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Form and Function: Digitally Decorated Textiles

(April 2013) posted on Wed Apr 24, 2013

A variety of unique and lucrative applications await those who print digitally onto fabrics.

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By Dan Naumovich

“On an emotional and physical level, fabrics make a person feel warmer in a way that PVC scrim banner can’t. In retail advertising, so much of the buying decision is based on emotions, and fabrics can help sway the buyer,” he says.

Niche markets for fabrics
At m2 displays in California, most of the printed fabric ends up in the retail environment in the form of window displays. They also do a lot of roll-up stands and flags. President Bryan Mehr says that fabric printing hasn’t been a major focus of the company over the years, but they have found a niche with some out-of-the-ordinary applications that are opening up new markets for them.

“Recently, we took an old army canvas supplied by our client and printed it for a display. In that same display we took another old blanket and cut letters out of it to mount it on the army canvas. We also recently did a print on fine silk that a client brought to us for an art project. Currently, we are working on a large banner run that prints latex on raw denim. The results are excellent,” Mehr says.

“Direct sub requires the fabric to be coated. We use ours mostly for flags because it has such a good show-through. The latex printer will print just about anything we can get through it. We struggle with the ink scratching on some fabrics, and it doesn’t do very well with material that has a stretch to it. Latex is relatively new to us, and we are learning as we go. We are very pleased with what we are getting off of it.”

Problems with fabric
There are challenges and inefficiencies to printing directly to fabric as well. Andy Graven, president of Custom Printed Fabrics in Charlotte, NC, lists fabric consistency and color control as two of the issues they face when printing for design-house clientele.

“Digital files do not always represent the printed color accurately to the customer. So once we RIP the file for printing, the color varies from what the customer sees on the computer screen. Variation in the fabric itself also affects color,” Graven says.

Grand Image, Inc., based in Hudson, MA, also serves the event and trade-show market. The company specializes in grand-format printing. In addition to banners and backdrops, Grand Image prints fabric for use in wrapping structures. Tamir Luria, director of business development at Grand Image, says that the costs and physical properties of fabric can both result in challenges.

“Mistakes that occur while printing direct to fabric are more expensive since the fabric waste is much more expensive than the paper waste for the dye-sub-transfer process. Loading different materials is more time consuming for printing direct, as opposed to keeping a paper roll on the machine for the dye sub process,” Luria explains.

Expand’s Sawchak says that direct digital textile printing had previously gotten a bad name in this country because the speed and ink costs weren’t competitive with other processes. Advancements have changed all of that and she speaks about the opportunities that await.

“The main thing is educating people about the customer base. People need to understand that here’s a much larger market out there than just the traditional sign industry. We’re excited to see the interest and that they can keep things onshore,” she says.

Dan Naumovich is a freelance journalist and a copywriter. He contributes stories to newspapers and trade publications, and also provides marketing copy to business organizations. Before embarking on a career as a writer, Naumovich spent ten years working in a family-owned screen-printing shop. He can be reached at



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