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Inkjet comes into fashion – Print21 magazine feature

Tuesday, 23 August 2011
By Print21

Textile printing is often regarded as a niche print application but the arrival of new easy-to-use digital inkjet technology is opening up opportunities for local print service providers to deliver short-run, low-cost services to local designers and fashion houses.

Imagine wearing a garment made from a fabric that can charge your iPod while you are working out or your phone while you walk to work. Well, imagine no more. Made from carbon nano-tubes, this sci-fi fabric is the brain­child of the clever geeks at California’s Stanford University. And it could be coming to a sports store near you in the not-too-distant future.

Perhaps not all of us will be keen to wear what equates to a battery bodysuit, but the notion of intelligent fabric, and one that can be printed on, opens up a whole new way of thinking about textiles. As does the improved capabilities of digital inkjet printing for fabrics.

Gary Di-Losa, brand manager for Adversol, a division of leading fabric house Charles Parsons, agrees it is a very exciting time: “The world of technical textiles is mind-blowing at the moment. There are so many options and developments and we are at the cutting-edge. I certainly don’t have a boring job.”

Speaking on his stand at May’s Visual Impact Image Expo in Sydney, Di-Losa believes that developments in inkjet printing technology for fabrics is rapidly opening up new markets due to a number of factors.

Pictured: Fashion meets digital printing with this collection for the Sara Phillips label courtesy of Longina Phillips Designs.

“Inkjet printing is a lot more economical than screen printing because it doesn’t have anywhere near the labour involved. Printing and curing with inkjet is done within the one process, so it is also very fast. Where I see it filtering down quite dramatically in the next 12 months is into the homewares and interior design markets.”

Indeed there is already a multitude of applications for fabrics in the interior design space. Currently wallpapers as well as fabrics for curtains, furniture coverings and lampshades are being produced digitally. Extending this to limited ranges of bedding, tableware, throws and other decorative items for the home and office seems a natural progression.

When asked if we are going to see fashion collections printed on inkjet printers at major fashion shows, Di-Losa says, “It’s already happening”.

“There are a number of fashion designers getting fabrics printed with their own creations thanks to the developments in relation to inks and their compatibility with fabrics. Dye sublimation, which is limited to synthetics, has been the norm for the fashion industry, but now with the new inks direct to fabric they can print on natural fibres (cotton, bamboo, silks) and that’s going to see large growth over the next few years in the fashion markets.”

Know your substrate
In the 20 years since wide format inkjet printers were first unleashed on the market, the technology has evolved to the point where inkjet printing is virtually possible on any substrate. Certainly in the fabric market the opportunity to create furniture upholstery, curtains, wallpaper and other interior design items using inkjet technology is opening a raft of opportunities for local designers. And potentially new income streams for printers.

With advancing technology have come lower price points for local production and an increased range of substrates suitable for inkjet. The ability to produce short runs and limited editions locally has given designers new freedom to push creative boundaries and to potentially bring manufacturing, if in limited numbers, back onshore.

But before all you budding cushion makers run out to buy a printer or find someone who can do your print run for you, there are some basics you can’t forget, says Mutoh director, Marcus Adler.

“When someone says they want to print textiles we need to qualify what they mean—are they talking about flags or banners or is it something more unusual such as home­wares or towelling or perhaps something far more durable like curtain fabrics? Why do we need to know what they want to print? Because different applications need different inks and this isn’t dependant on printing methods.”

He continues: “People look at the printer and think they can print anything on it, but because we are not changing the ink, you still need to use treated fabrics for certain applications. And there are fabrics that need particular inks such as natural fibres, which use acid dyes or reactive inks for wool. With inkjet printing it is the same function of putting the ink down onto the fabric, just with a different technology.”

Whereas Adler says inkjet technology could be viewed as the saviour of Western designers and production houses because it allows them to customise and localise output in very short runs, it is the textile market in Asia that is providing Mutoh with its fastest growing category.

“China, Taiwan, Korea, these countries are where Mutoh is having its greatest impact right now. We sell more products in the textiles markets into places like India where they are printing onto silk for saris and in Hong Kong where they are now producing custom silk ties. So we are seeing the Asians, who we think of as the bastions of very, very high volumes at low cost, actually adopting these digital technologies to compete in the low run, custom-type markets.

But at the end of the day, they lose out nonetheless as soon as they have to put a container together to ship it elsewhere. This is where digital inkjet print technology can be an advantage for Western designers and production houses by having local production that is cost competitive and enables on-demand buying.”

At the Visual Impact Imaging Expo, there were digital print displays of wallpapers, curtains and even couch coverings. Whereas producing these types of products digitally is fairly straightforward, once you start to look at fabric for people to wear, the parameters change and issues like colourfastness and wearability become concerns.

But as market demand grows for digitally printed fabrics, the major suppliers of hardware and consumables will continue to invest in the development of inks suitable for this type of production. In the digital print space one thing we can be certain of is the landscape will continue to change.

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