Small Business

A Digital-Printing Primer

EpsonApril 29, 2021

By incorporating digital textile printing, today’s print shops can expand offerings and customer profiles to better fulfill orders for local clients, designers, and department stores. Designers can create custom fabric with fine detail, smooth tone gradations, and virtually an unlimited color range. Customers can realize the benefits with less-expensive and more unique clothing options on the market.

Valued at $2.2 billion in 2019, the global digital textile industry is expected to reach $8.8 billion by 2027 – a 300% increase, according to a report by Allied Market Research. To complement this growth, digital textile technology has continued to expand and improve with increased feature sets and ease-of-use benefits for digital textile manufacturers.

When looking to expand into digital textile printing, businesses in this industry should understand the three primary digital textile printing methods: direct-to-garment (DTG), dye-sublimation, and direct-to-fabric printing, which can be used with bolts of fabric. Each method has its own benefits and requires a unique set of equipment. However, once a print shop has one of these methods installed, it is easy and straightforward to expand into others.

DTG Printing

The DTG-printing process is exactly what it sounds like. This technology involves printing directly onto a primarily cotton garment and is most commonly used for creating T-shirts and sweatshirts. It also can be used to create socks, tote bags, and apparel accessories. Also, there are optional attachments for select DTG printers that can expand product offerings to include printed baseball caps and sneakers.

Fabric Selection: This is crucial when it comes to DTG printing, as the application works best with 100% cotton and predominantly cotton-blended fabrics. However, the technology has advanced, and — with a specific pretreatment solution — it now is possible to print on polyester garments.

Pretreatment: Before printing, each garment needs to be pretreated to ensure high-quality output. The process typically involves applying a pretreatment liquid, which is similar to a primer. There are different DTG pretreatment liquids that are optimized for different fabric types, allowing the printer ink to deliver high-quality output with vibrant colors and high wash fastness.

Key Printing Features: Along with the rest of the industry, DTG-printing technology has advanced to benefit both small and industrial-level print shops. For entry-level users, the process of loading garments is one of the primary learning curves. When looking for a new DTG printer, it’s important to find one with an easy- and quick-loading garment platen. This ensures stress-free garment loading and is essential to meet increasing business needs in the future.

While the traditional four-color (CMYK) ink technology is essential, purchasing a printer that leverages white ink will help deliver improved print quality on a wide variety of garments and is critical if printing on black and dark-colored items. Look for a printer that offers specific print modes for light and dark garments.

Heat Treatments: In addition tO pretreatment and printing equipment, the DTG application requires a heat-curing system, either via a heat press or tunnel dryer, after printing to secure the ink to the garment.

Benefits: DTG printing allows shops to fulfill smaller, highly customized orders that are typical for local sports teams, clubs, and celebratory occasions. While DTG printing is best for adding customization – such as a name or number to sports garments – it can also help small businesses create on-demand and made-to-order items to reduce excess inventory and help increase profits. 

Dye Sublimation 

Dye-sublimation printing involves a transfer process that dyes the fabric. Each design is printed on transfer paper, which then is applied to the fabric through a heat-transfer process. This printing technique is common for athletic and swim apparel and polyester blends -as it creates textile designs with fine lines, details, and color gradients.

Fabric Selection: When considering fabric that is ideal for dye-sublimation printing, it’s crucial to select white or light-colored, 100% polyester or primarily polyester blends to ensure the transfer is successful with no change to the fabric’s feel. There are fabrics available that are optimized for this type of printing, and it’s easy to purchase them in bolts for large textile orders. 
Printing Process: The design is printed onto transfer paper and applied to the fabric via heat. The heat and pressure placed on the transfer paper initiate a chemical reaction that turns the ink into a colored gas that dyes the fabric. This allows the ink to penetrate the fabric and become one with the material.

Key Printing Features: A huge benefit of dye-sublimation printing is the technology’s overall versatility. In addition to textiles, it provides the opportunity for print shops to offer soft signage, home decor, and promotional items. When looking for an entry-level dye-sublimation printer, consider its versatility and ink technology.

Dye sublimation requires exceptional color saturation and high contrast, so find technology that offers high-density black ink to ensure output has excellent tonal transitions and grayscale. A dense black can penetrate all layers of polyester materials, such as printed yoga pants. A good test is to stretch the final product to ensure there are no areas that become see-through or gray. 
In addition, some printers offer spot colors, including fluores­cent yellow and pink. The additional bright spot colors are ideal for creating athleisure and safety wear, while also providing the ability to produce textiles for new and emerging trends, such as tie-dye and neon clothing.

Heat Treatments: When investing in dye-sublimation technology, there’s a large variety of output equipment and heat-transfer machines available. Once the print is complete, the heat-transfer process finalizes the garment.

Most entry-level dye-sublimation printers and heat presses can scale with the business and output type. However, for large textile orders and fabric bolts, a Calender-style heat press is ideal and will be an essential part of the process, no matter which dye-sublimation machine is used.

Benefits: Dye-sublimation inks offer many advantages, including excellent color vibrancy and sharpness. Designers can have more control over the final fabric design with greater color range and ex­acting placement of design elements that can be impossible to re-create with the traditional mass-produced, analog textile­manufacturing process. Dye-sublimation technology also allows for smaller-quantity orders with shorter turnaround times to meet the changing demands of designer and department stores.

The dye-sublimation process can be done on raw and uncoated polyester fab­rics, resulting in no change to hand feel, and on a wide variety of products ranging from textiles to promotional goods, home decor, and soft signage that will generate additional revenue. 

DTF Printing

Similar to DTG printing, direct-to-fabric printing doesn’t require a transfer process and can print directly to bolts of fabric. Unlike DTG, DTF printing offers a wide variety of fabric options, and the level of difficulty depends on the fabric, application, and output quality required.

Fabric Selection: DTF printing offers the ability to prim directly onto a wide va­riety of fabrics, including nylon, silk, wool, polyester, cotton, and viscose. Ink selection is crucial and will dictate the recommend­ed fabric type for a project. DTF printers often are capable of leveraging multiple ink styles, including acid, disperse, reactive, and pigment.

Pretreatment: With this method, each fabric type requires different levels of pre-and post-treatment, ranging from pretreated fabric to post-printing steam­ing and washing. Therefore, the fabric will dictate the number of additional pieces of equipment required. In addition, some fabric types also will require a post-printing drying process.

Key Printing Features: When research­ing an entry-level DTF printer, look for equipment that can handle a variety of ink types for increased fabric options and output versatility. If you’re looking to incorporate roll-to-roll fabric production, you ‘IJ need a printer with high-productivity features and print speed􀁰 to further increase efficiency. Additional production features can help to curb excess ink and decrease drying times. 

Benefits: DTF printers often are designed for round-the-clock operation and can be reliable for roll-to-roll fabric produc­tion. Many factors associated with DTF printing result in a large variety of fabric and output. This method is available for advanced printers and may require more of a learning curve, as print shops and employees will need to understand the new printer and become familiar with the different ink types available and cor­responding fabric per ink type.

Print shops will reap benefits by invest­ing in digital textile-printing equipment, including attracting new customers and projects. Each of the three printing methods has its own advantages. While DTG and DTF printing offer primarily textile­focused solutions, installing dye-sublimation technology can further expand a business into other industries, including phocogra­phy; glass and wood gifts; and promotional and customized products such as coffee mugs, phone cases, mousepads, etc. Before making a selection, determine the types of products you’re looking to offer today and envision how your company will expand in five to 10 years. 



This article was originally published in Impressions Magazine, April 2021, and has been republished with permission.

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