Textiles with Style

Recent developments in digital fabric and textile printing have helped alter the wide-format industry landscape, expanding print providers’ opportunities into the growing fabric graphics market.

Jeffrey Steele
October 1, 2011

Recent developments in digital fabric and textile printing have helped alter the wide-format industry landscape, expanding print providers’ opportunities into the growing fabric graphics market. With qualities ranging from distinctiveness to ease of handling to lower shipping costs, fabric graphics have much to commend them. But newbies to the niche should realize this is not an easy field to master, nor a segment where they can expect to underprice veteran competition.

Few North American companies are better acquainted with the learning curve required to successfully compete in fabric printing than McRae Imaging, of the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, ON, Canada. In 2000, President Bob Murray, who had purchased Floyd McRae’s photo lab three years earlier, saw a fabric print of a butterfly in an Ontario museum. “It was shimmering, it moved,” Murray recalled.

“Just the way it looked, it was different and unique. I went to our lab manager, a real technical genius, and asked, ‘How do we do this?’ He said we could convert our Mimaki to dye sublimation. The rest of it just kind of evolved.”

There was, however, much learning undertaken during that evolution. “One of the things that was fortunate for us was that we had a reputation with a Florida company looking for someone to do dye sublimation fabric prints for a pop-up display,” Murray observed. “We said, ‘We’ll figure this out.’ It took us six months. We had to figure out color profiles. There were many, many hurdles. The learning curve is huge. Maybe not quite as huge today, but still big.”

Murray believes many veteran print service providers who enter the fabric printing niche underestimate the challenges of doing fabric printing well, at least at first. Among the obstacles they face are getting colors right, and mastering a substrate that doesn’t possess the same characteristics as common materials.

“Guys come out of other types of printing, but fabric is a unique animal,” he said. “Fabric absorbs light, so you can’t get a good color reading. It’s a really tricky product to print because it doesn’t act in the same ways as do products that don’t stretch. There are many, many things you have to understand about fabric printing that add nuances to the technique.”

Completely in agreement is Juvenal Andrade, general manager of Santa Clara, CA-based EXL Prints, which specializes in trade show booths and pop-up displays. “One of our biggest issues is color management,” he said.

“We’ve actually hired a full-time color manager, who does nothing but color profiling for each fabric. We currently offer about seven different kinds of materials for trade show booths, banner stands, table covers, and canopies. Each fabric has a different finish, a different weave, some may have a different hue, and some may be brighter or whiter. All of that is a factor when we’re doing our color prints. If you do one material with a bit of a yellow hue that’s not visible to the eye, and you add red, it’s going to turn orangey. So we do our test runs in the morning, and see how the materials will come out.”

The challenges grow more complex when the same color or design has to be printed on different kinds of fabric, he added. For instance, if a client asked for Coca-Cola red to be printed on 10 flags and a single pop-up display, that color better be consistent from the flags to the pop-up. “And if you have the same image on two different fabrics, it can be a nightmare,” Andrade said.

It also takes experience to get the heat transfer part of dye sublimation just right. If the heat transfer is done too fast, the colors can be washed out. Do them slowly, however, and the colors can be too saturated, he explained.

Another observer who lamented the difficulty of getting color right in fabric printing is Gene Sobel, president of Orange, CA’s Sign-Mart, since the mid-1990s solely a reseller to the trade. “When you stretch [fabric] and the fibers separate, you’re introducing more light and throwing off the color,” he said.

“And some of these [corporate clients] are beyond anal about color. The account jumps around from fabricator to fabricator until someone can do it right. Just because you run a test and it works out, it doesn’t mean it will print that way. And when you do something small, and then try it big, it doesn’t always work. We’ve thrown away quite a lot of material because it wasn’t right.”

Fabric’s stretchability means that other competencies in addition to color management must also be tackled, Sobel pointed out. “It’s easier to sew vinyl, because it folds over easily, and doesn’t stretch,” he said. “With fabric, you have to watch for wrinkles and bunching.”

Stand-Out Graphics

Still, there are advantages to taking on the arduous process of becoming proficient in fabric printing. One of the most significant flows from the fact that fabric is lightweight, which appeals to trade show exhibitors seeking to trim costs. “One thing that benefited us is the drayage cost,” Murray said, adding that while fabric is more expensive in and of itself, when shipping, drayage and installation are factored in, the total cost of fabric is competitive with other substrates.

There’s also a definite cache to fabric that few if any other materials can boast. Fabric attracts attention, and there are few more important keys in the trade show world, Murray noted. “I go to trade shows and people will invariably come up and touch my display, and they don’t really know why,” he said.

“There’s a texture and dimensionality to fabric that’s not there in the flat printing world. Light bounces off it, it has texture and it’s something that your eye sees but your brain doesn’t fully understand. In trade shows, you have maybe five seconds to stop someone, and fabric printing does that. That’s a benefit to the customer that they often don’t learn until they have a fabric display. It’s still so new to many people that it takes them a while to get it.”

Sobel has seen clients respond viscerally to fabric’s appeal. “Companies are looking for something different,” he said. “They’re looking for a different look. If you’re back about 10 feet, cloth looks about the same as plastic. But when those products are presented and sold to clients, they look at them from a foot away. They see this nice texture and say, ‘That’s a cool look.’

“We still do a lot of vinyl printing, but we’re steadily expanding into fabric printing, because we’re getting more requests [from customers].”

Andrade is another veteran who sees the look of fabric as one of its most salable characteristics. “It gives you a nice, classy, matte look, as opposed to a high-gloss vinyl,” he said. “It’s a lot more attention-getting than vinyl.”

What’s more, fabric is glare-free, a quality vinyl can’t boast. EXL Prints handles the printing for many media events that feature backdrops, and these settings have gone to printed textiles. “They all use fabrics,” Andrade said. “That’s because there’s less glare for the cameras to deal with.”

In addition, EXL Prints’ customers tend to like the ease of handling. “With dye sublimation, the dyes are heat transferred to the fabrics permanently, so you can wash it, roll it up, do a lot more than you could with vinyl,” Andrade said. “It’s easier to manage, to carry, to handle and to store.”

Avoiding Pitfalls

Having been in fabric printing for more than a decade, Murray has had the chance to watch competitive companies make serious mistakes trying to jump into the sector. One of their biggest errors is trying to conquer the market in one fell swoop by investing too much in very expensive equipment.

“People have to take it a step at a time,” Murray said. “Start small, with minimal equipment, and learn it. To come into the arena we occupy, you’d have to spend two million bucks, and not many guys can do that. Even with big, expensive equipment, you still have to go through a learning curve, and you should be doing that with cost-effective machines.”

Another landmine for beginners is pricing fabric at price points that will allow for profit. That was reinforced when a competitor tried to knock McRae Imaging off its perch with a much lower-priced product. “I know for a fact they have lost their shirts, and they’re in jeopardy right now,” Murray said.

“They did great marketing, but underpriced their product. They didn’t understand it’s very easy to make mistakes with fabric. And at the end of the day, if the customer doesn’t like the product, they’re going to say, ‘Redo it.’ ”

Producing high quality work is a significant enough challenge that Murray is concerned about the field filling with companies whose questionable output may tarnish the reputation of the entire fabric printing sector.

Only a handful of companies in the market produce genuine quality, and many others turn out fabric printing in which colors are poor, he said. “Quality is part of the learning curve,“ Murray reported. “What worries me is that some of these are getting into the big accounts, and turning [prospective customers] off.”

Growing Applications, Other Trends

There may be more business ahead for quality fabric printers. Europe has led the way in innovation, unveiling such devices as frameless aluminum structures that hold fabric. These displays are now arriving in the US.

In addition, hanging structures or halos first unveiled at trade shows are starting to make their way into retailing, particularly in big box retailers, Murray says. “That’s a niche in its infancy in North America,” he added.

The growth of fabric printing will also benefit from the green movement worldwide, Murray believed. “Fabric is incredibly green by its very nature,” he said. “We use only water-based inks. We have big HEPA filters on some of our equipment, and we put absolutely zero VOCs into the atmosphere. It’s really green, and a really healthy environment for employees and also for customers.”

As evidence of the growing call for environmentally-friendly printing across the globe, Murray points to the fact that at the 2012 Olympics in London, PVC banners will not be allowed. “There has to be an alternative to vinyl,” he said. “And sublimation is a great alternative.”

Andrade also believes customers are seeking a more natural alternative to vinyl. “Most people these days are veering toward fabric,” he said.

“There’s something about it, the feel, the texture. It’s something we’re used to, because we wear it every day. Vinyl is becoming less attractive because everyone’s doing it. You have kids coming out of high school doing it in their garages. But getting into a dye sublimation machine, and all those profiles, that takes time. The result is a real nice product. There’s something you get from fabrics that you can’t get from your average vinyl material.”

Fabric printing will also eventually become more cost efficient, Murray believes, and that should lead to more print service providers entering a field that could certainly benefit from additional quality performers, he said.

“The more product that is out there, the happier I am,” Murray asserted. “If you don’t have enough people producing, it’s hard to create a market. I welcome competition, but it’s got to be good competition.”