By Michael Syverson
Digital textile printing has been a growing market trend for at least six years now in North America, but within the last two years, especially, interest has reached an all-time high. Print service providers (PSPs) have educated many of their customers about the benefits of fabrics over other substrates, including lower costs for both drayage and longer-distance shipping, due to lower weight; ease of handling and storage; and permanency as reusable graphics. Most importantly, these customers have begun to take note of the esthetics of dye-sublimated fabrics, which tend to convey a perception of high quality.
Printing on fabrics is no longer a new concept. While there is still a continuing stream of education being delivered—both showing PSPs how to do it and explaining to customers why to have it done—most of the industry seems to have a good, basic understanding of digital textile printing in general. And many businesses have recognized opportunities for new profits as this market segment continues along a healthy upswing.
That said, there are still some areas of confusion, particularly given the growing range of printing technologies available.
Sublimation and non-sublimation
Digital textile printing in a traditional sense involves dye sublimation, a process that uses heat and pressure to convert solid dyes into a gas and permanently infuse them as colourants into a polymer-based material, usually polyester (see Sign Media Canada, May 2014, page 56). Today, however, it is also possible to print graphics on fabric using ultraviolet-curable (UV-curable) or durable aqueous ‘latex’ inks.
With dye sublimation, the fabric retains its look and feel, sometimes referred to as its ‘hand.’ The other types of fabric printing are not comparable in this respect, as they place ink onto the surface of the substrate, rather than permanently infusing it within the fabric. So, the resulting graphics cannot be washed, folded or handled in the same ways as a dye-sublimated piece. They also do not generally have the same high-end appeal.
‘Non-sublimated’ digital textile printing is typically used for specialized applications on non-polyester fabrics, like cotton or canvas, where dye sublimation is ineffective. It may also be adequate for many shorter-term printing needs.
Dye sublimation remains the optimal production method for retaining the esthetics and other benefits of fabrics along with image permanence. This is important for signmakers to keep in mind as they consider how to respond to increased market demand for printed fabric output.