“It is demand that determines what we bring to market,” Fisher said. “We’ve had some demand for apparel fabrics, so we brought together a new apparel line of fabrics. And within that apparel line, there was a demand for direct-to-fabric printing, so we came out with a line of coated fabrics specifically for that apparel line.”
Also noting the growing popularity of fabric printing is Michael Richardson, Chesapeake, VA-based director of sales and marketing, print media, for Aurora, IL.-based Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc.
A 118-year-old fabric finisher, Aurora Specialty Textiles Group purchases fabric directly from weavers and processes the material, adding scouring, whiteners and optical brighteners. The company can also incorporate waterproofing, softening agents and fire-retardant agents to the fabric to make it even more applicable to different uses.
Aurora Specialty Textiles Group serves a broad range of industrial customers, including those that make sandpaper and medical and gaffers tape. Its print media line, branded as Northern Lights Printable Textiles, is sold to digital print service providers, to screen printers for direct screen printing, and to lithographers for art reproduction.
Richardson reported that of the two methods of dye sublimation, the transfer method offers the richer image reproduction and the broadest color gamut. But the other method, dye sublimation direct, is an emerging force in the marketplace.
“I see that method growing at a faster rate than the transfer method, because it is the latest technology,” Richardson said. “The transfer method is a superior method, but the direct method is growing, because it eliminates a step.”
In addition to the advantages mentioned earlier, fabric gains adherents due to its being gentler to the environment than some other materials, Richardson said.
For instance, PVC is not an environmentally friendly material, and rigid substrates aren’t considered green either, because they are heavier, consume more room and thus require higher shipping costs and impose a larger carbon footprint.
More green fabric products are being unveiled, Richardson added. These earth-friendly entries are made of recycled polyester and other reused content. Aurora offers two such products: Act II and Replay 2. The demand is substantial. “We get calls weekly from PSPs asking, ‘What do you have that’s green?’” he reported.
Aurora also has a program called Fabrecycle, in which PSPs can send their trimmings and cuttings and print material no longer in use, and it will be recycled. “We take all that fabric back, and we place it in back in the recycled stream, turned back into other useful products such as carpet padding,” Richardson said.
In existence for about a year, the program is used by Aurora Specialty Textiles itself for all its own trimmings, Richardson said.
Opportunities for PSPs
In order to avail themselves of the many opportunities in fabric printing, print service providers need to take advantage of direct-to-fabric printing systems, Faulkner asserted. “Once they have that, there is a wide range of customers they will be able to market to,” he added. “It can include people in the manufacturing industries, and people interested in custom curtains, custom scarves and wall coverings. There’s one company that’s doing custom pillows.
“There are some companies specializing in banner stands. The hospitality business calls for custom bedding and upholstery, and custom tablecloths tailored to either specific events or displaying a company‘s logo.”
Additional opportunities can be found in textile sampling. For instance, a design firm may have a new design it wants to present to a department store buyer. The cost-effective move is to produce a limited run of the design for the buyer’s approval, before taking it to a fabric mill and having thousands of yards produced, Faulkner explained.
Barefoot is another expert convinced the future of fabric printing lies in serving the traditional textile marketplace. The U.S., he said, is about five years behind European countries like Italy and France in utilizing this emerging technology to create products from pillows to silk ties. “Your start-up costs are the same, whether it’s one pillow or 100 pillows. But with traditional textiles, you have such high start-up costs.”