Digital Decorating:

What Are Your Digital Fabric-Printing Options?

By Tim Dinneen, Contributing Writer

July 2, 2018

Behind every beautifully custom printed textile is a specific fabric printing chemistry and process that will vary from application to application (or from fabric type to fabric type). For example, printing on cotton canvas requires a different method than printing polyester sports apparel. The fibers in each material respond differently to various ink chemistries, meaning there is no single process that will provide the ideal print for every fabric type.

However, digital fabric printing can be less complex than it sounds. In order to find the exact fabric printing machine that’s right for your intended use, you just need to understand the processes that are available for your application. Two of the most common techniques — dye-sublimation and direct-to-garment (DTG) printing — are detailed below to give you an overview on how digital printing on fabric should be approached for each type of material.

Dye Sublimation Printing
When it comes to fabric printing on polyester, dye sublimation is the go-to chemistry. Techniques can include using a traditional dye-sub transfer printer or a direct-to-fabric dye-sublimation printer. While transfer printing is more prevalent, direct-to-fabric printing on polyester is certainly possible and will actually yield better results during certain applications.

The dye-sub printing process uses a specific ink type: disperse dyes. Graphics are printed onto transfer paper, which is then placed in a heat press (clam shell or roll-to-roll calender unit) along with the polyester fabric that you’re decorating. The heat turns the dried, solid inks into a gas, penetrating the polyester to create a permanent graphic. Polymers in the polyester allow the inks to bond and become fully embedded into the material. The result is a completely washable, high-resolution image consisting of vibrant colors.

Mimaki, Epson and Mutoh are three well-known dye-sublimation printer brands on the market today.

Direct-to-Fabric Printing
If you’re looking to print directly onto materials like cotton, nylon or silks, roll-to-roll direct-to-fabric printers are required. It is important to understand that for printing on all non-polyester fabrics, there is no “paper-transfer process” available. The ink chemistries best suited for all of these fabric types require the ink be printed directly onto the fabric. The process is just as it sounds — it involves printing directly onto a roll of “prepared-for-print” fabric. Direct-to-fabric is sometimes also referred to as direct-to-textile or direct-to-garment printing.

The direct-to-fabric process requires specific ink chemistry for the precise types of textile fibers you’ll be decorating. There are four major ink chemistries for textile printing directly onto fabrics and include disperse dye, acid dye, reactive dye and textile pigments. Acid dyes are reserved for nylon and silk, disperse dyes are intended for polyester, and reactive and textile pigments are most commonly used for natural fibers like cotton.

Direct-to-fabric is the desired technique for printing applications in the home décor, flag and soft-signage markets, as well as sports and fashion apparel. In addition to deeper ink penetration for flag and soft-signage applications, using a digital printer can provide the high-quality, custom runs in the high-fashion, bathing suit and club/team uniform segments.

Once again, Mimaki and Mutoh are popular names in direct-to-fabric printing.

Advancements in technology and ink chemistry have helped both dye-sublimation and direct-to-fabric printing become well-known for creating high-quality prints for their intended applications. But before you can take advantage of the many benefits of these techniques, you first need to find the right fabric-printing machine for your materials. The bottom line: You and your printer need to have chemistry.

Tim Dinneen is business development manager for ITNH Inc. ITNH is a leading provider of equipment, inks and media for wide format inkjet digital printing, including industrial UV curable applications. Since 1993, ITNH has offered businesses the latest technology from the highest performing brands on the market, as well as comprehensive, turnkey solutions from planning and installation to implementation and support. For more information, visit