Indoor: Men of the Cloth

It’s not every day that an evolving, cutting-edge technology spurs a revival of a material in use for millennia, but that’s just what is happening in fabric printing. As digital printing becomes ever more sophisticated, the clients and end users of print service providers are increasingly demanding their materials be printed not on artificial-looking vinyls from the 20th century, but on the age-old natural medium of fabric.

You don’t have to look far to find evidence of the move to fabric printing. Observing a strong trend in that direction is Keith Faulkner, president of Splash of Color, a Richardson, TX integrator and distributor best known for marrying Roland printers with Italian-made on-board sublimation systems to produce integrated solutions.

Faulkner reported the move to fabric is coming chiefly at the expense of solvent printing on vinyl. Among the main factors behind the switch is that fabric provides a richer and warmer look, and can more readily be transported.

“If it is used in trade show exhibits, you don’t get the glare from the surface of the material you would get from vinyl,” he said. “On an emotional level, fabric is warmer than a hard, rigid substrate. It connects more on a personal level with purchasers.

“And it’s lighter weight, and can be shipped more easily and more affordably. You don’t get as much wrinkling, either. Part of that depends on the fabric. Some fabrics may be susceptible to wrinkling, but most fabrics will not crease. They can be rolled up or folded, and when you use them in the exhibit they are not wrinkled.”

Not only do fabrics easily fold, but they offer a soft “hand,” meaning the way they feel to the touch is inviting, said Andrew Oransky, director of product management for Irvine, CA-based Roland DGA. “Also, textiles can be made into dimensional objects,” he added. “Customers perceive printed textiles indicate higher-end, higher-quality goods. For extremely large-format graphics, fabric is safer to display.”

Moreover, fabric helps differentiate printers from the competition, Faulkner argued. “People printing on fabric can set themselves apart in a crowded field, charge their clients a higher price and have a better-looking product,” he says.

Concurring with that observation is Dan Barefoot, president of Graphics One, a Burbank, CA firm that offers the Go Salsa TX, a combination direct-to-fabric unit with fixation and dye sublimation, sold to two to three dozen North American resellers.

The advantages of fabric are particularly clear in the point-of-purchase environment. In that setting, Barefoot said, “there’s a lot of overkill with vinyl banners. You just don’t have the sleekness we see with fabric. Vinyl has a plastic feel, and those people in the retail industry want the much more natural feeling you get with fabric.”

Like Faulkner, Barefoot agreed that fabric printing provides a superior appearance. “Your colors pop a lot more,” he said. “Your inks are going all the way through the fabric. You just get a much more vibrant color, and the colors are denser.”

That’s one reason, he added, progressive retailers like Apple and IKEA that put a premium on more aesthetic POP displays are now using a lot more fabric.

What’s more, fabric is versatile enough to allow printers to serve a wide array of markets, printing flags, banners, trade show and exhibit materials. “We even have a fabric that’s a microfiber well suited to printing gaming tabletops,” Faulkner observed.

Wider Fabric Selection

Demand from an ever-wider array of end users and PSPs are spurring textile companies to introduce a broader selection of fabrics, said Scott Fisher, president of Fisher Textiles, a 20-year-old Indian Trail, NC-based company specializing in the manufacture of polyester fabrics for the digital print industry.

“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.”

Meantime, many wide-format imaging professionals are finding they already have the equipment necessary to begin a fabric printing operation, Fisher said. Many who own UV-curable ink printers purchased that equipment to print rigid substrates, but they are quickly discovering they can use the same machines, particularly the roll-to-roll machines, to print fabrics directly. “We’re seeing more of those printers who bought the machines to print rigid substrates using them for fabrics,” Fisher observed.

Given the growing interest in traditional textiles, the Holy Grail for fabric printing is going to be achieving the capability to print on any fabric without pre-coating.

“We’re pretty close to that,” Barefoot said. “We have a product called Fabink that is a pigment ink and does not need pre-coating for the ink to adhere to most natural fabrics, like cotton, silk, and linen. That’s where it’s heading.”

What’s the final word for PSPs interested in fabric printing? It’s that their success likely depends on their willingness to team up with seasoned fabric printing experts, Faulkner said. “It’s like anything else; the more you know about the technology, the better off you will be,” he added. “If they work with a reseller that has knowledge and experience in dye sublimation and fabric printing, they should be in good shape.”

And that, he says, is no fabrication.