Need custom fabrics in a hurry for a company flag at a new location, customized trade show furniture or uniforms for the factory softball team? You can have a conventional loom weave them for you and wait, or you could print them yourself on a wide-format printer right away.
The difference in time and cost is enormous, with the conventional textile route taking weeks or months to accomplish and potentially costing thousands of dollars. If you do it yourself, it can be done in an hour at a fraction of the cost, with the option to tweak the design if you don't like the results.
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While printing on fabric provides the speed and economy your company craves, there are two ways to get it done. First off, the design can be ink-jetted directly onto the blank textile in a process that's not so different from silk-screen printing. While many workhorse printers can work with fabrics, the results can be disappointing, with dull patterns, washed-out colors and bleed-through.
A specialized direct fabric printer like the Mutoh ValueJet 1938TX can produce a variety of sharply printed textiles. This $40,000 printer can work with up to eight water-based inks formulated for fabric printing. With an output of up to 1,440 dpi (dots per inch), the ValueJet uses a pair of Epson-made inkjet printheads that each have eight lines of 180 nozzles and can spray droplets as small as 3.3 picoliters. The printer can use Mutoh's inks or those of third-party manufacturers, which come in 1-liter bags. [Interested in wide-format printers? Check out our buying guide and reviews on our sister site, Business.com.]
Able to work with textiles that are 75.2 inches wide and up to about an eighth of an inch thick, the ValueJet's printhead is adjustable to three different heights to prevent snagging the cloth. The printer's key to producing faithful images on fabric is its built-in tensioning sensors, which prevent the fabric media from stretching or bunching up during printing. On the downside, the ValueJet can't print edge to edge, leaving blank strips on each side that are 0.3 inches wide.
At a top speed of 430 square feet per hour, it may not be the fastest printer, but the ValueJet can work with a wide variety of rolled textiles, including cotton, rayon, silk, polyester and mixed-fiber materials. The Mutoh printer is a good way to make upholstery, fashion materials, flags, home decoration textiles and any other fabrics you can think of at the touch of a button.
The second approach to custom fabrics is a little more complicated, but its results can be impressive. It starts with printing a mirror image of the pattern on a special transfer sheet using a dye-sublimation ink. Once the printed sheet is removed from the printer, the design is transferred to the blank fabric with a heat press that chemically changes the dye-sublimation ink, bonding it to the fabric. The transferred pattern is colorfast and durable.
Epson's $28,000 SureColor F9370 wide printer can print transfer sheets in vivid 1,440 x 720 dpi resolution. Able to produce bolts of fabric up to 64 inches wide, it leaves 0.2-inch unprinted strips on each side.
The SureColor uses Epson's UltraChrome DS inks that come in cyan, magenta, yellow and high-density black. The two printheads double down on these inks for complete coverage. Not only can the size of the ink dots be controlled by the printer's software, but the SureColor's Air-Guard technology goes a step further by compensating for airflow around the printhead. In other words, each dot ends up right where it's supposed to.
Sold in packs of six, Epson's 1-liter ink bags are poured into the SureColor's 3-liter ink reservoirs. Each ink pouch has an integrated circuit chip that plugs into the printer to verify the ink's authenticity. Unfortunately, Epson says you can't use any third-party inks with the SureColor F9370.
Precision is critical in fabric printing, and the SureColor's Advanced Paper Tensioning Control system synchronizes the media feed motor (which spools out the transfer media to be printed) with the roller-drive motor (which rolls up the finished product). It has an accuracy of plus or minus less than a tenth of an inch, which ensures that the transfer paper neither goes slack nor rips from being pulled too hard.
Its speed ranges from 570 square feet per hour for sports uniforms to 1,000 square feet an hour for fashion materials. As it emerges from the print area, the transfer sheet's image dries on a built-in heater, but the process is only half done. The next step is to transfer the image to the blank fabric with a heat press. When it cools, it's ready.
The dye-sublimation process creates fabrics with sharp and vibrant patterns that rival what conventional textile production can accomplish. The process can be used for drapes, flags, upholstery and sports uniforms, such as custom riding gear for bicycle racers.
Whichever process and printer technology you choose, it's clear that making your own patterned fabrics can save you time and money compared to conventional weaving.