By Nancy Ingalls August 10, 2005 -- With the competitive gap closing on pricing for digital prints on paper, commercial printers are always looking for valued added services to sustain their competitive advantage. From what I can tell, fabric printing appears to be a way to get those margins back up again. High-speed, easy-to-use digital textile printing provides unparalleled design flexibility and greater cost efficiency compared to traditional printing methods. So, let's look at the various methods for printing digitally onto fabric. We'll brush the surface of dye sublimation, image transfer without sublimation, and directly printing onto fabric. Each methodology has its pros and cons, and its role in the market. However, keep your radar open to UV digital inkjet print. It is on the forefront of technology for printing on a variety of media including fabric. We are all aware textiles are beautiful, vibrant, dynamic and now, thanks to on-demand digital printing, more profitable. High-speed, easy-to-use digital textile printing provides unparalleled design flexibility and greater cost efficiency compared to traditional printing methods. So what is out there today ? Dye Sublimation Dye sublimation can be performed on an electrostatic printer using dye sub toners or on an inkjet printer using inkjet dye sub inks. The images can be transferred to fabrics with a high polyester content. The main advantage of the process is that the dye is permanent, and the resulting image can be washed and handled the same as any dyed fabric. In dye sublimation printing, an image is digitally printed in reverse with special dye sublimation toners or inks onto regular media. The image is then placed on top of a polyester-based or coated fabric, and subjected to high heat and pressure from a heat press. The dye sub toners or inks sublimate--a scientific term meaning a material goes directly from a solid state to a gaseous state, without becoming liquid in between--and flow into the fabric, dying the threads. Good RIP software has color tables especially for dye sub which significantly helps with color matching. Still, there are some cons to dye sublimation printing. First, the special toners or inks are such that going back and forth between them and normal toners or inks is not feasible for machine run time optimization. Serious dye sub users devote a machine specifically to dye sub. Second is color management, because what comes off the printer is one step removed from what the final image on the fabric will look like. Managing toner concentrations on electrostatic toners is already a challenge, and adding dye sublimation to the mix exacerbates the problem. Good RIP software has color tables especially for dye sub which significantly helps with color matching. The problem is less substantial in inkjet dye sublimation, since the user doesn't have to worry about the concentration of the ink the way an e-stat user needs to worry about the concentration of toner. Whether to use an inkjet or an e-stat for dye sublimation really comes down to the quantity of work being done. E-stats are easily 10 times as fast as inkjets, and they cost about 10 times as much. But the volume may justify the added cost. Image Transfer A traditional sample of a new piece of apparel costs thousands of dollars, whereas a digitally created sample could cost under $100. There are a variety of products on the market that transfer an image onto fabric without dye sublimation. To use these products, images are printed using normal inkjet inks onto the special media. The media is laid on top of the fabric, and then placed in a heat press or laminator. The image is transferred to the top of the fabric when a release layer on the media comes off and fuses to the fabric. The image thus is sandwiched between the fabric and the release layer. It is a durable, brightly colored image, but gives the fabric a definite "hand," (similar to a decal ironed onto fabric). The advantages of these over dye sublimation are that they can be transferred to a wider variety of fabrics, not just polyester-based fabrics. Another transfer method employs a heating cylinder to force the inks into fabrics of various types. Direct Printing The advantages of printing directly on the media are numerous. First and foremost, there is no transfer involved, so what you see coming off the printer is what the final image looks like, it's simpler than the other methods and expedites the design process. With the introduction of UV digital printers, the ink is cured to the fabric and will withstand washing and sunlight. Keep in mind if the fabric has a lot of elasticity, transporting the fabric from roll to roll may be difficult. For an artist creating a print that will hang on a darkened museum wall, outside on a building, or creating fabric for apparel or upholstery banners, flags or fine art, the opportunities are endless. Fabric Description/Qualities Applications Poly Poplin Very popular fabric Flexible-fits frames tight Wrinkle resistant banners table covers trade show applications point of purchase Satin Elegant-silk like Has life to it Good color vibrancy banners fashion applications point of purchase materials Freedom Very popular fabric Polyester equivalent to vinyl Excellent color saturation & durability banners indoor & outdoor applications good water resistance Silk Taffetta Translucent Super lightweight-yet durable Good bleed banners flags trade shows and exhibits Flag Polyester equivalent to nylon Can be backlit banners outdoor applications flags Atlas Our heaviest material Canvas like texture Deep penetration and color saturation levels Cotton like banners backdrops Sheer Our lightest and most translucent fabric Can be viewed on both sides banners, flags see through applications fashion applications Mesh Open weave Fabric stretches (meets NFPA 701) banners outdoor and large applications Versa Very popular Can be paneled together Cotton like lite canvas banners used in many applications Table 1 Fabric Applications To Market, to Market The apparel industry is the largest of the three main fabric printing markets. Digital printing seems logical for the market, because creating a traditional sample of a new piece of apparel costs thousands of dollars, whereas a digitally created sample could cost under $100. Photographic and tonal graphics created with millions of colors in Photoshop can be printed on fabric. Latest development of inks, coupled with the RIP technology containing excellent color management software and substrates enable users to produce wider color gamut and finer printing quality. Clothing designers can't afford samples that don't exactly match what the final product will look like. Fine art work is a good market for many commercial shops. Working with artists is definitely a challenge many small shops may not be prepared for, but they don't have the same issues as apparel designers. Artists may ask for reproductions of their originals-which would need to be scanned in and then printed onto canvas, for example-or they may have art created digitally that they need printed out onto fabric. Fine art can also be commercial. Take hotel chains for example, they may want multiple copies of a painting printed onto canvas to decorate guest rooms. The most logical fabric printing market for printers would be the commercial signage market. The most logical fabric printing market for printers would be the commercial signage market. Just as the ability to print or transfer to vinyl has helped many printing businesses enter the vinyl sign market, so the ability to print or transfer to fabric may help printers enter the banner and flag market. So, think beyond paper to expand your print capabilities. Offer your customers an array of services for the quality they trust and rely on.