Recent developments in digital fabric and textile printing have helped alter the wide-format industry landscape, expanding print providers’ opportunities into the growing fabric graphics market. With qualities ranging from distinctiveness to ease of handling to lower shipping costs, fabric graphics have much to commend them. But newbies to the niche should realize this is not an easy field to master, nor a segment where they can expect to underprice veteran competition.
Few North American companies are better acquainted with the learning curve required to successfully compete in fabric printing than McRae Imaging, of the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, ON, Canada. In 2000, president Bob Murray, who had purchased Floyd McRae’s photo lab three years earlier, saw a fabric print of a butterfly in an Ontario museum. “It was shimmering, it moved,” Murray recalled.
“Just the way it looked, it was different and unique. I went to our lab manager, a real technical genius, and asked, ‘How do we do this?’ He said we could convert our Mimaki to dye sublimation. The rest of it just kind of evolved.”
There was, however, much learning undertaken during that evolution. “One of the things that was fortunate for us was that we had a reputation with a Florida company looking for someone to do dye sublimation fabric prints for a pop-up display,” Murray observed. “We said, ‘We’ll figure this out.’ It took us six months. We had to figure out color profiles. There were many, many hurdles. The learning curve is huge. Maybe not quite as huge today, but still big.”
Murray believes many veteran print service providers who enter the fabric printing niche underestimate the challenges of doing fabric printing well, at least at first. Among the obstacles they face are getting colors right and mastering a substrate that doesn’t possess the same characteristics as common materials.
“Guys come out of other types of printing, but fabric is a unique animal,” he said. “Fabric absorbs light, so you can’t get a good color reading. It’s a really tricky product to print because it doesn’t act in the same ways as do products that don’t stretch. There are many, many things you have to understand about fabric printing that add nuances to the technique.”
Completely in agreement is Juvenal Andrade, general manager of Santa Clara, CA-based EXL Prints, which specializes in trade show booths and pop-up displays. “One of our biggest issues is color management,” he said.
“We’ve actually hired a full-time color manager, who does nothing but color profiling for each fabric. We currently offer about seven different kinds of materials for trade show booths, banner stands, table covers, and canopies. Each fabric has a different finish, a different weave, some may have a different hue, and some may be brighter or whiter. All of that is a factor when we’re doing our color prints. If you do one material with a bit of a yellow hue that’s not visible to the eye, and you add red, it’s going to turn orangey. So we do our test runs in the morning, and see how the materials will come out.”
The challenges grow more complex when the same color or design has to be printed on different kinds of fabric, he added. For instance, if a client asked for Coca-Cola red to be printed on 10 flags and a single pop-up display, that color better be consistent from the flags to the pop-up. “And if you have the same image on two different fabrics, it can be a nightmare,” Andrade said.
It also takes experience to get the heat transfer part of dye sublimation just right. If the heat transfer is done too fast, the colors can be washed out. Do them slowly, however, and the colors can be too saturated, he explained.
Another observer who lamented the difficulty of getting color right in fabric printing is Gene Sobel, president of Orange, CA’s Sign-Mart, since the mid-1990s solely a reseller to the trade. “When you stretch [fabric] and the fibers separate, you’re introducing more light and throwing off the color,” he said.