By Cassandra Balentine
The availability of digital processes for printing to textiles opens up a range of opportunities. For the fashion world, the short-run—as low as one off—capabilities afforded by digital makes it possible for designers to create custom solutions produced on demand.
Several factors come into play for a successful digitally printed piece of apparel, including the availability of apparel textiles primed for digital print processes, the technology limitations of various textile printing processes and the ink sets, and the need for post-print finishing steps. Additionally, considerations like light fastness, wash rate, and hand are essential for selecting fabric for use in apparel.
Positioned for Digital
Digital textile printing is a great solution used to complement today’s evolving fashion industry.
Ali Maalizadeh, national director of apparel, Fisher Textiles, believes that digital print is providing more accessibility and opportunities in the market, avoiding paying for screen engraving and associated wait times. “Digital printing to textiles for apparel is definitely bringing speed and accessibility to the market,” he shares.
Fisher Textiles offers digital apparel fabrics specialized for dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printing. The products are ideal for athletic wear, garments, scarves, and swimwear. Several styles feature a moisture management chemical that allows perspiration to move away from the body, helps the fabric dry quickly, controls odor, and promotes comfort.
Kathryn Sanders, product marketing manager, apparel and home furnishings, Top Value Fabrics (TVF), points out that digital textile printing is particularly helpful when it comes to fast fashion. “While digital textile printing may not be able to compete with rotary screens on the extreme scales of big box fashion marketplaces—at least not yet—it can step in to do the same job for boutique brands and collections,” she offers. “Typically, when we think of fast fashion, we think of large scale production, but it is not always that way—especially with the growth of small businesses and the increased consumer commitment to shop locally. The brilliance of digital textile printing is the ability to incorporate printing on demand into a business model and produce a garment after it is ordered. It is a new type of fast fashion, but it responds to the same trend of supplying customers with instant gratification and current design trends. Fashion and printing on demand mirror each other in a powerful way.”
TVF offers several apparel lines of knit, woven, and warp knit textiles specifically developed for digital textile printing. Its polyester fabrics for dye-sub printing are optimal for active wear and athleisure collections. An extensive line of natural fiber fabrics—including organic options—are geared toward the contemporary apparel market. The natural fiber fabrics are specifically created for digital pigment printing. Additionally, TVF offers nylon fabrics for digital pigment printing and has the capability to create custom fabrics to customers’ exact specifications.
Hunter Ellis, president, Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems, considers digital printing on textiles to be an excellent tool for short runs, requiring minimal set up times and a relatively low investment. “Digital printers can utilize direct to garment or wide format printers to keep up with ephemeral trends and short lived waves, as well as customize both patterns and graphics to customers’ needs. There is also little reinvestment necessary when a design needs to change slightly—an entire new screen doesn’t need to be burned.”
Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems—the sister company to Jacquard Products—supplies textiles treated for digital printing, ink and pigment systems for digital printing, steamers, and related services.
“Whether you focus on fast fashion, short-run exclusive collections, or the growing trend of customization, digital textile printing is positioned to be the answer,” says Sanders.
On the Rise
As digital textile printing continues to grow in demand, apparel trends crop up.
Ellis points out that silk scarves are an easy way to begin digital printing textiles, so he sees a lot of requests for them. “High-quality, comfortable cotton knits and rayon also seem to be popular,” he adds.
Sanders notices two trends supported by digital textile printing—customization and short-run collections. In terms of short-run collections, fashion designers are building their brands based on exclusivity, yet they aren’t necessarily keeping their brands exclusive due to price point, but rather supply. Unlike before, running out of a style is built into the business model and consumers are fully embracing it. Creating short-run collections allows designers to build demand, but it also gives designers room to experiment with prints in ways that were either not technically possible or financially feasible. “Designers have the freedom to utilize unlimited color, experiment with photographs, and challenge scale and detail in new ways. Instead of featuring three prints each season in two colors, the options are unlimited,” offers Sanders.
She adds that the digital textile printing process also enables designers to invite consumers into the design process. “This technology supports the consumers’ desire to create custom apparel and gives them a tool box that is cost effective and easy to access. We’re seeing an influx of companies formed around this idea—many even produce unique apparel blanks that the consumer can effortlessly drop their design into.”
Maalizadeh points to environmental trends making their way to apparel. For example, Fisher Textiles offers fabrics created with recycled water bottle material for athletic and team apparel. “We see an uptick in demand for sustainable fabrics and products made in the U.S. We take great pride in the fact that Fisher Textiles products offer that.”
Types of Fabric
The availability of fabrics used for digital printing is somewhat limited to the printing process. Transfer dye-sub printing is still largely preferred, and works best with synthetic fabrics, including polyester blends.
Sanders points out that if you look at the tags of your clothes, you’ll discover rather quickly that the majority of them are blends. “However, not all printing processes are compatible with blended fabrics,” she stresses.
It is important to keep in mind that today’s polyester doesn’t resemble the scratchy, non-breathable polyester of the 1970s, according to Sanders. “In fact, polyester is one of the most advanced fibers on the market, and with the right moisture management finishes, is known to be more comfortable then cotton for active wear applications,” she shares.
While polyester blends are most popular, the demand for apparel textiles made with natural fibers is increasing. Advancements in digital printing technologies are what will make effective printing to these textiles a reality. In the meantime, Maalizadeh says the U.S. textile industry is just venturing into naturals and it is very early. “The digital printing process on naturals with reactive inks requires steaming and post finishing through a tented frame. New developments in pigment inks improve this process drastically,” he comments. “In order to print on natural fabrics, there are two ways, reactive—which is an extensive and expensive process—and pigment. Pigment quality was once far inferior to reactive in terms of colorfastness, wash tests, and hand; but this is no longer the case. Improvements in the pigment ink technology and these printers are streamlining the production process and lowering costs.”
Ellis comments that cotton knits offer high-quality results and a great hand. “Their flexibility allows for a wider range of garment applications, and they impart an intrinsic value to the garment that polyesters, nylons, and blends lack. Of course, they can be more time consuming and difficult to work with, but pigments are helping out in that realm.”
Sanders says digital pigment printing is the best option for printing blends and natural fibers, but the industry is still waiting for the technology to be perfected. Further, additional coatings may be necessary depending on the printer, and the wash fastness and crocking of the fabric should be assessed before going into production. She says if these elements are not addressed, an entire project or collection can be derailed as the last thing anyone wants to do is upset customers. “That said, experienced fashion designers know how to design around technology limitations and can even use it to their advantage, such as creating washed down contemporary or vintage looks.”
Selecting the right fabric is a critical part of the printing process. “The printing process will dictate what types of fabrics are compatible, but within that there are also many additional variables. If printing via dye-sub, polyester fabrics are ideal, but it is important to ensure that the construction of the polyester fabric is optimal for digital printing. The construction of the fabric can impact the print quality significantly. This is why it is imperative to work with fabric suppliers and be as transparent as possible in regard to the end use application. Every fabric specification—from the content to the weight—can make a difference in the final product,” stresses Sanders.
Maalizadeh says for apparel, direct dye-sub is not recommended and the availability of materials reflects this. Dye-sub transfer is preferred for apparel printing.
Sanders suggests nylon fabrics use digital pigment printing or acid for best results; cotton and other all-natural fabrics use digital pigment printing or reactive; polyester uses dye-sub; and blends use digital pigment printing.
“It is important to note that reactive and acid printing requires additional finishing equipment to stream and wash the fabric after it is printed. This reduction-clear wash down process eliminates excess dye on the fabric but compromises the repeatability of the print from batch to batch,” shares Sanders.
Ellis adds that dye-sub is best for polyesters, pigments for cotton and blends, and nylons are tricky and require either a good pigment ink system or acid dyes. “Direct dyes tend to have poor wash fastness with nylons, although they do work to a certain degree.”
Fabric Features and Future
It is critical to select fabrics compatible with the chosen printing process. From there it is best to pick a fabric that features a tight construction and low pile. These characteristics dramatically enhance the image clarity of the print. Additionally, if the chosen fabric is coated, the ink in the printing process needs to penetrate the coating. “For example, you can’t digital pigment print on a durable water repel coating because the fabric simply won’t absorb the ink,” cautions Sanders.
Consistency is key for digital textile printing. “If your fabric or printing environment changes, the fabric will need to be re-profiled. It is important to work with a fabric supplier that can ensure consistency from lot to lot—not just the fabric specifications, but the yarn and construction needed to stay the same for accurate color from project to project,” says Sanders.
Maalizadeh explains that specific to athletic wear, a good white point, minimal shrinkage, moisture wicking, and durability are important features of the fabric.
In the future, Sanders expects to see a continued trend towards exclusive short-run collections. “We’ll likely see more designers embrace color and experiment with prints and photographic elements. We’ll also see more print service providers target the apparel market and embrace the demand for customization. At the end of the day, it’s about leaning into the technology rather than setting up digital textile printing to fit the traditional mold of rotary screenprinting. If we do that, we’re limiting ourselves greatly,” she comments.
Maalizadeh says to expect more fabric, printing, and application options.
As the role of digital textile printing continues to advance, innovative designers in the fashion industry see the potential and start to incorporate the correct technology. This generates modern trends towards customized products and exclusive design runs. Meanwhile, technical advancements in pigment ink for textile printing extend the possibilities.
Dec2018, Industrial Print Magazine