How to be a Digital Textile Printing Expert

If you’re out to master the art and science of digital textile printing, there’s good and bad news to consider. First, the bad news. Being able to turn out quality digitally-printed textile products requires what one expert calls a never-ending learning curve. Understanding printing technology, ink chemistry, and the dizzying array of fabric choices is only the beginning of the challenge.

You also have to design a process right for you, master profiling, acquire the ability to provide outstanding finishing, and ensure you’re doing it all at optimal productivity and profitability. And don’t forget the importance of finding a niche that can serve as springboard to greater market penetration.

The good news? Hurdle all the above, and you’ll be in great demand.


Enhancing Expertise

According to Avedik Izmirlian, becoming a digital textile printing expert can be daunting. Izmirlian is president of Digitab Systems Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that has specialized in textile printing for 19 years.

“There is no such thing as an absolute expert in digital textile printing, because the learning curve never ends,” he asserts. “The basic thing you need to know is that printing on textiles is not like printing on paper, because each different fiber has to be printed with different kinds of inks. The pre-treatment and post processing varies as well, depending on whether you’re printing on nylons, silks, polyesters, cotton, or other types of fabrics.”

Others experts, such as Randy Anderson, product manager with Phoenix-based Mutoh America, Inc., report many variables go into achieving expertise.

When producing custom textiles, some applications require a great deal of information, and others much less, he points out. “First, you should know which technology is best suited for your particular textile application,” he says.

“You need to print direct-to-fabric when using natural fabrics for product output [going into] home furnishing, fashion, and traditional textile products. Usually these will need to be coated for dot control.

“Direct printing may require some post processing to set the ink and wash out coatings and carriers, and can require a specialized fabric handling system to transport fabric through the printer. These add to the cost of equipment.”

In dye sublimation, by contrast, a reverse image is printed on paper-based media, heat is applied and the dye is sublimated into the fabric.

This is the typical application for polyester, a cut-and-sew product whose end uses range from sportswear to trade show displays, t-shirts, flags, banners, and specialty items, he says. The process is versatile and can also be employed to produce a wide array of polyester and polyester-coated materials from fabric to metal, including awards, promotional, and personalized items.

Understanding ink chemistry, printer technology, fabrics, and the process in which the ink is delivered to the finished product is critical to becoming expert, Anderson says. But keeping in mind the finished product’s end use may be the most important consideration. “This will affect not only your choice of materials and application, but also the method in which you design your process,” he says.

“If you are producing trade show graphics for a few uses...certain practices are acceptable. If you are proofing textile for mass production, your practices need to be on a different level.” In the latter, he says, it’s essential to make informed choices on the mix of hardware, media, software, and materials to provide the best results for customers, while at the same time achieving the level of productivity and profitability you require to compete in your own marketplace.

Echoing this point is Tomas Martin, strategic marketing manager for HP Large Format Production division with Hewlett-Packard Co. “For a print service provider to become a digital textile printing expert, the first and most important step is to identify the intended use of the fabric,” he says.

“Clearly defining the end product determines what media is selected, required performance, and application life as well as important process steps.”

Another authority argues that selecting fabrics appropriate for digital printing is the biggest key to getting the best results, and being seen as expert.

“That means quality fabric that doesn’t have a lot of dust or debris,” says Keith Faulkner, president of Richardson, TX-based Splash of Color, a 27-year-old distributor that specializes in digital textile printing.

“For best results, there’s a direct print finish coat provided by mills that helps give you a sharper, crisper image. When they’re applying that, they often apply a fire-retardant coating that is important for many applications such as trade shows and any other public spaces that require materials to be fire rated.”

Like others, Faulkner believes attention to ink chemistry is also crucial. “It’s important you select an ink that has a wide color gamut, to give you nice bright colors, deep dark blacks, and produce lots of pop,” he advises.

Another tip is to ensure that the equipment be in a relatively controlled environment from both a temperature and humidity standpoint. It’s not a sound idea to place the equipment in a warehouse and assume it will be just fine.

The ideal temperature for sublimation printing is between 66 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit, with an optimal humidity level of 45 percent, Faulkner says.

HP’s Martin believes learning how to optimize cost structure by reducing the overall investment with a versatile printer and reducing the need to use special materials or papers to transfer ink to textiles can be a key to success.

Those who head companies in the business of producing digital textile printing have their own distinct views of the keys to textile printing expertise.

For Neal Zucker, president of Southern Tailors Flag & Banner, an Atlanta company that dates to 1875 and has been involved in digital textile printing since 1998, the secret to expertise is knowing the market niche you can fill.

“You have to start somewhere, and you start with a niche before going into the full textile printing market,” he observes. “Really key is to explore your own niche market, where you already have a following, and find out where digital textile printing fits within that niche, and what type of products are viable.”

“Later, you’ll find other opportunities outside your niche. And sometimes you’ll explore them and divine providence will come your way. The customer will say, ‘I need something,’ and you’ll respond by saying, ‘I can do that.’”

Ask Scott Snoyer, president and CEO of Nashville-based Brand Imaging Group, about the most difficult aspect of attaining textile printing expertise, and his answer is finishing. “You have to find a seamstress who can sew, and a variety of sewing machines to do different things,” he says. “One machine may be doing a standard hem, another machine will do a different type of finishing. You might have a single-needle machine and a double-needle machine. You may need a serger. You won’t get away with one machine doing everything.”

Personnel issues are also important. Snoyer believes it’s not possible to convert someone in your production facility who has never sewn before into your go-to sewing specialist. “You need to find a good seamstress who already knows how to sew, then apply her skills to our industry,” he asserts.

“I found a seamstress who could sew, but she had never sewn a pop-up, like one that might go on a hardware stand. Seamstresses have to adapt to that type of job…You may have to make the fabric do one of several things. You might have to fold and make a hem on it, you might have to sew Velcro to it, you might have to serge an edge. That requires expertise in sewing.”

Making matters more difficult is that the fabrics used in digital textile printing tend to have wildly different characteristics as well as purposes, all of which must be accounted for in production. Some fabrics have no stretch, others have both an incredible amount of stretch and shrinkage, Snoyer says.

“I have always have believed there is a large learning curve in textile,” he concludes. “There’s so much to it. It’s going to take some time for you to become an expert in the textile printing world.


Available Equipment Options

Printer options are available for shops at every level of expertise and productivity in digital textile printing, Izmirlian says. There exist, for instance, entry-level printers appropriate for those printing five to 10 yards an hour. There’s an intermediate level with a capacity to print 40 to 70 yards an hour. And there are newer generation printers that can print 100 to 300 yards per hour.

“There’s also a printer in the market that can do the job at a much, much faster speed, but it is very, very expensive,” he says. “Digital printing on textiles in short-run applications is definitely cost effective. You’re skipping the cost of cutting screens and there’s almost no limit in the type of image you can print.”

Kevin Currier, manager of application solutions for Durst Image Technology, US LLC, agrees wide choices exist in equipment. But in selecting equipment, you have to be careful to compare apples to apples.

“There are things to consider before narrowing your choices,” Currier says. “A very important consideration is whether you want a water-based ink, versus older technology like solvent or oil. Is a CMYK printer good enough, or do you require a wider gamut through the use of light inks and light blacks? Also consider whether you want to use transfer paper or print directly to fabric.

“Width and throughput of the printers usually represent the first considerations. Are you able to use a narrow printer, and seam fabric sections together, or does a full three-meter-wide printer make more sense?”

Mutoh’s Anderson says available equipment extends from direct-to-garment to direct-to-textile to dye sublimation printers, and from desktop format 8.5x11 to 120-inch printers. “Depending again on your application and productivity requirements, there will be a model in that range that can provide the service you need to maintain your business,” he says. “What we typically find are multiple installations of printers, where an end user may start out with a single printer, then add similar printers to keep up with the demand growth.”


Essential Prepress Requirements

According to Anderson, prepress requirements also vary depending on the customer’s needs.

Prepress requirements can be virtually non-existent, for example, in instances where you’re creating personalized items from home photos or Web-based design programs. On the other hand, they can be very important in the case of mass production orders requiring matched consistent results across multiple application types and equipment, he says.

Prepress considerations for textile printing are not much different than that in other digital print processes, Currier argues. A good RIP that handles light to dark ink transitions is important. In-house ability to generate ICC profiles gives the textile printer an edge. Given the wide range of fabrics available, the need to optimize profiles in sync with the calendar is usually done by acquiring software, equipment, and the ability to do these tasks on the fly, he says.

Faulkner is another who emphasizes that the fabric to be printed upon should be given a good color profile.

“The color profile will contribute first to proper ink density, or the amount of ink the fabric can hold without losing resolution,” he says. “The other aspect is using a good spectrophometer in conjunction with the color profiling software to ensure you can create a good color profile for the specific fabric you’re printing.”

Adds HP’s Martin, “A RIP is essential to drive the selected unit as well, sometimes coming after a pre-flighting process. A spectrophotometer is also required to be able to calibrate translucid materials to create color profiles.”

From his perspective as a producer, Zucker believes the prepress process can be likened to the carpenter’s rule of “measure twice and cut once.”

“If you have words on your printed material, convert those words to art, so you don’t have to deal with fonts. If you have photographs, make sure you have the support files, so if you have to do color alterations, you have the photo to work with, and also make sure you have Pantone equivalents of CMYK.”


All Sewn Up

We haven’t reached the stage in which digital printing is replacing conventional printing in textiles, Izmirlian says. But digital textile printing expands and opens new business opportunities, no only because of the type of images that can be printed, but because of the technology’s ability to handle short runs cost effectively with quick turnarounds, he says.

Which brings us to what Zucker says is the ultimate question when considering digital textile printing: “What result are you seeking to achieve?”

Do you want to do a quality job you can get top dollar for? If so, do the job right, or not at all. “Don’t make excuses,“ he exhorts. “You have all the tools you need, from color to a great file, and you take the time to do the job right.

“If you do the job right, by definition, it will be a great job.”