for you,” Anderson says. “At that point, you are dependent on that machine for that chunk of your business.”

Mutoh’s fabric printers are designed on pre-existing technology. It has installed a fabric handling system onto an existing machine, along with weights and counter weights that allow a shop to set it up for each type of material as necessary.

“Fabric has unique properties and you want it flat under the print head when it is printing. That is a special challenge with fabric,” he says. “It has taken a lot of effort to get a fabric handling system that handles fabrics that way at the entry level.”

What you want to do with your fabric printer will determine which type of printer you buy, he adds. Machines that print directly onto textiles are great for natural fabrics, cottons, hemps and silks. If you want to print on polyester swimwear, transfer dye sublimation is the best option.

“Most of the direct print fabrics will work better if the media is coated for ink, whereas if you are doing transfer, you don’t need any coating. Heat transfer of polyester, that solution has been around for many years. It is very stable in the industry as an application right now,” Anderson says.

Dye sublimation is popular in the decoration side of the business for things like key chains and clothing.

He adds that he sees a lot of mom and pop organizations doing dye sublimation because they want to print on sportswear, swimwear and all kinds of polyester clothing. Mom and pops do get into direct-to-textile printing occasionally, but there are “not as many because it is a more limited market,” he says.

Lily Hunter, product manager, textiles and consumables, for Roland DGA, says that along with knowing what types of fabric you want to print on, it is also important to realize there are different ink technologies for different types of fabrics.

“There’s no one size fits all so we need to define that. What kind of fabric and are we talking about fabric for signage or something you are going to wear?” she asks. “If they want to do both, the most popular technology is dye sublimation.”

If a shop is buying large rolls of fabric, then it is essential the shop buy a printer that is wide enough to handle it. Most fabrics come in at 60 inches wide or wider.

“If you have the wrong size printer, you can get narrower widths, but you are spending more per square foot of fabric because the manufacturer will take that roll that is 60 inches wide and cut it down to width. The waste from it won’t be usable but you’re paying for it,” Hunter says.

She recommends shops figure out what applications they are interested in and then talk to the fabric manufacturers to talk product offerings and confirm roll size. That will determine printer size and what type of matching heat press the shop will need to go along with it.

It is also important that shops talk to the company they are purchasing a fabric printer from to see if it needs any special power requirements. Also, companies don’t want the heat press in the same room as their dye sublimation printer because it is “critical to control your environment” with sublimation printing, she says. “Your printer has to be a certain temperature plus humidity range,” she adds, “and that will prevent issues with the printer.”

Ask the printer manufacturer to come out and do an onsite evaluation to make sure you have the right power and space requirements for it. It’s also important to find out what the warranty and service options are on the model you are considering purchasing. See if the dealer offers any training on the printer.

Some dealers will charge for the training, which usually includes how to use the software, workflow, how to use the printer and how to maintain it.

“I tell people: One, look beyond the sticker price. See what is included, and two, remember you are going to have this piece of equipment for a while, assuming your business plan is good. You don’t want to outgrow your printer either,” she says.