By Melissa Donovan
Digitally printed garments continue to appear whether the person wearing them knows how they were produced or not. Many sports teams—professional and recreational—benefit from digitally printed graphics. Athleisure and activewear are also popular applications. Custom pieces from boutique designers are gaining ground as well.
Above: TVF Polyester Spandex 4-Way Stretch Dobby Ripstop.
Specific types of fabrics are used to create this apparel. Fabric manufacturers—many of which are familiar with digital print fabrics from the signage side of things—continue to address this by introducing updated and new materials.
Sporting and Boutique
Demand for digitally printed garments continues to come from the activewear, athleisure, and sporting wear sectors. More recently, consumers chime in by requesting one-off, customized apparel that is also digitally printed.
Ken Siecinski, apparel program manager, Top Value Fabrics, believes athletics is where a good share of the demand for digitally printed apparel began, as custom designed uniforms are an attractive option for many. Stemming from this is growth in demand from the women and men’s athleisure/yoga market. “Smaller manufacturers who could never produce their own custom designs before because of the large quantities and high costs are now able to thanks to digital printing.”
“Previously, time to market was longer and the market supported a bulk buying end user strategy. This occurred through rotary screen and screen printing, with the process being inception of finished garments, sample approval, production, and transit time to destination,” explains Donald P. Burke, CFO, Beaver Paper, a member of Koehler Paper Group.
Small- to mid-size brands steer towards more domestic production and show increased interest in U.S.-made fabrics and eco-friendly options, agrees Ali Maalizadeh, director of digital apparel, Fisher Textiles. He expects this trend to continue, in addition to more personalized or one-off garments going forward.
Hunter Ellis, president, Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems, sees an uptick in boutique designers creating for digital printing over the last five years.
“The end user or consumer is dictating the demand within the digital print world. Time to market, personalization, and customization are the norm. The end users or consumers expect unique pieces immediately and printed on demand,” explains Burke.
One example of personalization, according to Siecinski, are ecommerce sites where consumers submit their own art or photos for custom, one-off contemporary clothing. “We have seen growth in corporate advertising sponsored events, which include fundraising, company/employee get togethers, and other corporate events,” he continues.
Growth in digitally printed apparel continues into the future thanks to what Ellis believes is a “grass roots movement, with smaller companies designing for digital print and scaling up organically. It is almost always going to be cheaper for large scale projects/brands to print overseas, whether traditionally or digitally.”
Certain features must be addressed if a fabric is used in a garment. The most important criteria—stresses almost all fabric manufacturers—is that the textile is optimized for digital print. From there, it is important to address features you would look for in a garment like breathability.
According to Ellis, clothing designers don’t always understand how important it is to choose fabrics optimized for digital printing. He gives an example of how it is easier to process and print on a woven percale than it is to print to stubby knit rayon with metallic threads woven into it. “It is important to find a balance between fabric that is ideal for digital printing and the fabric that the designer has in mind. The more flexible the designer and the printer, and the more communication throughout the supply chain, the better the end product,” he continues.
It should be acknowledged early on in the exploratory process what type of digital printing technology will be or wishes to be used. There are a number of ink options when it comes to printing directly to textiles including pigment, reactive, disperse, and acid. While some are more complicated due to multiple steps—for example both reactive and acid inks may require pretreatment as well steaming, washing, and drying—the quality and level of color is a positive trade off.
Pigment on the other hand is a popular one-step process for use with any type of textile, especially if a pretreatment is used. The same can be said of disperse dyes, which are used in the sublimation process—both direct and transfer.
While fabric can be printed to directly, dye-sublimation (dye-sub) transfer is a popular option to produce digitally printed graphics. The transfer paper is actually the component that accepts the initial ink laydown and is transferred to the textile for the final print. If this process is used, transfer paper becomes a large consideration in the process.
“The desirable features for transfer paper in high-volume textile printing environments are ease of use, economical ink usage, high color yields, quality of final print, color gamut and density, crocking, and ultimately price point,” shares Burke.
Beyond recognizing the importance of media matching the intended ink, a fabric should offer certain performance features depending on the ultimate use. Siecinski says for a material used in a college football uniform, he would suggest the best performance products for durability. “We may recommend one style for the shoulder, collar, and sleeve areas; and another for different panels in the body portion of the jersey. Performance-wise good breathability and wicking features to keep the athlete comfortable in cool or warm weather is suggested.”
Conversely, for a youth football team where a child will outgrow their uniform in one season, Siecinski recommends fabrics designed to withstand a full season of sports and feature lower price points, but still have comfort performance attributes.
The Chicken or the Egg
Clothing manufacturers sometimes perform their due diligence and may already have a printer in place at their facility. Others come at it from the other end and learn about the fabric they need first, and then determine printing processes.
“We see different scenarios. Current dye-sub printers that were printing for other applications are now moving towards apparel. And, apparel manufacturers that currently sub out their print work consider adding printing to their cut-and-sew operations,” explains Maalizadeh.
There are often customers starting out in print that already buy fabric but have another company print it for them, so they are educated on textile practices, notes Siecinski. Apparel companies just becoming indoctrinated into the digital print world, in his experience, are typically shopping for fabrics and printers simultaneously.
Burke says about 90 percent of Beaver Paper customers are new to the digital print industry when it comes to sublimation printing on fabrics—and many have already completed their research and have printers in place. “Since Beaver Paper’s sublimation transfer paper is needed in the sublimation printing process, we find that our customers generally research their capital investment—the best printer for their printing applications—prior to sourcing fabric or transfer paper,” he adds.
“I’m most often contacted by people who don’t have a printer and are looking for basic information to get them started. ‘How do I do this?’ seems to be the most common question,” admits Ellis.
As clothing manufacturers continue to learn about the capabilities of digital printing, fabric vendors reach out to share their knowledge. Sometimes these relationships are as simple as educating them on a fabric portfolio or extends further to helping them find a print partner.
Sublimation paper manufacturer Beaver Paper works with customers to recommend the most suitable printer options for a sublimation application. “Price point plays a significant role in the decision-making process. It is a very competitive market and garment manufacturers must remain competitive,” explains Burke.
If a manufacturer is looking for sportswear and activewear fabrics, Beaver Paper suggests its TexPrint TA, which is specifically designed to work with fabric prone to shrinkage and movement during image transfer. To address the variety of surfactants and soil release coatings found on fabrics, the sublimation paper is offered in two versions—heavy and light adhesion.
Fisher Textiles helps customers find a print provider that is close to their geographical region and matches their experience in printing apparel fabrics. The company’s fabrics are primarily polyester, recycled polyester, and polyester spandex blends—offering a lot of options when considering dye-sub printing processes.
For example, out of its many apparel products, Fisher Textiles offers ET 3000 Yoga, a dye-sub printable circular knit compromised of 84 percent Repreve recycled polyester and 16 percent spandex. Suggested for use in athletic, fitness, or activewear; yoga pants; or even swimwear, the material is treated with Sorbtek, a moisture management system.
Jacquard often works with those hearing about digital textile printing for the first time and looking to make scarves, upholstery, or clothing. “I generally try to get a sense of their budget, end product, and whether they want to do it themselves or outsource the work. Depending on all these answers, I try to point them to one of my customers that I’m familiar and comfortable with, or put them on the road acquiring their own printing setup,” notes Ellis.
The company offers a range of fabrics optimized for digital printing including cotton, nylon, polyester, silk, linen, and polyesters. They are available for coating using two of the company’s options—FabriSign and ProCoat. FabriSign is ideal for textiles printed with water-based pigment inks, it not only yields brighter and stronger colors, it increases washfastness. ProCoat is advised for commercial-quality, dye-based printing, with coatings available for acid, reactive, and disperse dyes. The coating is designed to maximize fixation, color yield, and penetration while minimizing bleed.
Top Value Fabrics focuses on recommending the correct fabric choices for the item to be manufactured, but suggesting printer, ink, paper, as well as calendar suppliers are also essential. “There are so many good choices we can give them so they can shop to see which ones will fit their needs and budgets,” says Siecinski.
One of its popular products is an 88/12 Polyester/Spandex 4-Way Stretch Dobby Ripstop. The fabric is used for board shorts and swimwear, as well as wind shirts and windbreakers. Ideal for dye-sub printing, the special order fabric is available in base colors of pewter, navy, optic white, and black.
Textiles for Garments
For clothing manufacturers looking to add digitally printed garments to their apparel lineups, the time is now. Fabric manufacturers creating textiles optimized for digital print are excellent resources to learn about the right fabrics for the job at hand. IPM
Jun2020, Industrial Print Magazine