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Taking the Direct Approach

Exploring direct printing on fabrics.

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By Peggy Middendorf

By definition, direct imaging onto fabric is a one-step process, making it faster than dye-sub’s two-step process. Too, wide-format inkjets come in sizes up to 16-ft wide, allowing more fabric to be printed in one swath; traditional dye-sub printers are limited by the width of transfer paper-typically ranging up to 60-in. wide. "The practicality of going direct is important. Labor and materials saving are significant," says Richard Codos, L&P’s executive director of North American development. Direct-print systems require only the printer, ink, and fabric-no transfer paper, no labor to move to the heat press, and, for some printers, no heat-press at all.

And because many new printers are built to accommodate fabrics-via roller systems designed to feed all fabrics, including thin or stretchy ones-directly printing onto fabric may be no more complex than imaging onto vinyl or foamboard. Printer OEMs also have addressed the issue of ink leaking through mesh fabrics by integrating troughs or other ink-catching systems-now available as standard or optional equipment on many new printers.

As far as print quality goes, some feel that direct-to-textile printing has achieved the same quality as traditional dye-sub systems. "Direct printing onto textiles has become very strong recently because printers can now provide the same image quality [as dye sublimation] with direct printing onto fabrics," says Guillaume Massard of Dickson Coatings. "Manufacturers of textiles have improved their coatings. The image quality-resolution and vivid colors-is the same as dye-sub printing."

The fabric factor
Of course, the success of direct-print hardware relies on the availability of direct-print fabrics. While dye-sub systems can take advantage of a plethora of uncoated fabrics, direct-print systems utilizing solvent or UV technologies may need ink-specific coatings to hold the ink drops. Coatings have improved since they were first introduced several years ago. Many fabric producers now offer coated fabrics-typically more expensive than uncoated-that can be imaged using one or more inkjet technologies.