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Archive for the ‘Fabric Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Inkjet vs. Dye Sublimation for Fabric Printing

Monday, April 19th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

First of all, textile custom printing is getting to be very big (and colorful, if you note the vibrant hues in the photo above). Whether it’s direct-to-garment imaging, or printing on fabric and then converting the bolt of material into garments, commercial printing on cotton, polyester, and other textiles is starting to get a lot of press.

(Every night I get a Google aggregator feed of articles pertaining to offset and digital printing. For a while now, the subject matter yielding the most articles has been split between package printing and textile printing.)

Moreover, one of my larger customers, a fashionista who prints a color swatch book (like a PMS book) for picking clothing and make-up colors based on one’s complexion, hair color, etc., has begun to expand her proprietary color line from these color swatch books to actual clothing lines using digital fabric printing technology for custom printing and dyeing cloth.

So what does this mean for you?

I think it means it’s prudent to study everything you can about all possible facets of fabric printing: the technologies and the trends. If you’re a designer, it may mean studying the technologies and trends so you can expand your business to include fabric design (just as many designers expanded their print design businesses to include web-page design). Education in new technology is always a good investment.

The same goes for offset and digital printing companies. If you’re just putting ink and toner on paper, perhaps it is time to consider putting dye and ink on textiles, just as you may have added large-format inkjet signage to your business offerings a while back.

Regardless of your particular trade, it’s wise to keep abreast of expanding trends in a commercial printing environment in which some sources of business opportunity are drying up (newspapers, for instance).

Products, Workflow, and Technologies

One of the best ways to focus your education on recent fabric printing trends is to consider the following list:

  1. The products
  2. The workflow
  3. The technology

I will focus primarily on the third item (technology, pros and cons), but first I want to describe the kinds of products you may want to design. On a promotional level, there are soft signs (everything from banner stands and table throws for conventions, to large-format signage for the sides of buildings, although some of these are vinyl, and the real focus of this article is on fabric).

On the level of interior design, digitally imaged textiles can be converted into uniquely printed sheets, towels, bed covers, upholstery, wall covering. The list goes on (even lampshades).

On the level of clothing design, you can find everything from bathing suits to scarves to tank tops. What used to be the realm of only vinyl appliques affixed to t-shirts with heat and pressure has expanded into detailed photographic imagery printed on every possible clothing substrate. For instance, shirts for sale at the beach now have intricate art across the entire surface of the garment, in contrast to prior designs that were confined to a small rectangle on the front of the shirt. Keep in mind, also, that these new printing techniques can also be used for hats, messenger bags, and other promotional give-aways (emblazoned with your logo) for distribution at trade shows.

Regarding workflow, some items are printed directly. Shirts and hats are examples. If your product is small and can lie flat, you can print directly on the item.

In contrast, for larger items (large fabric wall coverings, for instance, or long runs of pattern-printed fabric destined for designer dresses), you may want to print directly on the rolls of fabric and then convert the printed textile to usable items after the custom printing stage.

Finally, there’s the technology, which is the main point of this blog article. Here you currently have two options: inkjet and dye sublimation. In large measure, which of these you choose will depend on the material on which you’re printing.

Inkjet Is for Natural Fibers

If you’re printing on cotton, you will choose direct inkjet printing. The nozzles of the inkjet printer will spray droplets of ink onto the surface of the fabric. Pre-treating the fabric before the application of ink and post-treating the fabric with heat will help bond the ink particles to the substrate, whether a pre-made t-shirt or a bolt of fabric.

These are the pros and cons of this technology:


  1. You can print on cotton. You really cannot use dye sublimation to print on cotton unless you first add a polymer coating to the cotton.
  2. You can print larger substrates (Reid Broendel of Ironmark notes in “Advantages of Direct Printing vs. Dye Sublimation” that the inkjet maximum width is about 16 feet, whereas the dye sublimation maximum width is closer to 10 feet. What this means is that you have fewer sewn-together sections of the printed fabric with inkjet printing.)
  3. You can easily gang up multiple inkjet printing jobs, allowing faster throughput, lower costs, and the ability to do short print runs economically and quickly.
  4. Like dye sublimation, direct inkjet printing allows for incredibly detailed photographic imagery at much higher resolutions than possible with screen printing (another alternative for printing on fabric).
  5. The process is faster than dye sublimation.


  1. Colors are less intense than in dye sublimation printing.
  2. Sometimes the crispness of detail is less than in dye sublimation printing. (Reid Broendel of Ironmark notes in “Advantages of Direct Printing vs. Dye Sublimation” that this can also be affected by ink types, fabric types, pre-treatment methods and materials, and temperature.)
  3. Inkjet printing on fabric is less durable than dye sublimation printing. Inkjet printing applies ink primarily to the surface of the cotton fabric, whereas dye sublimation printing actually permeates and is bound to the polyester fibers. If you wash an inkjet-printed shirt a number of times, the printed imagery will fade.

Dye Sublimation Is for Polyester

As noted before, you can pre-treat cotton with a polymer coating and then do dye sublimation printing, but your best bet is to use dye sublimation technology to print on 100 percent polyester material.

In this process, you first print your image on a “transfer sheet” with special inks that can be “sublimated” with heat (that is, turned directly from a solid material into a gas, bypassing the liquid state). Then you put the transfer sheet on top of the fabric and apply intense heat to transfer the image deep into the polyester fibers of the fabric. (The process heats the inks, which boil and give off a gas that is transferred into the fabric.)

This firmly bonds the colors into the fabric, significantly improving durability. (It actually improves color intensity as well.) Interestingly enough, the same process can be used to print on hard surfaces such as the surface of drinking mugs, floor and wall tiles for interior design, and keychains for promotional work. This is in addition to dye sublimation’s use for soft signage, interior design textiles, and other fabric-based surfaces.

Here are the pros and cons of this technology:


  1. The colors are brighter than inkjet.
  2. The printing is more durable than inkjet. Colors won’t fade because they are a part of the fabric, not on the surface of the fabric.
  3. You can print continuous-tone imagery (unlike inkjet custom printing). Dye sublimation does not require any kind of halftone screening, so the colors can be more intense, and imagery will appear to be of a higher resolution.
  4. Ink dries instantly, unlike inkjet printing.


  1. The process is slower than inkjet printing.
  2. The equipment is expensive (even though the process is simpler than inkjet printing and therefore results in less maintenance and downtime).
  3. Final output cannot be as wide as inkjet. This means larger items need to be sewn together in sections.
  4. The printable substrate is limited to plastic: i.e., polyester fabric and such.

What’s Your Next Step?

Getting involved in this new technology is like stepping up onto a moving merry-go-round. You have to think about it and then do it at the right time. So the best thing I can suggest as a next step–if this interests you as a designer, printer, or print sales rep–is to read voraciously and learn as much as you can.

Printing on textiles is hot. This is definitely worth your time.

Custom Printing: Interpreting Fabric Printing Problems

Friday, February 9th, 2018

For a number of years, a client of mine has been periodically printing a small color book (similar to a PMS swatch book) for fashion. It helps women choose colors for clothes and make up that will complement their complexions.

Recently my client has branched out into garment printing based on her proprietary color formulas. Even though these clothes will be fashionable, what will make them stand out from their competition is the specific colors my client is selling. That is, she’s really not just in the clothing business. She’s in the “color-as-fashion” business.

That said, my client has been choosing vendors to produce her garments. Many of them are online commercial printing establishments. I have been helping my client with these choices, giving her feedback and suggestions. In one case recently with a new vendor, my client sent in a color pattern for printing on a polyester chiffon fabric.

It was just for a one-off sample, but she selected the sample pattern without confirming the colors. Or, rather, she made her color decisions based on the appearance of the art on her computer screen rather than the colors in her color swatch book. Oops. The yellow scarf sample came back with a slightly greenish gold cast. My client and her financial partner were not pleased. So my client came back to me to ask what had happened.

Color Monitor vs. Color Swatch Books

The first thing I said to my client was that the problem with the scarf was “information,” not a “failure.” I remember when I learned this lesson almost thirty years ago, when a cover matchprint proof for a book had looked horrible. An associate of mine said that the proof had saved me from a printing error, and therefore it was a success. That comment had permanently changed my point of view.

So I encouraged my client to learn from the experience. I reminded her that color created with light on a computer monitor is not the same as color produced with ink. This goes for fabric custom printing as well as offset printing. Therefore, I encouraged her to send in new art for a second test (if she liked the vendor’s pricing and customer service). I asked her to use her color bridge (a Pantone product that puts PMS colors alongside their nearest CMYK match) and select a color that fit her proprietary color formula for fashion.

The Substrate and the Commercial Printing Process

I’m new to fabric printing, but I know that, in printing, the substrate always affects the colors perceived by the human eye. My client had also mentioned that polyester chiffon reduces the saturation of a color. Her dissatisfaction arose from the color’s being too much of a greenish gold rather than a true yellow. My thought was that the fabric had contributed to a problem that had started with the choice of a color on the monitor rather than from a swatch book.

Polyester chiffon is one of a number of popular synthetic fabrics. Since it is a polyester, the printing method of choice would be dye sublimation. While I am not sure of the exact cause of the problem, I wonder whether there are any color shifts, perhaps within certain color families, that can be caused by either the specific fabric or the digital printing method itself. Moreover, since the garment in the photo my client sent me (a fashion scarf) is very sheer, my next thought was that the transparency of the fabric might have contributed to the problem. After all, my client had noted that polyester chiffon reduces the saturation of a color.

The implications of these questions are twofold:

  1. For the next sample, if my client can create an art file with an acceptable color percentage build that matches her Pantone color bridge, she will be able to communicate her wishes to the fabric printer. There will be no question as to the goal. It will then be up to the vendor to match the color with the specific digital custom printing technology and the specific fabric substrate—or to explain why this cannot be done. A printed color swatch will eliminate any miscommunication or guesswork.
  2. Furthermore, a dye sublimation printed color matched to a printed swatchbook will remove the fabric substrate and the inkset and printing process as variables. If a problem arises, my client will know that the problem is not due to the equipment or fabric.

Viewing Color in Different Light

One property of color is that it looks different in different light. Fabric printing is no different from printing ink on paper. So I encouraged my client to review the printed sample (and any revised samples) under a number of different lighting conditions.

I noted the difference between incandescent light (now called the Edison light), fluorescent, LED, and sunlight. I noted that printers use 5000 Kelvin light (which is the color “temperature” of sunlight) as a standard for the pressroom and specifically for viewing booths.

I also told my client a story about my fiancee’s and my recent trip to the fabric store for felt for an art project for our autistic students. When we had chosen a bolt of a neutral white felt, it changed color slightly as we carried the fabric past each ceiling light on the way to the cutting table. For this reason, I noted that the particular color my client had chosen may have taken on a color shift due to the light, and perhaps this may have been worsened by its already being a desaturated color.

So the take-away was that my client should use standard lighting and note any color shifts.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. If your proof is not right, be grateful. It’s better than having the final printed run not match your expectations. Learn from the problem. Identify the cause by separating out all the variables.
  2. Never choose a color on the monitor. Remember that in the moment you’re creating an art file it’s easy to forget this rule. It’s human nature. So make sure you go back after you have created the design and check the colors against a printed swatch book.
  3. Keep in mind that printing ink on paper via offset lithography, printing toner on paper via digital printing (electrophotography), and printing ink or dye on fabric all share things in common. The substrate will affect the printed color. In addition, the custom printing process itself may affect the printed color. Regardless, the final arbiter is the appearance of the color itself. Does it look right to you—and perhaps a few other people as well?
  4. There is no better way for three people to agree on a color than to use a printed color swatch book. Unless you’re doing work for the Internet only (which creates color with light rather than ink), use a recently printed PMS book, CMYK build book, or PMS to CMYK bridge. Even though they’re expensive, they are well worth the price.
  5. Keep in mind that no two people will see color exactly alike. Color is a function of light and the human eye. Women see color better than men (which is true, not sexist). So, again, use a color swatch book to communicate your color needs.

Custom Printing: Printing Electronic Circuits on Fabric

Monday, December 4th, 2017

When I first read the article “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric” (, 11/08/2017), all I could think about was growing up watching James Bond. I have begun to wrap my brain around 3D printing, knowing that some people are already printing food and body parts with a greater or lesser degree of success. I also know that the definition of custom printing has expanded way beyond the realm of ink on paper or even digital toner on paper.

But learning that a process was under development to print flexible circuits directly onto fabric, such that you could become part of the Internet of Things (IoT), get medical or other feedback from your clothes (as you might from a Fitbit), or perhaps experience Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR), got me thinking about how everything is now connected and everything is digital. It was like a virtual Zen moment.

The Article About Printing Electronic Circuits on Fabric

Here’s the gist of the article:

“Researchers have successfully incorporated washable, stretchable and breathable electronic circuits into fabric, opening up new possibilities for smart textiles and wearable electronics” (from “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric”).

The process uses inkjet technology and environmentally friendly ink. To this process, researchers at the University of Cambridge along with colleagues in China and Italy have added graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon that can be printed directly onto the fabric to create integrated circuits that will withstand up to twenty wash cycles.

What makes this intriguing is that “The versatility of this process allowed the researchers to design not only single transistors but all-printed integrated electronic circuits combining active and passive components” (according to the article, “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric”).

Up until this development, adding electronic circuits to clothing has been problematic. The circuits were rigid structures (with components mounted on rubber or plastic) that were uncomfortable to wear and that were destroyed by washing. In addition, the inks used in prior fabric printing of electronics had included toxic solvents, whereas the researchers at the University of Cambridge (and their colleagues in China and Italy) have been able to base their inks on non-toxic chemicals.

The article quotes Professor Roman Sordan of Politecnico di Milano, saying that although researchers had developed relatively simple integrated circuits, this “process is scalable and there are no fundamental obstacles to the technological development of wearable electronic devices both in terms of their complexity and performance.”

These integrated circuits operate on low power, are flexible, and can be washed. All of these characteristics set this generation of fabric printed electronics apart from its predecessors.

The Applications for Such Technology

The article, “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric,” goes on to list the kinds of potential uses for this fabric printed electronics technology. These include:

  1. Medical Devices. The electronic circuits could monitor the wearer’s vital signs and provide feedback. This could be similar to wrist watch-like devices, such as the Fitbit, that monitor heart rate, calories burned, steps walked, duration of the exercise routine, etc.
  2. Energy Harvesting. Presumably you could capture solar energy and then store it using such a device. This might be similar to the solar panels attached to some laptop carrying cases, but the flexible circuitry would be incorporated into garments that could be comfortably worn.
  3. Military Uniforms. Presumably the technology could incorporate communications or virtual reality capabilities to augment the soldier’s awareness and information processing abilities, or even facilitate communication.
  4. The Internet of Things. Garments could communicate with other digitally enhanced items, providing data to other items or to the wearer by establishing a vast communications grid.

But What Does This Mean for You As a Commercial Printing Buyer

This is a step into the future. We’re no longer in Kansas. Presumably, future iterations of this custom printing process will tolerate more than twenty wash cycles, improving their longevity. But for now this means that things will be connected and will communicate just as people do.

For a savvy print buyer, it is wise to expand the definition of custom printing. Just as 3D printing uses a three dimensional rather than two dimensional grid to produce an object rather than a brochure or flyer by using a process similar to inkjet printing, the graphene-printing process also depends on inkjet printing technology for its success.

In addition, you could even draw an analogy between the functional or industrial printing realm that has been a growth industry of late and the commercial printing of integrated electronic circuitry on fabric. In both cases, you are using printing as a functional component of a usable item. You’re not producing a promotional or educational product. You’re making something in which the printing component has a functional use–just like a stop sign or the printing on the keys of your computer.

From the point of view of a designer, this means that there is room for explosive growth in designing items that depend on both their functionality and their aesthetics. Apple’s iPad and other products exemplify this mindset, as does the OXO Good Grips line of kitchen tools. All of these are successful because they are visually appealing, they feel good in the hand, and they do something useful both intuitively and well. Design is baked into the product. It is an essential component.

Regarding the future of wearable integrated circuits, think about Google Glasses. Glasses have already been developed for commercial use that provide augmented reality information to the wearer, enhancing his or her sensory awareness while providing useful information. I think that successfully (and comfortably) incorporating integrated circuitry into garments will play a similar role.

Finally, this means that a successful designer will need to develop multiple skills. I think it won’t be enough to just design print books and brochures for commercial printing. Already the designers in the highest demand can craft (for instance) a multi-channel promotional campaign that links a billboard to a website through a QR code and your cell phone camera (or through NFC, near-field communications). Adding 3D additive manufacturing to the mix along with wearable electronics that link to other objects and provide useful information will be a growth industry that will still depend on effective design and marketing skills.

There will still be the need to persuade, educate, and communicate through visual media using design skills and aesthetic awareness. In fact, I think the need for these skills will increase rather than decrease.

Custom Printing: “Going to School” on Fabric Printing

Monday, November 20th, 2017

As with any other commercial printing technology, there’s more to fabric printing than the online promotional and technical material would suggest. This is not a bad thing. It just requires study.

I’ve been working with a “fashionista” recently, who is expanding her color offerings from a color print book to clothing. (Her initial product is a book of color chips bound with a screw-and-post assembly that resembles a PMS color swatch book. However, instead of choosing colors for graphic design projects, it helps you choose appropriate fashion colors based on your complexion.)

So my client and I have been researching online and brick-and-mortar fabric printers, and in the process I’ve learned a lot:

  1. Printing on fabric is not the same as making a garment. The first thing I learned is that many vendors will print your design on fabric, but once this is done, you still have to find another vendor to cut the garment pattern and sew it into a usable product. That is, the end product for many printers is just a roll of printed fabric.
  2. That said, some fabric printers do fabricate the garments as well as print the roll of fabric. This is very helpful, and I’m a strong believer in having fewer rather than more vendors in the mix. This is one reason I’m not at all averse to having the printer also provide the fabric (rather than having my client provide the fabric). Suppliers that take a job from computer art file through the inkjet or dye-sublimation printing stage to the fabrication stage are responsible for the entire product, but they also often understand the “transitions” between one stage and the others more thoroughly than those who just specialize in the custom printing process.
  3. Of course, there’s also direct-to-garment printing. This seems to be more appropriate (from my research) for smaller-format graphics that will be positioned on the front of a shirt (for instance) rather than across the entire swath of fabric comprising the shirt.
  4. In the case of the vendors I’ve approached, printed samples are more than likely based on the art the vendor has chosen (rather than your art file). Actually, this seems reasonable, since loading and processing the digital art file for your pattern takes time, which should be billable. In spite of this, it seems to be perfectly appropriate to request a “solid” and a “print” to see how both will look. Of course, depending on the vendor, you will still be paying for the sample ($25 each in the case of the printer I found), but you can learn a lot about the vendor from the quality of the graphic, the quality of the color, and the quality of the sewing (in my case, my client and I will be paying for two sample scarves, completely fabricated, not just fabric).
  5. Printers seem to print on white fabric, not dyed or textured fabric. I’m not sure why, nor am I certain that this pertains to all or even most custom printing vendors. For a shirt, this is not a problem. However, for a garment like some sweaters, portions of the opposite side of the fabric are visible. Perhaps a flap or lapel of a cardigan folds over, exposing what would otherwise be the inside of the garment. If this is white, it might look odd against a darker fabric. This is why my client and I asked about printing both sides or working with pre-dyed fabric. Apparently this is not an option (or is very difficult) with dye-sublimation commercial printing.
  6. Furthermore, printers seem to print on only one side of the fabric. This may be due to “print through,” which seems to be the migration of inks through the fabric, providing a lighter version of the print design on the opposite side of the fabric (like “show-through” in offset printing on paper).
  7. My client found a low-cost printer (a machine rather than a vendor) that will print on dyed or textured fabric. This particular piece of equipment is called “FabricZoom.” If you’re starting in fabric printing yourself, I’d encourage you to check it out online. The website is What makes this unique is that you print using spot colors (mixed colors, such as the match colors you would use for logos when printing conventionally on paper) instead of process colors (those inks that allow you to create multiple colors by spraying jets of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black onto a substrate–like a conventional inkjet printer). Fabric Zoom’s approach makes it impossible to create misaligned CMYK builds. It is also quite affordable at about $2,000+. Personally I’m impressed with the build quality as well. It seems to be substantial and sturdy.
  8. Having your own fabric printer doesn’t mean you will produce all your own garments. Think of a $2,000 fabric printer as analogous to your home or office inkjet printer for paper. If you’re designing prototypes of garments, you can try out your designs using the small bolts of fabric you acquire and then hand off a single, completed item to be mass produced by a larger shop. In fact, not having one of these machines is like being a print designer and not having a color inkjet and a laser printer. You’re not as able to visualize your final design of a project when you can’t hold a mock-up in your hand and see how it feels.
  9. Follow the equipment. I’ve been personally taken with the Kornit Allegro. I’ve been reading about its dye-sublimation capabilities, and I’ve seen photos of various configurations in which the interim heat press section with calender rollers seems to be missing. Personally, I assume this means the equipment can do both dye-sublimation (on polyester) and inkjet (on cotton). That said, when I see various online fabric printing sites that show this specific Kornit Allegro printer on their pressroom floor, I become a little more interested in that particular fabric printing vendor. It’s like learning an offset printer has an all-Heidelberg shop (one of my favorite offset press manufacturers based on their quality and precision).

What You Can Learn from This Ongoing Case Study

  1. Learning something new is a process. My client and I have hit some dead ends. But I don’t think they were failures. I think they were learning experiences, because in each case we collected a little more information about what kinds of products my client wants to offer, and what some potential vendors can do and what they can’t do.
  2. Buying a lot of equipment so you can start your own fabric designing business is not necessarily wise. After all, you have to pay for the building, your staff, and the equipment. But having no equipment may not be wise either. In many cases you can buy a small version of the chosen technology to do your own prototypes in-house and then subcontract the final production run. Keep in mind that this still takes money. For fabric printing, the FabricZoom may be a good answer.
  3. Always find people who know more about the field you’re entering than you do. If they have no potential for financial gain, all the better.
  4. Enjoy the excitement and the novelty. But do read, study, and see everything you can before you put down money. Along this vein, a large-format commercial printing show like SGIA (the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association) might be a good investment of time and funds.

Large Format Printing: Printing Fabric and Garments

Monday, November 13th, 2017

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.


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.

Custom Printing: Update on Dye-Sublimation Technology

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

I came upon an outstanding article about dye-sub fabric printing yesterday. It’s called “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” written by Richard Romano and published on 03/14/16 on I encourage you to Google it. It’s a great primer on this commercial printing technology.

Ever since my last trip to the beach, when I saw some of the new bikinis, I’ve been intrigued by the bright colors and intricate details printed on these bathing suits. Since they were for the most part polyester blends, it was clear to me that I was looking at the new generation of dye-sublimation fabric printing.

Romano’s Primer on Dye-Sublimation

In his article, Romano explains that sublimation is a process whereby a solid changes directly into a gas without first going through the intermediate liquid state. Dry ice would fit into this category, since a block of this substance turns into a cloud of gas rather than a puddle of liquid. Dye-sub commercial printing would be another example.

In dye-sub printing, solid particles of dye in a liquid suspension are jetted onto a receiver paper that has been specially treated to accept the solid dye particles and then to release them onto a substrate (in this case fabric). Since there is an intermediate step, the image printed on the paper transfer sheet is reversed, so it will print “right-reading” onto the fabric.

The next step is to “fix” or “outgas” the dyes onto the fabric. According to Romano, either a rotary or flatbed heat press is used for this step. Due to the heat (375 to 410 degrees Fahrenheit) and the pressure, the dye particles change from a solid state (on the transfer paper) to a gas. The gas then permeates the fibers of the fabric.

When they solidify, the dye particles bond with the fibers in the fabric. In fact, the heat actually melts the fabric slightly, “just enough to open up tiny gaps in the polyester fibers,” according to Romano’s article. When the fabric cools, the dye particles are strongly enmeshed in the fabric. This makes the resulting printed images durable, lightfast, and wash-resistant.

Why Use Dye-Sub for Polyester Fabrics?

Prior to reading “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” I had always wondered why this technology was best suited to either 100 percent polyester fabrics or fabrics with a high polyester content. Apparently, the high heat of the rotary and flatbed heat presses would burn cotton fabrics, but they only slightly melt polyester fabrics, allowing the dye to deeply penetrate the fibers.

Another question I had (which Romano answered) was how printers keep the transfer sheet in adequate contact with some of the new polyester fabrics, which are particularly stretchy. Apparently the transfer sheets can be fabricated with a slight tackiness, so they will hold firmly to the polyester substrate, keeping the material from shifting and preventing blurry images or ghosting.

Also a Good Choice for Rigid Substrates

In “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” Romano notes that dye-sublimation transfer sheets need not be confined to transferring images onto fabric. An additional use with wide appeal is to transfer images onto ceramic tile, wood, plastic, glass, or metal. This can be done as long as the material can first be treated with a polyester coating. This option opens up numerous industrial printing and interior design applications, from printing on wall coverings and drapes to printing on glass and flooring (albeit in some cases with an additional coating for protection).

In addition, dye-sub printing can be a useful technology for transferring images to mugs and other small novelty products (although for mugs, a special dye-sub press is necessary, which grips the cylindrical mug and applies both heat and pressure to transfer the image). Fortunately, these cost less than $300.

The Future of Dye-Sublimation Fabric Printing

Richard Romano describes the future direction of dye-sublimation fabric printing, noting that the trend is away from transfer paper and toward direct-to-fabric printing. However, in this case the dyes would still need to be sublimated in order to adequately bond with the fibers of the fabric.

What We Can Learn from Romano’s Article

  1. The first thing I see is explosive growth in the decoration of everything from garments to wall coverings, sheets, linens, and other useful and aesthetic fabric items. Furthermore, I see this spurring interior designers to create personalized environments for their clients, with no end to the vibrant coloration and intricate detail, as well as the unique, fully customizable presentation of the graphics.
  2. Client interest in fabric printing has spurred increased sophistication within the technology, which is creating a virtuous circle with manufacturers developing new dye-sub capabilities and thus further increasing consumer interest.
  3. Using a transfer-sheet-based workflow allows vendors to stock fewer items (for instance a stack of transfer sheets that can be applied to individual t-shirts as the client chooses a particular size and cut) instead of needing to stock multiple shirt colors in multiple sizes with the same printed images. This approach can reduce the need for both inventory and storage space.
  4. Any such growth in custom printing is exciting to see, particularly when it touches so many world economies.

Options in Screen Printing

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

My fiancee and I went mattress shopping today as one of the final shopping trips of a year-long hiatus from our home due to last year’s house fire. At one point in the trek through the main part of the furniture store and the clearance section, my fiancee noted the difference in the clothing worn by the sales reps in the two parts of the store. Her comments addressed both the image and branding attributes of the various “uniforms,” and the technical, commercial printing aspects of the clothing design.

Clothing Image Differences Between the Outer Store Sales Reps and the Clearance Sales Reps

Wherever you go there are hierarchies. In this particular store, the sales representatives responsible for the new merchandise wore suits and ties. In fact, the sales reps in the clearance center referred to the other reps by their dress, as “the reps with the suits.”

In contrast, sales representatives in the clearance portion of the store (the same store, separated only by the clearance sign) wore brightly-colored polo shirts emblazoned with the company’s logo. Some also wore hats with the same color scheme and logo identification.

Ironically, the sales reps in the clearance center, who were presented as “warehouse staff,” were in some ways more identifiable by their branded clothing (more of a consistent uniform than the various colored suits and ties of the outer sales staff). In addition, they were more knowledgeable regarding the composition, features, and benefits of the merchandise.

In fact, the first sales rep we spoke to (dressed in a suit and tie) sold us one of the highest priced discontinued items without really understanding our needs. After a sleepless night on the overly firm mattress, we returned the item and spoke with a woman in the clearance center who explained the composition of the mattress and fit the proper firmness to our needs. We also lay down on the mattresses and tested the merchandise.

What This Means to a Designer

Image creates a powerful impression, even on those who have studied marketing and can identify its subtle messages. In this case, we initially assumed that the more slick and polished sales reps, who wore suits, would identify superior products that would meet our needs. Instead, the more casually dressed warehouse staff with their red polo shirts and company branding did a far better job.

A savvy designer of corporate identity clothing, be it branded hats and shirts, or any other item of clothing, can structure an overall look for a sales staff that makes representatives look professional and knowledgeable, worthy of your attention. This is artifice. However, in some cases there is true knowledge and sensitivity within the people wearing the branded clothing, but this is distinct from the corporate “look,” which is based on colors, fabrics, and fashion design.

Another thing a knowledgeable fashion designer must keep in mind is the prejudices of the potential clients. For instance, the sales reps in polo shirts were presented as being less sophisticated and knowledgeable than those in suits, but in reality the opposite was true. Think about the appearance of the sales staff in an upscale clothing store, for instance, or a store that sells jewelry or cosmetics. Here the colors, fabrics, and fashion design specifically attract those with large amounts of disposable income and a sense of luxury.

The Furniture Store Polo Shirts and Hats

I asked my fiancee how the shirts and hats she saw had been printed. (I had been more interested in the mattresses and free ice cream than the branding on this particular buying trip.) She said they had been sewn.

For the fashion designers and students of custom printing, I wanted to identify the various options, which are in the process of expanding as the field of digital commercial printing develops and matures.

Logos on these particular shirts and hats had been sewn rather than printed. Based on my cursory awareness of automated, digital sewing machines that can produce intricate images based on computer data, I would say that the hand-sewn garments with corporate identity markers are gone, replaced with unattended, computer-driven sewing programs.

What these particular branded items offer is the raised imagery of the sewn logo, which has an even more tactile sensibility than custom screen printing. In another store, the design manager might have opted for the thicker ink of screen printed fabric decoration, although given the large amount of make-ready work, this would have been cost effective only for a longer run of branded shirts and hats.

Two more options for shorter fabric printing runs (or variable data imagery) would have been inkjet and dye sublimation printing. For polyester hats and shirts, the dye sublimation process would have yielded a better result, and for cotton fabrics, the inkjet process would have been more appropriate. Nevertheless, in either case, the printed fabric would have had less of a sculptural feel in the logo and name of the company. Neither ink nor dye would have adhered to the surface of the fabric as well as the custom screen printing inks (which have the consistency of thick paint) or the even more tactile sewn images.

What This Means to a Designer

The savvy designer might also apply this awareness to other fabric printed items such as canvas messenger bags, or even the back panels of canvas director’s chairs or folding lawn chairs. The two most effective and dramatic options for imaging the fabric (sewing and screen printing) are unfortunately also the most expensive, but in some cases it’s worth the cost to reinforce certain brand attributes in the attire of the sales staff.

Large Format Printing: Kornit and Mimaki Garment Presses

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

Ever since I saw the complexity and the stunning color of the new fabric-printed beachwear during my recent summer trips to the Eastern Shore, I have been a student of fabric printing. The advances in this technology are intriguing as well as beautiful.

So when I recently saw two articles about new large format printing equipment for fabric, I thought I’d share them with you.

Printer #1: Kornit Avalanche Hexa Direct-to-Garment (DTG) Printer

The first article, “Top Promotions Installs Kornit Avalanche Hexa DTG Printer” (10/25/13, www describes Kornit’s new printing equipment, which offers the following features and benefits:

  1. The Kornit Avalanche includes a six-color, plus white, inkset. This expands the color gamut by 30 percent, allowing the Avalanche to match a multitude of spot colors for logos and other branded graphics.
  2. The white ink feature allows users to print on dark fabrics without compromising the intensity of the ink colors.
  3. The Avalanche uses NeoPigment inks, which offer the benefits of pigmented inks without the liabilities. Specifically, these inks are manufactured to meet rigorous environmental standards while being more efficient than dye-based inks. The inks also allow for shorter production times since they do not necessitate pre-treating the fabric, and this increased efficiency shows up in lower production costs.
  4. The NeoPigment inks are also durable, and they stand up to repeated washings without degrading.
  5. The Kornit Avalanche can print on multiple types of fabric while maintaining a soft hand (that is, the feel of the printed fabric is still soft and supple).

Printer #2: Mimaki Tx500-1800B Digital Textile Printer

The second article, “Mimaki Adds to Digital Textile Range with Tx500-1800B Launch” (10/25/13,, by Simon Nias), showcases Mimaki’s offerings in the same general arena as the Kornit Avalanche (i.e., direct-to-fabric digital textile printing).

Here are some of the features and benefits of Mimaki’s printer:

  1. The Tx500-1800B “can print reactive dye, sublimation dye, acid dye, and pigment inks, making it compatible with a range of pre-treated fabrics, including: cotton; silk, nylon and wool; polyester or transfer paper.” ( This provides huge breadth, both in terms of inks and substrates.
  2. The Tx500-1800B is 1.5 times as fast as its predecessor (the Mimaki Tx400). Faster speeds with this “eight pass bi-directional printing” ( yield lower production costs. At 600 x 1200 dpi resolution, the Tx500 will print up to 45 square meters per hour (in 4-color) or 22 square meters per hour (in 8-color).
  3. The printer incorporates a conveyor belt to feed the fabric substrate without tension, allowing the use of elastic fabrics.
  4. The Tx500 includes a “variable dot function” that provides “rich gradation without banding” and “accurate printing of fine lines.” (
  5. When compared to other fabric custom printing methods, the Tx500 requires less ink and water. This reduces both the cost of the process and its environmental impact.

Implications of the Advances in Fabric Custom Printing Technology

I see two major implications of this new direction in direct-to-garment custom printing:

  1. The speed, quality, and reduced costs, as well as the ever increasing number of substrates available for use in direct-to-garment presses, will speed up the transition from such traditional technologies as custom screen printing to the digital alternatives.
  2. Digital custom printing of garments and fabrics will allow for short press runs and personalized printing on a multitude of fabric substrates. This will foster mass customization and prototyping, since there will be no need to spend heavily on preparation. Short runs will be as economical as longer runs.

The Future of Printed Garments

I think the future of direct-to-garment and direct-to-fabric printing will be very bright. I look forward to my trips to the beach next year. I expect to see ever-increasing complexity, high resolution, and vibrant colors in the printed fabric designs, as well as garments produced using an increasing variety of fabrics.

Custom Printing: Fabric Printing for Small Design Shops

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

In an earlier blog I mentioned that among other things my fiancee and I install displays for a major cosmetics conglomerate. What that has done for my print brokering work is open my eyes to the plethora of signage options (print and digital) as well as the variety of packaging and product design options that are out there. It also has been an education in itself in cross-media marketing, given the selection of wall and floor displays, large format print banners, walls of digital signage, and screen printed cosmetic bottles.

It has also made me more conscious of fashion design, or—more specifically—printing on fabric.

Digital technology has made inroads into what had been almost exclusively a custom screen printing venue. I just read two articles about fabric printing and learned a few things.

“Technology Strikes Again: Digital Prints Invade Fashion” (El Paso Inc., 2/23/14, by Nan Napier) and “Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing” (, 6/24/10) extol the benefits of digital fabric printing, but they also show how the more flexible workflow and reduced set-up and manufacturing costs will allow more new fabric designers to enter the field.

Benefits of Low-Minimum Print Runs

Prior to the advent of digital printing, custom screen printing was the only option for decorating fabric. Since this required a new screen for each color, plus extended set-up and clean-up times, the print runs had to be long to justify the cost, the time, and the staff.

The implication of this financial hurdle and time constraint was that short print runs were not cost-effective. So new designers could not set up, print, and distribute their work. Also, it was not feasible to produce a short run of a design to test buyer interest. Nor was it possible to cost-effectively vary the design within the print run for aesthetic purposes (to make unique items or to satisfy niche markets). For rotary or flatbed custom screen printing presses, you had to commit to producing several thousand yards of fabric.

In contrast, digital custom printing on fabric is available starting at a yard or less of fabric. So you can test a design on a particular fabric—or on multiple fabrics. This is particularly useful, since the color and texture of the fabric change the ink colors, dulling them down or giving them sheen and making them pop. You could even gang up a number of designs and print them on the same fabric to test the results. Or, you could personalize every item. With custom screen printing, this is out of the question.

If you’re a small designer, your financial entry into digital printing is not insurmountable. Digital fabric printing equipment costs between $10,000 and $70,000 (according to “Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing”), plus the computer, plus the equipment for curing the ink. Once you have purchased the equipment (or have access to someone else’s equipment), you can immediately produce your fabric designs for a reasonable cost. Furthermore, electronic components quickly drop in price, so the cost of entry into the field will go down over time.

Benefits of Having No Inventory

In the days of custom screen printing, you produced a thousand or more yards of printed fabric and therefore had to maintain an inventory of unfinished and finished work. Of course, you also had to pay for storage space. Furthermore, printing the fabric and producing the garments took time, so it could take a year to bring a design to market.

In contrast, you can come up with a design and digitally print the fabric the same day. The process is far more immediate, without all of the preparation, production, and clean-up time. In addition, if a design doesn’t work, you can change it immediately and proceed with the print run. What this means is that a designer can “take advantage of current trends and even change prints or colors mid-season.” (“Introduction to Digital Fabric Printing”) Instead of taking a year to bring a product to market, with digital fabric printing you can complete a run within weeks.

Flexibility in Image Color and Placement

In most custom screen printing, only a limited number of colors are used for a particular fabric design, since each color requires a separate screen. This has kept most fabric designs to six or eight colors. (Granted, some screen printers can produce full-color work using CMYK halftone screens, but in the majority of cases fabric printers have focused on a limited color palette.)

In contrast, digital custom printing widens the color gamut to hundreds of colors, or more, as well as photo-realistic images and color gradations impossible to achieve on a flatbed or rotary screen press.

In addition, screen printers usually create a pattern that seamlessly repeats across the length of fabric. With digital printing, however, fashion designers have more control over the actual placement of the art, allowing them to position an element “at the waistline” or “across the shoulder” of a garment (“Technology Strikes Again: Digital Prints Invade Fashion”).

In this way, digital printing technology invites new designers into the field and provides a wide latitude for creative fabric design.

Custom Printing: Options for Garment Decoration

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

In my summer travels to Ocean City, I’ve been paying close attention to improvements in fabric printing. During numerous trips to clothing stores with my fiancee in search of bathing suits, I have become aware of new developments in garment decoration. Trips to the Ocean City boardwalk have also sparked my interest in fabric printing as I have seen similar improvements in t-shirt printing.

Let me be more specific. I have seen images printed in vibrant colors on bikinis with almost continuous tone photographic quality. I have also seen thick, rubberized, single color custom screen printing on everything from t-shirts to soda can cooling sleeves.

In all cases I’ve asked myself how the effect was accomplished, and unable to answer completely, I have done some online research.

Inkjet vs. Dye Sublimation

Both inkjet and dye sublimation technologies can be used to decorate garments. The determining factor seems to be the substrate. A cotton garment would be ideally suited for direct-to-garment custom printing via inkjet technology, whereas a polyester garment would be better suited to dye sublimation custom printing.

For inkjet garment printing, the printheads of the inkjet equipment make a pass across the t-shirt (for example), which is mounted flat on a platen (a garment holder). The printheads spray the ink onto the surface of the cotton fabric. With today’s inkjet equipment, this can be done at very high resolution, hence the photographic quality images.

In contrast, for printing on polyester garments, inkjet equipment is used to print special sublimation dyes onto a carrier sheet called “dye sublimation transfer paper.” This paper is then laid over the garment, and the heat and pressure of a “heat press” cause the dyes to turn from a solid directly into a gas (skipping the interim liquid state and therefore called “sublimation”). The gas dye molecules enter the actual fabric (instead of staying on top of the fabric, as do inkjet inks). When the garment is cooled and the dye sublimation transfer paper is removed, you have a vibrant image that won’t fade or peel, and that will withstand repeated washings.

What About Blended Fabrics?

So if you have a cotton or polyester garment to work with, you know what technology to choose. But what about blended fabrics? From my research I’ve learned that both inkjet and dye sublimation will work with blended fabrics, but that the coloration may be faded or washed out. What I find interesting about this is that the images printed on the swimsuits in the Ocean City stores were blindingly bright, crisp, and fully saturated.

So What Was I looking At?

Based on my research, I would take an educated guess that the swimsuits, being a polyester product, had been decorated using dye sublimation technology. Furthermore, I would say that the intensity of the custom printing dyes support this educated guess.

Rubber Inks

The thick, single colors of ink printed on the hats, some shirts, and the foam rubber soda can cooling sleeves I saw on the boardwalk seemed to be the products of an altogether different process.

The inks were thick, solid colors. And the artwork was simple line art. My first thought was that these had been samples of custom screen printing. But the ink on the t-shirts was much more flexible than I had remembered from prior years. It seemed to be almost rubberized, much softer and more pliable than the screen printing inks I was used to. (I even checked a screen printed messenger bag I had at home, and the screen printed logo was much rougher than the screen printed ink on the products at the beach.)

I thought the inks might be latex based, but in my research I learned that latex inks are really more of an environmentally friendly alternative to solvent based inkjet printing inks. Ostensibly, these would also have more of a plastic surface than a rubberized surface.

So I did some more research and found that rubber based inks do in fact exist. They are used for textile custom printing, and they give the texture of rubber, coat evenly, and are opaque. Given my findings, I would make another educated guess: that the new products in Ocean City had been screen printed with rubberized inks. (The product literature for the rubberized inks discussed types of squeegies and referenced the thickness of the ink—both items or qualities indicative of custom screen printing.)

Do I know for sure? No, since there were no commercial fabric printers on-site in the stores, but I’ll still stand by my guess.

Why You Should Care

Large format fabric printing (inkjet, dye-sub, and screen printing) seems to be growing and becoming more technologically sophisticated in an era when other types of custom printing are waning. Designers and printers may want to take note.


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