On-demand fabric printing


The traditional textile market produced over $43 billion in worldwide billings last year, apparel textiles made up the largest portion of that amount at almost 90 percent of the total. Also included in this number are automotive trimmings and carpets, according to a recent I.T. Strategies report. The digital garment printing industry is starting to make its stamp upon this industry, with significant growth in recent years. And it looks like its set to grow even further in the future.

Wherever you look, custom apparel, in-store advertising, trade show exhibits and custom products are all covered with an array of digitally-printed fabrics. While historically these results were achieved using screen presses, the in-vogue method of choice is now digital printing.

Brazilian-British duo Basso & Brooke were the first brand to create a fashion collection relying entirely on digitally-printed fabrics back in 2004, and now many other designers are getting in on the act. There are many online services springing up, like Karm a Kraft, Fabric on Demand and Spoonflower to name but a few. They all have similar product offerings in which customers submit their own artwork online or work from a series of pre-designed templates, select their choice of material and finally order as little or as much of the printed fabric as they need.

Recent statistics appear to back up the trend. According to InfoTrends and Fespa’s World Wide Survey, the fastest growing application in wide-format digital printing is textiles with 93 percent of printers polled stating that they expect to see growth in this market.

Which type of method should you use for imprinted apparel?

In the digital world, there are three options we would like to look at, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Thermal Transfer Printing

Thermal transfer printing has been around for a while and involves the smallest initial investment. You simply need a conventional inkjet or colour laser printer with the proper transfer paper and a heat press. The most common complaints about thermal transfers are cost per print, inconsistent wash results and potential peeling or cracking of the transfer; however, the newer transfer papers on the market today can minimize the outline of the transfer paper by using a two-step process to virtually eliminate the outline completely. Because the inks are translucent, the thermal transfer printing method is limited to white or lighter garments.

Dye-Sublimation Transfer Printing

Dye-sublimation transfers differ from thermal transfers because the dye actually transfers from the carrier paper to the garment. A dye-sublimation printer employs a printing process that uses heat to transfer dye onto materials such as a plastic card, paper, fabric and many other materials. Dye-sublimation produces a print that has virtually no feel on the garment, but is more expensive than thermal transfer printers.

Unlike thermal transfers, screen-printing and direct-to-garment printing, dye-sublimation printing needs a synthetic substrate to effectively transfer onto. Dye-sublimation is definitely the process of choice for decorating non-textiles such as mugs, plates, brass and aluminum, and produces very vibrant prints when printed on the correct type garment. Typically, their wash fastness is excellent, however, they do tend to fade with exposure to sunlight, so they are not the best solution for garments that will be worn extensively outdoors.

Direct-to-Garment Digital Printing (DTG)

The Decorated Apparel Industry was taken by storm in late 2004 when some of the first commercial based direct-to-garment (DTG) printers were released. DTG digital printing involves the use of a modified inkjet printer with specially formulated water-based textile inks which are heat set with a heat press or textile dryer. Unlike screen-printing, DTG output does not require separations, films and screens. Once your artwork is ready on the computer, it is output directly onto the garment. DTG digital garment printing does not compete with simple one or two colour screen print jobs when quantities exceed three or four dozen; however, it does fit in nicely for larger runs of more complex full colour graphics.

With the advent of white ink for DTG printers, new opportunities have sprung up for DTG printing with short-run and custom dark shirts. DTG printing, with its full colour palette, is the wave of the future for garment imprinting as the price comes down.