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Working with textured fabric creates new printing partnerships

May 1st, 2008 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Printing on textured fabrics has introduced a world of new applications. Thanks to the ability to print on non-smooth surfaces with the end result of bright, unified colors and sharp, high-resolution graphics, industries such as exhibition, retail, film, interior design, and fine art reproduction are benefiting from this market segment. What once was a standard trade-show banner is now a stretchy fabric that doesn’t lose its photographic-quality image, even after being pulled over framing. What used to be a labor-intensive art archival process now takes only a few steps with better results than ever.

Despite the doors that are now open in this field, printing on textured fabrics is not without its nuances. But understanding them can help you think about new uses for textiles in your business—and perhaps enhance your own in-house services.

Types of textures

Given the nature of print technology today, many textured fabrics can be printed on with a high-quality outcome. The key is to understand the capabilities and limitations of your fabrics, along with the print processes best suited for textured fabrics, which could range from standard flag and display fabrics to those with more complexity and texture, such as corduroy, corn-based Sorona®, and polyester velour and velveteen.

Fabric Images in Elgin, Ill., has built its business around diversity in fabric. The company offers 150 different textiles, with crushed velour, mesh, linen, and spandex being the most popular among customers, president Patrick Hayes says.

dreamScape, a textured fabric produced by Roysons Corp. in Rockaway, N.J., represents another popular option for those looking to create out-of-the-ordinary looks, particularly through wall art. The dreamScape fabric is a special-effect, fabric-backed, textured material with a vinyl face. Its 14 different surfaces include those that model leather and artist’s canvas.

“They look like fabrics, yet they perform well and have a lot of superior qualities,” says Roy Ritchie Jr., president of Roysons. In addition, Roysons is launching a new product called Glasstex, a clear textured vinyl with a peel-and-stick adhesive lining on the back.

Ready to print: dye sub

Two major printing processes dominate the textured fabric printing market: dye sublimation and digital direct to fabric using inkjet printers. Dye sublimation, used mostly on polyester-based fabrics, employs a process in which ink is printed onto paper in the negative, after which the paper and fabric go through a heat press. Under pressure, the ink turns to a gas and then penetrates the fiber of the textile. The ink, therefore, is imbedded into the fabric, rather than becoming a surface graphic.

Fabric Images uses dye sublimation exclusively on its textiles. “The beauty of dye sublimation is that you just take raw, soft fabrics without any coatings and go,” Hayes says. “Dye sublimation gives you the widest gamut of textiles to print on. I have not found anything in six years that’s showing me the versatility to replace dye sublimation.”

Like Fabric Images, Moss Inc., of Salt Lake City, Utah, has found positive results through dye sublimation. Moss supplies tensioned fabric and printed graphics for the exhibit, event, and retail interiors industries. As its name indicates, tensioned fabric has a little stretch to it so it can be fitted over an aluminum frame. Unfortunately, this stretch can cause a few headaches during the printing process, which Moss has successfully addressed by modifying equipment and developing proprietary processes.

“When printing on fabrics with a lot of stretch, you may occasionally get ghosting due to the fact [that] the material is stretching as it’s going through the transfer machine. The material wants to stretch because it’s under tension, but the paper doesn’t,” explains Rob Evans, marketing director for Moss. The company offers opaque, sheer, mesh, and remay fabrics, among others.

“The other challenge can be size,” he says. “Sometimes the fabric will retain the stretch that is caused by the tension during transfer. If this happens, you have a print that may be too large and will require you to crop off a lot of the image to get down to the size you need.”

Evans adds that the problems are inherent to the stretchy fabric, not to the dye sublimation process. “You have the same challenges with digital printing,” he says. “We prefer dye sublimation. A common consensus among many in the industry is that sublimation offers the richest, most vibrant color, and we agree with that.”

Ready to print: inkjet

The other major process used for printing on textured fabrics is inkjet. In this process, the graphics are printed directly onto the fabric. Digital inkjet printers use either solvent- or water-based ink, though solvent inks are being used less and less because their composition includes VOCs, deemed harmful to health and the environment. Some in the fabric-printing industry prefer solvent inks because they’re more durable and provide better colors, but others claim that water-based inks offer the same quality today as their solvent-based counterparts. UV-curable inks, which are cured by a strong exposure to UV light, are also becoming more popular for textured-fabric printing because the ink dries immediately after curing and produces a crisp, clean final product.

Pre- or post treatments

One important consideration in the printing process is to determine whether pretreatments and/or post treatments are necessary. Often, the addition of a coating is contingent upon the composition of a particular textile and the type of printing process you plan to use.

For users of its product, dreamScape has created a water-based post-treatment liquid laminate called dreamGuard. It provides additional protection to the product, which is particularly important “if someone is going to be putting up a very expensive mural on their wall with the potential of people bumping into it or scraping it,” Ritchie says. The product works in a liquid laminator, but it can be applied manually as well.

“The product has what we call a neutral gloss level, which means that once it dries, it looks like you’ve put nothing on the surface,” Ritchie adds.

A myriad of uses

Printing on textured fabrics has paved the way for numerous customized end products for both residential and consumer applications. The event/exhibition industry is one of the most common segments to use printed textured fabrics. Fabric Images’ textiles have been used in museums, retail stores and corporate environs. In one particularly memorable setting, the company created an elaborate fabric-based brick wall on a fairy castle that was displayed in a Pennsylvania mall. Fabric Images’ products were also used in the creation of a lounge at the Stratosphere Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas, Nev.

Astek Wall Coverings, a wholesale distributor and printer in Van Nuys, Calif., has used Roysons’ dreamScape fabric to create Hollywood sets. Most recently, the company produced a mural backdrop for one of the casino shots in the movie “Ocean’s Thirteen.” Astek also produced a faux ceiling to replicate the ceiling in the Bellagio poker room for the movie “Lucky You.”

“We were able to take a digital photo of the original ceiling in the Bellagio, computer generate it, and print more than 300 ceiling tiles on dreamScape,” says Aaron Kirsch, owner of Astek. “It made you feel like you were in the casino, and it offered a cost-effective solution.”

Another area benefiting from the technology upgrades in fabric and printing is fine art reproduction and archiving. Dura Plastics Ltd. in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, has spent several years developing a coating that’s applied directly to the cotton of high-grade artist canvases. In the past, a regular artist canvas could not go through an inkjet printer, says Peter Tarantino, operations manager for Dura Plastics. Instead, printers would use multiple steps to transfer the original image onto the canvas, opening the door for mis-matched colors.

“Now that you can print it directly through the printer, you can print on a canvas today that, 10 years from now, the colors will be the same,” he says.

Daniel Vezina of Les Productions Numart Inc., in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, regularly prints on Dura Plastics’ canvases and touts its benefits.

“Artists want to reproduce their prints on something that looks very similar to a painter’s canvas,” he says. “The Dura product allows us to print on something that looks like a standard fabric that gets very good colors and a full matte finish. The prints stay very soft and flexible.”

Is it for you?

You might know the basics of fabrics, treatments and printing processes, but what else do you need for a successful entry into printing on textured fabrics? As with any new venture, the adage “look before you leap” applies.

“Understand what you’re getting into. That means understanding what the market is, what capabilities the machinery you’re looking into will do and talking to others in your situation,” Hayes says. “I see so many people say, ‘That’s a new market, so I’m going to get into it.’ They find that all of a sudden they have so much money tied up in it.”

Hayes says smaller shops might have better luck partnering with a print company, which then gives the printed fabric back to the shop for sewing, finishing and selling. Tarantino is looking into another kind of partnership—private labeling—for Dura Plastics’ coated canvases.

Keeping your end customer in mind is another component to consider. “My advice is to do your research to find out the print method that best fits the customers you’re servicing or the products you want to make,” Evans says.

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in southern California.

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