by Cassandra Balentine
One of the growing uses of direct-to-textile printing is garment production. While the technology can be used for one-offs, industrial presses support production-level quantities.
Above: Among its wide format offerings, Canon Solutions America offers the DGI FH-3204 hybrid dye-sub printer featuring the flexibility to print either paper transfer or direct to fabric.
Depending on the desired look, feel, and use of a finished garment, textile printers work with clients to select the appropriate inks and fabric for the project.
A variety of fabric options are available for direct-to-textile printing related to garment production.
Mark Krzywicki, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, Inc., sees interest in both woven and knitted fabrics depending on the end application and garment type. “100 percent cotton fabric is popular, but there is also increasing interest in blended fabrics, which can be printed with pigment ink technology. It is important to consider the quality of the fabric and make sure it’s well prepared for digital printing to ensure good results.”
Popular fabrics include nylon, polyester, and cotton. Careful consideration of how the fabric stretches when fed through the printer is essential. “Two-way stretch tends to produce a higher quality result compared to four-way stretch when run through a roll-to-roll printer,” suggests Tony Simmering, product manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
Fabric selection is often determined by the buyer of finished garments. “In production textile printing, we see a lot of cotton, linen blends, polyester, and polyamides. Much of this is determined by the buyer’s desire for a specific look and feel in addition to overall cost of materials and production method,” says Mike Syverson, textile manager, Durst North America.
John Ingraham, senior marketing specialist, Canon Solutions America, states that textiles for garment printing typically include polyester and polyester blends for performance fabrics and cotton/cotton/polyester blends. He notes that swimwear printing consists of nylon blends and some polyester, and silk is common for fashion accessories such as scarves.
Direct-to-textile inks include sublimation, pigment, acid, and reactive ink sets. Pigment inks tend to be the most popular for this application due to their flexibility and lower post-press requirements.
“The choice depends on the customer’s application, fabric type, existing workflow equipment, and investment budget,” states Krzywicki.
“Pigment, reactive, acid, and disperse dye inks are most commonly used in digital printing. Each have advantages and disadvantages with things such as color gamut, adhesion to different fabrics, and washability,” admits Simmering.
“Pigment inks offer the most flexibility to print on a variety of different fibers, but typically have a smaller color gamut compared to other types of ink,” says Ingraham. He notes that sublimation inks can only be used with polyester fabrics, reactive inks provide excellent color results on cotton fibers, while acid inks work best with nylons and silk.
Specifically in North America, Krzywicki feels pigment is a good solution as it offers a simpler workflow, flexibility to print on a wide variety of fabric types, and is less water intensive.
“As an ink type, pigment printing is incredibly versatile, because unlike any other ink set, it can successfully print onto any fabric, of any fiber composition, using one process. Pigment printing relies upon the strength of the ink’s binder to lock the pigment particle to the fabric, while other ink sets use tailored chemical bonds that only work with one fiber type or another,” shares Sharon Donovich, marketing director, Kornit Digital.
Syverson says this is also the case globally. “Worldwide, pigment inks are utilized more than any other ink set. They are relatively inexpensive and require the least amount of post-processing to create a finished, printed fabric. In the digital printing world, pigment inks allow for a single-step process to print textiles, as you can print and fixate the ink with a single process, assuming the ink and print technology is designed for printing pigments,” he explains.
In addition to actual printing, several other processes are essential in direct-to-textile garment printing, including washing, drying, and steaming of fabrics.
Both the ink set and fabric play an important role in the steps needed to produce printed textiles for garments. For example, Syverson explains if you’re using reactive dyes for cotton and linen or disperse dyes for polyester, the fabric must be steamed and washed after it is printed to fixate and remove excess dyes and chemistry from the fabric. However, if printing nylon-based fabrics with dye, an acid dye is normally used, which also requires steaming and washing.
The various ink types require different processes to maximize their advantages and minimize their disadvantages. “For example, pigment ink requires fabric be pretreated for proper color output and disperse dye needs steaming for proper adhesion. These steps are determined by both the fabric and ink set in combination,” offers Simmering.
Ingraham adds that dye-sublimation (dye-sub) and pigment require minimum post-processing after printing and as such are considered dry printing processes. “Reactive and acid inks need steaming and washing after printing.”
“For dye-based inks like reactive, acid, and disperse the process includes pretreatment, print, dry, steam, wash, and final stage post treatment as needed,” comments Krzywicki.
For pigment ink the process includes pretreatment, print, dry, and final stage drying/fixation; with post treatment as needed to improve fastness and/or hand feel of the printed fabric. “Since the pigment ink process does not require steaming or washing, it reduces turnaround time, investment, and infrastructure required, as well as overall water use,” adds Krzywicki.
“The advantage of pigment-based textile inks is they can require little to no post-processing after printing. This reduces overall cost, energy consumption, water usage, and labor. Additionally, it streamlines the process and reduces steps,” stresses Syverson.
Donovich agrees, stating that pigment inks are common chosen due to their ease of use. “Not only is the processing route less cumbersome and time consuming, but also, as opposed to other ink sets, color matching and design approval can be achieved contemporaneously on the machine as it prints.”
Digital and Automation
The adoption of digital print technologies and automation for direct-to-textile production is growing, however manual processes—particularly in finishing—are still very much in use.
“We see a high rate of growth in the digitally printed textile market. In many cases, traditional analog—rotary and flat screen—print companies are adding digital solutions alongside the rotary presses to increase versatility and speed to market. These systems may be configured with reactive dyes, disperse, or pigment,” says Syverson.
“Many major custom fabric producers are using digital printing systems to produce high volumes of material,” agrees Simmering. He says the quality of life advantages of a digital system are moving print providers in that direction.
There are several benefits to the digital process, including the advanced ink sets utilized.
“The digital process, especially pigment inks, is a more streamlined approach to printing textiles. There are no post-processing requirements, which drastically reduces resource consumption. Additionally, one operator can run a digital system or in some cases, multiple machines,” shares Syverson.
He points out that rotary screen presses require multiple operators in addition to the finishing equipment required for rotary printing. Further, setup time on a rotary press can be costly in terms of time and wasted fabric preparing for the production run.
“Digital printing offers many advantages over analog technology,” agrees Krzywicki. Benefits of digital direct to fabric are in many ways similar to those in other printing markets. “For example, the ability to better serve shorter run jobs more efficiently with minimal setup time and cost, the ability to print new types of high detail designs, and less space required to house equipment,” he says.
Krzywicki admits that despite this, a majority of the global market continues to print using analog technology. “However, as in other digital print applications, there is a growing demand for digital. Cutting and sewing of garments remains primarily manual due to low labor costs in the countries that are leaders in apparel production.”
Migration is happening, and Ingraham sees many companies moving some or all of their textile print production to digital in an effort to reduce power, water, and space requirements. “For bespoke applications, digital textile printing offers shorter setup times and reduces material needs to produce very short printing runs. Digital printing offers the ability to print photo and continuous tone images.”
Time and money savings remain the biggest advantages of going from analog processes like screen printing to a direct-to-textile process. “Depending on the equipment, the setup cost can arguably be less as well as the ability to drive the per piece cost down significantly on custom or one-off work,” offers Simmering.
“While digital printing of textiles continues to increase, analog printing with flat and rotary screens remain the dominant printing method,” summarizes Ingraham.
So why hasn’t everyone migrated all processes to digital, considering the advantages? “One concern is that digital printing systems go obsolete much faster than analog printers,” points out Ingraham.
However, he stresses that digital printing provides advantages in terms of power and in the case of dye-sub and pigment printing reduces water consumption and extensive post-processing.
“There tends to be a resistance to change when it comes to ‘the way we’ve always done it,’” adds Simmering. While he admits there is a fairly significant learning curve transitioning to digital printing, once that hurdle has been jumped the pure versatility and productive capability of digital far exceeds an analog system.
“As with any revolution, there are always the early adopters and those who join later, but with the pandemic and fast-changing consumer behavior, manufacturers that will not progress, move, and embrace technology will have a difficult time answering the market and industry needs. The ability to produce sustainably and on demand, close to the consumer and without design limitations is what the fashion and textile industry needs today,” admits Donovich.
Krzywicki feels that digital print offers an opportunity for North American print shops to regain some volume that has been outsourced to other global locations. “Comparatively, the high labor costs required to convert the roll of fabric to the garment remains an issue for companies to adopt a local, fully digital/automated garment production solution. Manufacturers may be swayed by a desire to better control inventory and supply chain issues as well as consumer demands for improvements in sustainability and worker safety.”
“For many companies that already have analog print systems such as rotary screen presses, the challenge is the capital investment required to bring a digital system online,” notes Syverson.
However, he feels the long-term advantages of a production-level digital system can easily offset the capital expense when factoring in speed to market, ease of product changeover, savings in producing and storing screens, labor to run the device, and sampling.
Direct to Textile
Garment production benefits from the advantages offered by digital, direct-to-textile printing, including the versatility and flexibility to cost-effectively produce customer work that clients demand. IPM
Jun2022, Industrial Print Magazine