The Sign Connection: Textiles Weaving Into the Main Stream Sign Industry

Not long ago textile printing was a technology best left to the large players. Dye-sublimation printers were used to print in reverse on special paper, and then the paper-and-textile combination was run through large transfer presses where sublimation took place. This is a physical process where solids (ink pigments) are heated until they become gas, bypassing the liquid phase. The gas then turned back into a solid inside the actual threads of the textile, making a colorfast print of very high quality and color saturation. But equipment was expensive, costing $200,000 or more, and the learning curve was steep. Now, however, technology has progressed to the point where a modest sign company has a fighting chance in this growing market. There are still obstacles, but they can be overcome with much less pain than would have been possible even five years ago.

One of the inherent problems with printing to textiles is dulling of the image. Because textiles are woven fibers, much of the light projected onto a textile does not reflect back to the viewer. Instead it scatters, reflecting at all angles. This hinders prints from looking as vibrant as they could on vinyl or paper, for example. Solvent prints on textile tend to look flat and unremarkable, because the pigments migrate to the deepest recesses of the weave, leaving very little color on the surface to be viewed. But recent advances in print technology have marginalized this problem.

Most notably, direct-to-textile dye-sublimation technology has become more affordable and eliminates the traditional steps of dye-sublimation. Using heavily-modified printers such as the Mimaki JV33 or Mutoh ValueJet line, water-based sublimation inks are printed directly to the textile. The ink is dried, and then the printed textile goes through a large onboard heater that sublimates the ink in place. It’s a quick way to accomplish the same thing as the large operations, at a fraction of the cost. For those using HP’s latex ink technology, much of the pigments remain on the surface of the threads so that more light is reflected back to the viewer. It’s not as vibrant as a sublimated print, but for those who have the equipment already, it may be a good first step into soft signage without incurring the expense of another printer.

The other hindrance to getting involved with textile printing is finishing. At Signs Now, it’s been our experience that more people are afraid of finishing textiles than they are of printing them. It’s a scary thought – with banners and vinyl, we have tried-and-true methods of finishing. Trim the product, and perhaps add a hem using tape or a seam welder. With fabric products, though, there are more steps and if the results are flawed then there’s little recourse except to start over. Nobody in the industry was offering turnkey finishing solutions for textiles, so Signs Now partnered with Global Imaging and Singer Sewing Company to create our own.

To trim printed textiles, a serger is recommended. This is a specialized sewing machine that trims the fabric and encloses the edge with stitches, all in one step. This not only leaves a clean, finished edge on the fabric, but also prevents unraveling that can happen if the edge is left exposed. Once the fabric has been trimmed, a sewing machine is used to hem the edges or join two panels together. We’ve standardized on a four-thread serger and a light industrial sewing machine, and together the cost is a little over $500. Practice serging and sewing on scrap material or remnants from a fabric store and you’ll be competent at finishing in a couple of days.

Historically, there were substantial barriers to entry into the world of textile printing for the sign industry. Now, with the popularity of latex technology and direct-to-garment dye sublimation printers, and the ease of use of today’s finishing solutions, the only real barrier to entry is mental. In exchange for a modest sum and several hours of practice, however, those mental blocks can melt away and you can focus on finishing textiles competently – and getting paid by your customers to do so.