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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Large Format Printing: Printing Fabric and Garments

I have a client who for the past three or four years has been producing and reprinting small color print books for fashion. I have written about her before in this blog. She is a “fashionista.”

Her books are like small PMS books, but they tell you what colors are appropriate for your clothing and make-up based on your complexion. These little print books are an example of industrial (or functional) custom printing: that is, printing that decorates items with a practical use rather than just a promotional or educational goal. A street sign or a computer keyboard would be two more examples of functional printing.

My client has been producing these color books on a local printer’s HP Indigo digital press, but now she plans to expand her product offerings to include clothing based on the same color theory. So this week we discussed fabrics, ink sets, and press runs, and I began to study in depth those digital technologies that allow designers to print on fabric.

How I’m Approaching My Client’s Job

Fortunately, I already had a cursory understanding of fabric printing. I knew that polyester required dye-sublimation printing, and cotton fabrics required inkjet. Since my client was starting to articulate the specific clothing items she wanted to decorate, I started to study the materials from which they were fabricated. Then I went to the online fabric printing websites she mentioned. My client said she preferred the autonomy and control that came from finding her own financial backers rather than buying fabric printing online. (Apparently, in some cases you can provide art files to vendors who will produce your clothing for a cut of the profits, returning to you only a percentage of what they sell. My client didn’t want this.)

Therefore, I approached the commercial printing vendors I work with who have large format printing capabilities. However, I quickly learned that for the most part these vendors focused on vinyl banners, not clothing.

So I called up a vendor I knew dealt in exotic packaging, marketing promotions, and large format signage. I think this will be a good starting point. My client’s first priority is to produce 100 units each of five items of clothing. These range from scarves to t-shirts in solid, unique colors.

From my research, I first learned that the composition of the substrate matters a lot in how you image fabric. Therefore, as the next step I found a list of fabrics my client had already researched through her online fabric printing vendors. They included everything from lycra to rayon to cotton, gauze, chiffon—words I had only heard before on TV fashion shows my fiancee watches. Fortunately, my client could pare this list down to a few specific fabrics, noting precise percentages of materials in the blends.

Colors, Fabrics, and Longevity

Based on my client’s desire to offer solid-color t-shirts, it seemed that direct to fabric might be the best option (this I learned from one vendor). Direct to garment, the other option, seemed more appropriate for designs printed on the front of a shirt, for instance. The t-shirt would be held firmly in place in some sort of “jig,” and the design would be directly inkjetted or sublimated (for polyester t-shirts). This means the ink would be turned from a solid directly into a gas (bypassing the liquid phase, hence sublimation) using a heat press. This gas would migrate into the garment, solidify, and bond with the polyester fibers, providing superior durability and brilliant color.

Unlike the banners and even the table throws printed with UV ink or latex ink, the dye-based inks used in garment printing would actually go deeply into the fabric. They would not sit on top of the fabric. For clothing, this would be ideal.

I also learned that the dye-based inks could be either printed first on a transfer sheet (or “liner”) and then the images could be transferred through heat and pressure onto the polyester material, or they could be jetted directly onto the fabric and then bonded to the fibers of the fabric with heat and pressure.

Since the direct disperse method (the name for the direct printing option) would send the dye-based ink deeper into the fabric, this might be a plus, since my client’s t-shirts (which would start out as white shirts) could potentially be dyed all the way through the fabric (so the part facing the wearer’s body would also be in color). Apparently, the printing of an image or even a solid color via a transfer sheet would not go as deeply into the fabric.

Inks

From my reading I then learned about the various kinds of water-soluble, dye-based inks and their pre- and post-treatment requirements. These include:

  1. Disperse and sublimation dyes. These are used to print on polyester, rayon, lycra, acrylics, and similar materials. After printing, they must be treated with heat to ensure the dye’s bonding with the substrate.
  2. Reactive dyes. These are used to print on cotton, linen, rayon, and other celulose-based substrates. They require both pre- and post-treatment.
  3. Acid dyes. These are used to print on wool, silk, cashmere, nylon, and similar fabrics. They require post-treatment.
  4. Pigments. These are used to print on natural fibers such as cotton. They require post-treatment.

(Based on my research it looks like the pre- and post-treatments include some or any of the following: washing, chemicals, and/or heat, to fix the dye-based inks permanently.)

From my reading I learned that my client’s specific custom printing inks would depend on her choice of fabrics, and her choice of fabrics would depend upon the specific garments she wanted to produce. (For instance, the sheer scarves might be treated very differently from the t-shirts.)

The Digital Advantage

To put this in historical perspective, prior to the advent of digital custom printing, my client would have dyed the fabric from which her t-shirts would be made (or the shirts themselves) in hot water baths of dye. Probably she would have been required by the manufacturer to produce a large minimum number of t-shirts to make the job cost effective. She might also have had access to only a limited color palette.

If my client wanted an image or pattern on her garments, she would have needed to print the job via custom screen printing. This too would have required a large minimum order based on the extensive work required to prepare the screens and ink, as well as to clean up after the production run. Presumably there also would have been a limited number of color choices for printing the art or patterns.

Given that my client wants to offer a plethora of colors and print limited production runs, digital custom printing via either inkjet or dye-sublimation (directly or with a transfer sheet) will allow her to keep the press runs low, the color saturation high, and the color and pattern options varied.

Printing to Garment or to Fabric

At this point, the vendors I spoke with seemed to prefer printing to fabric bolts (flat rolls of fabric priced by the printed yard) rather than to garment (directly on the t-shirts, for example). My client may be ok with that. We’ll see. Of course printing to fabric will require skilled labor after the printing phase in order to sew the finished products.

What to Research

My main concern at this point is the colorfastness of the printed products. I want to make sure the dye-based ink will stay in the fibers. So I plan to get lots of printed samples (much as I would do with ink or toner on paper). I will probably encourage my client to test these samples in sunlight, rain, and the washing machine and clothes dryer. This is still the realm of commercial printing, and as with all commercial printing, understanding the intended product use is essential. After all, even a vinyl banner must be printed (if it is for exterior use) to withstand sunlight, wind, rain, and snow.

Nevertheless, even with all the questions, this is very exciting. It’s also a growing area of commercial printing, along with packaging, labels, and even inkjet printing on wood paneling and floor tiles. Industrial printing is very hot at the moment.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

No matter what you’re printing, sooner or later you will find something completely new, and you’ll need to learn about new techniques, new materials, and new processes. The best advice I can give you is to read voraciously, find and work with those who know more than you do, and acquire samples that you can test under the harsh environment of actual usage.

With my client, this will be an ongoing process, albeit a very exciting one. If you’re a designer, you may want to learn about this area, too. It might just ensure your relevance in the commercial printing industry.

6 Responses to “Large Format Printing: Printing Fabric and Garments”

  1. Charles Rizzo says:

    Steve should marry his fiancee and hen he could call her his wife in these Blog Articles.

    • admin says:

      We’re too old. My fiancee is almost 70 and I am almost 60. She has pointed out the financial penalties for marriage at this point. So we’re fiancees for life. I’m ok with that as long as we’re together ’till death do us part.

  2. retain says:

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    Your humoristic stylе is awesome, keep it up!

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