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Digital printing opportunities for interior fabrics

March 1st, 2010 / By: / Resources

Digitally printed fabrics provide a world of opportunities for home interior applications.

Mass production may have been the hallmark of American retail and design, but consumers are ditching what they see as ‘cookie-cutter’ products and using interior designers to help them create one-of-a-kind furnishings and accessories for their homes. In turn, these designers seek unique solutions for their clients.

Many of them, however, either don’t consider or don’t know about digitally printing on fabric—an option that can provide many opportunities for the end user, from homeowners to interior designers and artists.

“This is an artist’s dream to be able to design something original, and then have it produced in a form they can use at home,” says Jeanelle Dech, president of Adaptive Textiles in West Chester, Pa. “This opportunity has never been there before without being backed by a large company or contracted for a big swatch.”

Paul Lilienthal, president of Pictura Graphics in Minneapolis, Minn., says end users are looking for a unique style in home interiors. “They can use something they have designed, a photographic image that they like or a specialty look that doesn’t come from a stock wall covering,” Lilienthal says.

The immediacy of digital printing is what’s appealing for creating custom furniture or drapery pieces. “Digitally printed fabrics are much more on-demand,” says Joseph Terramagra, sales and marketing representative, western region, for Mimaki USA, based in Suwanee, Ga. Setup time is shorter than screening and any changes can be made quickly. The print shops and end product manufacturers benefit, too. “If you’re digitally printing for a client,” Terramagra says, “you don’t have to stock rolls of fabric that no one is going to use.”

How to proceed

End product manufacturers and print shops that want to further develop their skills and offerings for the home interiors market have a vast array of fabrics to consider. Susanne Jansson, owner of Better Mousetrap in Long Island City, N.Y., has created everything from draperies to upholstery for her clients. “We use contract-market fabrics that have excellent durability, such as faux leather, suede and silks with a material base of polyester,” says Jansson, who adds that today’s synthetic fibers are light years ahead of the poly products of the 1980s.

Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc., Aurora, Ill., has developed a line of 100-percent polyester fabrics engineered specifically for dye sublimation printing. The collection’s 14 styles include muslin, linen, upholstery and twill. “These textiles look and feel like cotton and are made with spun yarns instead of filament yarns,” says Michael Richardson, director of sales and marketing, print media. “That gives them more of a natural fiber look even though they’re synthetic.”

Still other end users—not to mention print shops and end product manufacturers—prefer to use natural fabrics, including cotton, linen and silk, which are ideal for window treatments and throw pillows, and grasscloth, a popular choice for wall coverings.

Even leather is starting to make headway in the digital printing market. Start-up company Digital Leather in Sarasota, Fla., is getting in on the action. “We are bringing the world of digital printing into the analog world of leather,” says Digital Leather’s Chris Cudzilo. “Anything you can design or capture digitally you can put on leather now.”

In the middle of the tanning process, an image is printed on a smart imaging film and laminated to the leather. The product is then finished just like traditional leather. “Once the image is on the leather, it becomes the leather,” Cudzilo says. “You can’t scuff it or scratch it.”

Overcoming obstacles

While it’s true that people are spending less in the current economy, those who have cash are willing to invest in a product that brings creativity and adds value to the home, but fabricators need to be prepared to deal with direct-to-fabric digital printing limitations, too—for example with depth of color. “An inkjet printer is not usually as vibrant as some customers might be used to,” Dech says.

Matching colors can be an issue, says Pat Walker, managing director of 4walls.com, a wall covering designer and manufacturer in Cleveland, Ohio. “Inkjet simulates colors, and while this is simple, it is sometimes hard to explain to demanding clients. They sometimes think that digital printing is a magic wand with no limitations whatsoever.”

“We work with our customers to find the right materials with the right characteristics for the application, and to coach them on value engineering when appropriate,” Walker says. “We are very involved in the entire process, where we help them find a fabric ground that is appropriate for their job,” Dech says.

Getting the word out

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the industry is getting interior designers on board with the concept of digitally printed fabrics. Ten years ago, the technology was the barrier, but that is no longer the case,” says Patti Williams, a consulting partner with Hanover, Mass.-based IT Strategies, which advises companies in the digital printing industry. “Interior designers are used to buying already created products, so the limitations today are more market driven. How do you meet these people? How do they find you?”

Williams suggests starting with existing connections and establishing new ones to branch out. “If they want to go after this business, they need to think of the kinds of customers they can sell their expertise to,” she says. “Connections need to be made among office designers, interior designers and retail.”

Print shops and end product manufacturers can make those connections through current customers—for example, if they are providing fabric signage for a client, they can let them know about their capabilities to produce digitally printed fabrics for interiors. Designer-driven trade shows can be resources for new business, and old-fashioned word of mouth is still a powerful marketing tool.

Additionally, promoting the green angle can offer another entry point into the market. “Print shops can sell digitally printed fabrics as a more sustainable product than screen-printed output,” Williams advises. “You have to put together a reason why people want to buy, and today seems to be about green.”

Digitally printable fabrics for the home interiors market can open new doors for print shops and end product manufacturers. Digital Leather’s Cudzilo envisions that 30- to 50-year-olds will comprise the target market for home interior opportunities. “They are the ones in the workforce. They are the ones that are going to have discretionary income in the future,” he says. “They don’t want to walk into their neighbor’s house and see the same piece of furniture that they have. We need to deliver a customized product as cost effectively as possible.”

It’s an outlook that can serve the industry well as it defines ways to tap into the home interiors market.

Holly O’Dell is a Minnesota-based freelance writer.

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