The Fabric of Our Lives: Understanding Digital Textile Printing

Textile printing is about as old as printing itself. Some of the earliest examples of printing on textiles come from third-century China, where textile printing was done using wooden blocks. In the West, textile printing ran the gamut of printing technologies before screen printing came to dominate the market in the latter half of the 20th century. Alongside screen, however, was dye-sublimation, typically a two-step process that involved printing on a transfer sheet, then using heat and pressure to offset the image from the transfer sheet to the fabric. If you were a kid in the 1970s and were familiar with iron-on T-shirt decals, you have seen dye-sublimation printing in action, albeit on a much smaller scale than commercial textile printing.

Digital textile printing today comprises a wide variety of printing technologies, from dye-sublimation, to solvent inkjet, to latex, to UV, to...you name it. Each of these printing technologies has its strengths and weaknesses, and handles certain textile substrates better than the others. For many hardcore textile printers, dye-sublimation is the go-to technology for garment printing, or any textile printing that requires a more natural “hand,” or how the printed material feels to the touch.

“I’ve had a lot of people lately doing uniforms and clothing,” said Lynn Krinsky, president of Stella Color, a Seattle-based wide-format printer. “They want that to be soft, for sure.” Krinsky has seen other printing technologies get better at printing on textiles, but, she said, “those are usually for big giant pieces that you’re not going to feel, like a big banner hanging from a ceiling.”

Stella Color was founded more than 26 years ago and initially specialized in rubdown transfers. The company went digital with the first IRIS printers and in the years since has amassed virtually every wide-format printing technology on the market, earning a reputation for printing on all substrates great and small—the more creative and “weird,” the better. The company is also dedicated to environmental sustainability, and is certified by the Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership.

 

Fabrics To Dye For

Dye-sublimation, by virtue of the fact that the pigment particles physically become part of the fabric, is also well-suited to applications that require washability, colorfastness, and durability.

If there is a limitation to dye-sublimation, it is that it performs best on polyester materials, and few if any dye-sub systems can print on 100 percent cotton. Direct-to-garment printers from Epson and Anajet, to name but two, can print directly on cottons, but can require pretreatment of the fabric, especially if printing white on black.

“We’re strong on 100 percent cotton and high cotton blends,” said Joe Longtin, Midwest regional manager for Anajet. “Things like canvas, linen, and hemp are surfaces that take the print really well. We also are strong on light and white polyester synthetics, and we have a poly primer that people can use. We have a greater range than dye sublimation that only prints on synthetics.”

 

Before and After

The challenges of textile printing are not limited to the printing—in fact, it could be argued that the printing is the easiest part of the process. Prepress—specifically, color management at one end—and finishing at the other present obstacles and potential workflow snafus. Stella Color, like many other shops, handles a variety of different kinds of print products for clients in addition to textiles, and often is required to match colors from platform to platform—even if they aren’t printing those items themselves. “We always ask if they have something to match,” said Krinsky. “A lot of times, well print those other items. We don’t print brochures or business cards, but if it’s posters, or something on another material, we’ll match the color internally ourselves.”

Then there is finishing, and the finishing equipment required is a function of the textile products a shop is producing. “You do have to know how to finish it,” said Krinsky. “It’s not good enough to print it and transfer it. It’s got to look nice, it can’t have a lot of wrinkles in it, you can’t have puckers in it.” Stella color has a wide array of finishing equipment, but for their textile work, their postpress gear includes hot knives and sewing machines. Floor space is always at a premium, but Krinsky points out that the actual printing and finishing equipment itself isn’t what takes up a lot of room. “We do a lot of fulfillment, too, and we end up with palettes and boxes and places to put finished product,” she said.

On the other hand, direct-to-garment printers like Anajet’s models print on “ready to wear” T-shirts, rather than fabrics that require postpress sewing and assembly, and as such only require a heat press for finishing. “If they’re already established in garment decoration, they have a tunnel dryer or a conveyor dryer, which also works with the direct-to-garment process,” said Longtin.

 

One-Offs

What may alleviate the space requirements for fulfillment is the biggest trend in textile printing today: the ability to print as few as one item at a time, as the print-on-demand model expands to include textiles.

“Print-on-demand and the ability to print very few at a time has driven this whole digital thing,” said Krinsky. “A lot of the people that come in my shop that want to do uniforms or duffel bags or things like that, years ago they’d have to do thousands of yards at one time. It may be more expensive per yard now with short runs, but they don’t have to pay for 5,000 or 1,500 yards.”

For direct-to-garment printers, Anajet’s Longtin feels that shops are going to have to add capacity for shorter runs sooner rather than later. “A large screen printer who resists adopting some kind of short-run technology is shooting themselves in the foot,” he said. “If you’re a larger producer and you’re producing 3,000, 5,000, 10,000 pieces per month and someone comes to you and asks, ‘can you produce five?’ and you’re turning him down, you’re sending him to the guy who has the storefront across the street, who has the capacity to do five, but also has the capacity to do 50.”

As anyone in general commercial printing can tell you, “short run” is a relative term, and Longtin said that many of Anajet’s customers today are seeing their T-shirt runs get longer—but, again, longer in a relative way. “There are always going to be onesie, twosie orders, but [lately] folks are seeing larger batches—20s, 30s and higher,” he said. But then, he added, “one customer had to do 10,000 prints which was totally unexpected.”

 

Design for Textile

Longtin advises anyone seeking to get into the textile printing business—especially the garment printing side of it—to hone their graphic design skills. “It is a unique skill to design something that’s going to look good on a printed garment as opposed to screen or on paper.

“Your image is going to be sitting on someone’s back or chest,” he added, “and you have to ask the question, ‘Do I want this to feel like a solid block of ink or do I want there to be breathing room?’ Take advantage of the fact that you have colored substrate—a black, navy blue, or a bright red shirt—and take a portion of the graphic and strike it out as the background. That lends a dimensionality to the print.” Ultimately, “You can have a photograph on a shirt or you can have a piece of art that interacts with the garment so the entire garment becomes a piece of art.”

 

The Real Challenge

For any printer today—not just a textile printer—the real challenge is not technological. It’s the way the business has been changing, not always for the better, and while printing, and printing textiles, is easier than ever today, it also means that textile printing—like other printing—is in danger of becoming commoditized. And the problem with commoditization is that it drives down prices to virtually unsustainable levels. That may be good for the consumer—in some ways—and it may be good for the small shop that can get into the business with low barriers to entry, but it does present problems for established companies like Stella Color.

“There are many people working out of garages with printers or in small shops who’ll take a job where you know they’re not making a dime and we’re supposed to compete against that,” said Krinsky. Meanwhile, as the equipment has become less expensive, potential customers have acquired their own printers. Even if they can’t match the quality of a dedicated textile printer, they at least see a cost savings. “There really is no way to fight against only price,” said Krinsky.

Still, one of the best ways to combat the commoditization of textile printing is to demonstrate that, very often, you get what you pay for. “All you can do is try to have a really good relationship with your customer, and explain to them what you’re doing, and hopefully they can appreciate it,” said Krinsky. “If they can understand that if you meet their deadlines, if you give them quality, and if they value that and it helps their business, hopefully they’ll stay around.”

 

New Profit Centers

As with many other types of specialty printing, textile printing can simply be an extension of the products a shop already produces. “A T-shirt is just another substrate,” said Longtin. “If you’re already doing vinyl, wraps, or banners, you already understand the production process and you already have a customer base that looks and sounds and acts just like the customer base for a garment decorator.” Indeed, there are opportunities to reach out to that current customer base and offer them new products or services, and in fact Longtin estimates that as much as 10 percent of Anajet’s customer base comprise signmakers and wide-format shops.

And therein lies the opportunity. “When you can sample your customer base and say, ‘By the way, here’s something else I did for you to thank you for your business with the sign, or the banner, or the wrap: here are a couple of free T-shirts with your logo on them,’” he said. “It costs you six bucks to make a couple of T-shirts, but you just did them a huge service and they’ll come back to you with their T-shirt orders.”

So when it comes to textile printing, creative thinking is not just limited to design and production, but marketing and self-promotion as well.

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