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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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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Archive for the ‘Fabric Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: More on My Client’s Fabric Printing Saga

Tuesday, September 28th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

Aside from being a writer I am also a commercial printing broker. I’m a bit like a “tracker,” one who tracks animals in the wild, since I find the best custom printing supplier for a particular client’s job needs. I also make connections (like fascia tissue in the body). I make sure the communications between the printer and the client are accurate and understood by both parties. And I make sure my client is happy with the product, or I work with the printer (and client) to make things right.

That said, success hinges on finding the right equipment at the right vendor. The latter pertains to price, quality, and schedule, among other things, whereas the former pertains to the kind of work the vendor can actually do.

I have written blog posts about this before, but one of my long-time clients has printed color swatch books for fashion for about seven years. Her proprietary color system helps her clients choose make-up and clothing based on their complexion. Now she is branching out and looking to print scarves and dresses based on this color scheme. Given the fast-growing nature (an understatement) of digital fabric printing at the present moment for both apparel and interior design, I think my client is on the crest of a huge wave.

In that context, I am looking for the proper digital printing equipment. Not just the proper vendor. In fact, not necessarily the vendor first and the equipment second. I have in fact been approaching Mimaki, Mutoh, Epson, and Kornit sales managers to find out to whom they have sold their dye-sub (for polyester) and inkjet (for cotton) large-format printing equipment, so I can approach these vendors directly and then do my due diligence (prices, samples, references, etc.).

This has been the ongoing process (as noted in prior blogs), but this is how this process may pertain to you if you buy not just fabric printing but any kind of specialty commercial printing. In your own case, if it seems relevant, consider not just uploading your custom printing specs to the PIE online printing server (which is a marvelous idea as well) but also identifying the equipment you need and then finding it in the United States.

Counter-Intuitive Approach

I know this is counter-intuitive. Usually I choose a printer (or three) and have them provide bids and then produce my clients’ jobs. Prior to this stage I will have closely reviewed samples and checked references. But for specialty work like fabric printing, which is new, not every printer even knows other vendors doing quality, cutting-edge work. Starting with the equipment and finding who has purchased it usually narrows the field to a few qualified vendors.

I also have opened the search to the entire United States. After all, my client’s fabric printing press runs will initially be small, so the cost to ship finished garments from anywhere in the country to my client will be marginal (particularly compared to shipping print book jobs, since books are heavy and therefore more expensive to ship).

What I’ve Done So Far

When I last wrote about this process, I had contacted Kornit and had found two small large-format inkjet print shops. I had called them, and I had gotten a sense of their approach to their work. Both responded immediately. One, however, had bought the equipment but not yet opened his doors. (I will not rule him out, but I will want to wait a bit until he has established himself. I will also definitely want to see samples.)

The other is more established. I read some articles about this small printer and also called her to discuss my client’s needs. I liked that she and her husband had set up a small cottage business. Being small, she would be interested in my client’s initially small press runs (one to five units produced from two patterns). She also was knowledgeable, discussing digital patterns with me as well as requesting a description of the placement of the designs on my client’s scarves and dresses. In addition, she offered cut-and-sew capabilities and said she would be willing to use my client’s fabric rather than her own fabric.

So far, all of this looks good. For the newer of the two printers, I will go through a similar vetting process, later when he has set up shop and has completed some work. But in both cases, the vendors are small enough and hungry enough to need not only my client’s work but also her satisfaction with their work (which is not necessarily true for all large vendors).

The Newest Part of the Process

Since I wrote the first installation of this blog-post saga, I have contacted three more vendors. These manufacture dye-sublimation large-format printing equipment. The first, Kornit, seems to focus more on inkjet equipment. Since my client’s scarves will be polyester, I will need dye-sub custom printing capabilities for their production as well as inkjet printing capabilities for the (presumably) cotton dresses.

Another OEM (original equipment manufacturer), Mimaki, was also especially responsive, probably because I had sent an email describing my client’s goals and the vendors she had approached so far. The email presumably established my client’s and my seriousness and provided an opportunity for Mimaki to promote its brand.

The other two OEMs have not yet replied, but that is ok. One out of three is fine.

In the interim I had found through my online research a consultancy that sold Mimaki equipment (a “VAR,” a value-added reseller) and also helped clients set up fabric printing businesses. (I thought I had hit paydirt. This was even better than one printer with one Mimaki.) I called, discussed the work, and sent emails to the owner of the business.

Then I received a call from Mimaki. The Mimaki rep knew of the fabric printing consultancy I had just contacted as well as the small cottage-industry vendor I had been dealing with for the inkjet work. Providing him with not only the business names but also the names of the principals I had contacted gave me credibility in his eyes. He suggested that I contact the remaining two principals of the fabric printing consultancy and use his name. He also gave me their phone numbers and his personal cell phone number, and said he would call them directly on my behalf.

So doing the research, understanding the fabric printing processes, and backing up my questions with company names and the names of employees this Mimaki dealer had also contacted won me his support.

We’ll see what happens next. For the moment, I have a large-format inkjet printer (the cottage-industry vendor ), one other new printer, and the fabric-printing consultancy. This is a good place to be, since my client is just beginning to gear up for garment production.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Consider this approach if you’re doing something not everybody else is doing or something involving new technology. Maybe you’re looking into direct-to-object printing, like printing directly on a football or a thermos. Maybe you want to do screen printing and instead of printing flat colors you want to find a skilled printer who can screen print 4-color halftone images.
  2. Start early. Make sure you’re not in a rush.
  3. Read everything you can on the subject first. Your knowledge base and your ability to articulate your needs will establish your credibility. This in turn will elicit the help of those who know more than you (the consultants and vendors themselves). And it really does seem to me that people are happy to help you when they know you’re serious and you’ve been trying to do some of the research yourself.
  4. Unless you’re printing heavy goods (print books, for instance), consider vendors from all regions of the United States. Personally, I’m less excited about going outside the country’s borders, since this is more complex (import/export laws and fees that you have to research), although I have done this as well. If you are shipping something heavy like books, just research the cost of both shipping and manufacturing in comparing one printer’s location to another.
  5. Contact any vendors the OEMs give you. In my case, my client slowed down this last week. Instead of just letting the two vendors I had recently approached wonder what was happening, I sent each a short email noting the status of the job and saying we were interested but it might be a little while until we want to proceed. (I wanted them to stay interested and not forget us.)
  6. Print buying is about relationships. People will do business with other people they like. Being honest and respectful with vendors will go a long way in eliciting their help. And for specialty printing like fabric printing, direct-to-object printing, screen printing, and probably many other niche printing venues, it helps to have friends.

Digital Custom Printing: The New World of Direct to Fabric Printing

Tuesday, September 21st, 2021

For the last seven years I’ve had a client who prints small color swatch books for fashion use. Think of them as miniature PMS swatch books but for garment and make-up choices based on one’s complexion. (She also makes “chin cards” that can be held up to one’s face to confirm these color choices without actually putting on make-up or clothing.)

My client has a proprietary set of colors she includes for this print work.

Over the last few years, however, she has been preparing to print the very same colors on garments: scarves and dresses to start, but on other garments as well. Personally, I think this is a fabulous idea, because on an almost nightly basis, in the Google Aggregator feed I receive on digital and offset commercial printing, there’ a blast (like water from a fire hose) of articles about digital printing on fabric. This printing arena is hot. Smoking hot. Crazy hot. So I’m pleased to be a part of my client’s journey.

The Two Imaging Technologies

In my research (which I have already shared in this blog a few times), I have learned the following general rules.

If you print on fabrics like cotton, nylon, and silk, you need to use an inkjet press. You can print directly on the garment if the image is localized. You use a stabilizing bed to keep the t-shirt (for instance) in place. Or, you can print a pattern on a bolt of fabric using a large-format inkjet printer. Then you can cut the pattern out and create the garment.

Inkjet-printed images can fade with repeated washing.

There are a number of kinds of inks and dyes you may want to research, which pertain to different fabrics and different fabric colors.

The fabric can be chemically pre-treated and then steamed after printing to improve both the ink receptivity of the fabric and the durability of the image.

This is an exceptionally brief and generalized review of inkjet commercial printing for fabrics. In my client’s case, it will not be relevant for the scarves (because they will be polyester), but it may be relevant for the dresses (if they will be cotton).

The other option is dye sublimation. This is used for polyester-based synthetic fabrics. I personally think it is a wonderful option because of the brilliance of the coloration and the durability of the custom printing work.

In dye sublimation, the image is first printed on a transfer sheet (kind of like printing an inkjet product but using special dyes instead of pigment-based inks). This transfer sheet is then placed flat against the garment or uncut fabric, and then intense heat is applied. The heat turns the dye from a solid coating directly into a gas (skipping the liquid state; hence, “sublimation”). The colored dye particles enter the fibers of the fabric and bond with them. This makes the dyed fabric especially color fast (even through repeated washing), specifically because the dye has become a part of the polyester fibers. In some cases, people are even working with ways to chemically modify cotton so dye sublimation can be used. (I haven’t read much recently as to whether this has been successful.)

So these are essentially the two options: one technology for cotton and the other for polyester.

My Client’s Case: How I Have Proceeded

With this general overview, I started contacting vendors in order to help my client bring her fashion and make-up color scheme to digital fabric printing. And these are the issues that have arisen. Interestingly enough, a number of the smaller vendors have been families. Apparently the technology is inexpensive enough and easy enough to use that some families have given up their day jobs to work at home, custom printing fabric and making garments to sell.

How I Found the Vendors

I started by going directly to the print technology manufacturers. I called the sales departments, noted that I was a commercial printing broker, and asked for vendors who had purchased their specific equipment. In this case, since my client had been in touch with Kornit (a heavyweight in large-format inkjet), I started with them. They gave me Spoonflower and two small vendors close to my client’s home state. I’m currently vetting these vendors.

I also plan to check out Mutoh, Mimaki, and Epson because in my research I have learned that they specifically manufacture dye-sublimation printers. Since I know that my client’s scarves are a polyester blend, these vendors may have recently sold their dye sub equipment to local printers who would be interested in my client’s work.

Once I have specifications, I also plan to upload a request for quote to the PIE web server.

What I Looked for in the Vendors in Addition to Equipment

My client wants to start with between one and five units of two kinds of garments. Not all printers will be interested in such small (albeit growing) jobs. In contrast, the families who bought digital commercial printing equipment may be very interested in small clients.

My client does not want to print on pre-made garments. So she needs “cut-and-sew” capabilities at the printer I find for her. That is, they will need to take her pattern and then not only print the fabric but also cut and assemble the garments. Skill in this area will be especially important for the dresses, since size and manufacturing quality will be complex issues to address when compared to the simpler scarves.

My client will be providing the fabric and the digital patterns. Not every fabric (presumably) will work in every digital printing press, so my client and the new vendor will have to test the process. My assumption is that this will be a little harder than letting the vendor use their own fabric, which they will have chosen based on their own custom printing equipment. (I have no reason to believe this will be a deal-breaker, just an important area for testing.)

To return to the issue of digital patterns, I personally find this concept most interesting. I had assumed that the pattern would be printed on the entire bolt of fabric as it travels through either the inkjet printer or the dye-sublimation printer. But this is not necessarily true.

Instead, imagine bits of paper from Simplicity Patterns pinned to fabric to guide the tailor in cutting out the pieces for assembly into a dress, and then imagine this process transferred to a computer. My client’s designs can be specifically positioned within the boundaries of the digital pattern, such that once printed these pieces will be ready to be cut out and sewn together into a completed garment. There will be no waste. Nothing will be printed outside the boundaries of the digital outline of the dress pattern. Remarkable.

What Kinds of Art Files Are Appropriate?

My initial assumption, having come into print brokering via graphic design and art direction, was that the required art files would have been Illustrator vector files. I assumed they would be crisper and more consistent. So I went to school on the subject.

I found the opposite to be true. Spoonflower (one of the largest fabric printers) asks for raster (bitmapped) files, not vector files.

That said, an article I found online called “A Beginner’s Guide to Digital Textile Printing” by Kate McInnes encourages readers to first create the file in Illustrator and then color the images and copy and repeat them to make patterns. She also suggests using color groups and brushes (the Blob Brush, which you can control for size and smoothness) to simplify the illustration work, and to let the computer do the repetitions and adjustments for you, all within a square digital “canvas.” You can even go back and change the coloration of various elements as you wish.

Then McInnes encourages you to save the Illustrator file as a PDF, which you can import into Photoshop and save as an 8-bit uncompressed TIFF (no quality loss due to compression) in LAB color with a resolution (for Spoonflower, at least) of 150 pixels per inch. Other vendors prefer JPG or GIF formats, so always ask for specific file requirements.

In addition, in my client’s case, the first vendor I called requested two items to help her provide an estimate. She wanted the digital pattern and also the position of the printed elements on the garment. You also may want to offer this information when requesting bids.

Custom Printing: Digital Printing on Woolen Fabric

Wednesday, September 15th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

On a daily basis I get a Google Aggregator list of articles about both digital printing and offset printing. I find these extremely useful on two counts. First, even if I just read the headlines, I can immediately see what’s trending in commercial printing. I know what to research. Second, I can click through and research in depth any subjects that interest me.

So I’d encourage you to set up a similar feed of articles if you are a student of custom printing, as I am.

Over the last several months, I have noticed an uptick in the number of articles about digital printing on fabric. This includes both direct-to-garment (DTG) work and printing on rolls of fabric. In the case of DTG, fully formed pieces of clothing are stretched over a platen in the printing equipment, and some form of inkjet printhead array decorates a portion of the clothing. In the latter, images are printed on rolls of fabric, which are then measured, cut, and sewn into complete pieces of clothing.

The two imaging techniques I have found are direct inkjet, which works for cotton fabrics, and dye sublimation, which works for polyester fabrics. The goal is to get the coloration deep into the material, where it can bind to the fibers of the fabric.

Direct inkjet technology sprays droplets of color into the cotton. In contrast, dye sublimation starts with the direct digital printing of the image onto transfer paper using dyes. Then, in a separate step, with the transfer sheet flat against the fabric, applied intense heat causes the printed image from the transfer sheet to migrate into the mesh of polyester fibers and bind to them (it goes from a solid to a gas, skipping the liquid state, and then solidifies again in the fabric). This is a very strong bond. In fact, it is my understanding that dye sub on polyester is even more durable than inkjet on cotton. And, there have been forays into direct dye sublimation of images onto polyester (skipping the transfer sheet but retaining the high heat), although the challenge is to keep the fabric completely flat during the transfer process.

So these are the options, using different coloration technologies for different substrates (cotton and polyester).

But What About Wool?

Yes, exactly. What about wool? We have made clothing out of wool for centuries. Now, finally, I’m beginning to read Google Aggregator articles on the custom printing of woolen fabrics. How exciting.

First, a little backstory. For most of history, the preferred way to decorate wool has been to dye it, in bulk. (Imagine vats of liquid dye.) This consumes a huge amount of water. Much of the coloration runs out of the fibers during the washing process. And there is no way to get photographic-quality image detail and resolution, which even now you can find on polyester and cotton bathing suits at the beach. But this is changing.

First, here are the benefits of wool:

  1. Wool is warm.
  2. Wool absorbs moisture.
  3. Wool is flame retardant.
  4. Wool has good drapability (ability to conform to whatever it is draped on, like the human body).
  5. Wool is resilient (returns to its original form).

Here are the challenges with decorating wool:

  1. The coloration has to get deep into the fibers, quickly and easily.
  2. The color has to stay there.

Recent strides in commercial printing technology have improved the surface characteristics of woolen fabric in such a way as to improve its color receptivity to fabric dyes, the pigment depth (ability to get coloration deep into the fibers), and the color fixation and color fastness (keeping the dyes attached to the woolen fibers). This has been done with chemical pretreatment and/or additions to the ink paste mixture (including, for instance, some of the following: monoethanol amine, benzyl alcohol, urea, and ammonium persulphate). Some of this processing actually strengthens the wool as well.

(If all of this technical information interests you, you might want to research Redox System; Dr. Suman Pant’s “Techniques to Improve Printing Performance of Wool Fabric,” 09/2010; and Think Positive, experts in the UK on direct-to-fabric custom printing.)

Here’s how it’s done (based on my recent reading about Think Positive). This includes printing on woven wool and knits, wool blends such as wool denim, wool velvet, lightweight wool twill, and wool fur.

(Keep in mind that wool is now considered a “luxury” fabric, particularly when compared to cotton and polyester. For instance, such famous brands as Vivienne Westwood benefit from this technology.)

The Process

In my reading, the custom printing was done directly onto rolls of fabric, as opposed to printing onto fully formed garments:

  1. Printers first pretreat the wool with a blend of seaweed thickener, urea, salt, and lemon juice (citric acid).
  2. The printers then use a water-soluble textile dye.
  3. The process sprays the dye through an array of inkjet print heads. (In the case of Think Positive, the digital press incorporates an 8-color inkset from which more than a billion colors can be mixed.)
  4. The fabric is held in place during imaging by a “sticky belt.”
  5. The printed fabric (with the dye sitting on top of the wool) is passed over a heat tray, which dries the dyes to the touch.
  6. Steaming the fabric opens the fibers and allows deep ink penetration into (and bonding with) the wool fibers. This sets the coloration (and images) and makes it permanent and durable.
  7. The printer washes out the precoating solution.
  8. There has even been experimentation into custom printing both sides of the fabric.

The Benefits

Here are some thoughts culled from the articles I read:

  1. Wool is a high-end fabric. Printing on wool opens up areas of high fashion once accessible to only cotton and polyester fabrics.
  2. Dyeing wool used to be a long, complex, arduous process, which consumed copious amounts of water. (Also, some wool dyeing was done not at the fabric stage but at the yarn stage, dyeing skeins of wool.) Now, using digital commercial printing technology, it’s possible to print ready-to-wear items much faster.
  3. This lends itself to printing short production runs and even prototypes.
  4. Due to the quick make-ready, the digital process eliminates the need for large runs. Therefore, there’s no need to store inventory (which might go out of fashion). Also, presumably, it’s possible to personalize individual items.
  5. Design flexibility has gone through the roof. Think about the detail and photographic resolution of digital printing vs. dyeing fabric.
  6. The process is sustainable and environmentally friendly. It uses far less water than prior technologies.
  7. The dye itself is environmentally friendly. In addition, excess dye can be recycled.

The Takeaway: How Can You Benefit as a Designer or Printer?

If you’re a designer or printer, how can you benefit from this new technology? First of all, fabric printing in general opens up two hot industries for you: apparel and interior design. The ability to print close to photographic quality designs on wool puts your design and commercial printing skills and knowledge in high demand.

If you’re a printer, it seems to me that buying the equipment required to produce and sell fabric printing would be less of a hurdle than adding traditional fabric dyeing technology (vats of colored dye) with its high water usage and need for storage of large printing runs.

So, as with any new commercial printing technology, my advice is to first read everything you can find on the subject of fabric printing for apparel and interior design (wall coverings, bedspreads, etc.) to see how you might apply your current level of expertise and what more you need to learn.

This is just the start. It’s really quite exciting, don’t you think?

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.


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