By Cassandra Balentine
Dye-sublimation (dye-sub)—both transfer and direct—is a popular printing method for fabrics destined for silicone edge graphic (SEG) frames.
When selecting a dye-sub fabric for SEG it should be vibrant, stretchy, and durable. Other factors like reusability, indoor versus outdoor use, and whether or not the fabric is backlit, also come into play.
“The resulting prints from dye-sub are characterized by vivid and striking colors, particularly in the spectrum of deep reds and blacks. This technique not only provides a visually appealing outcome but also maintains the integrity of the fabric, making it a preferred choice for those seeking both aesthetic excellence and lasting quality in their printed textiles,” says Ken Bach, business development director, Aberdeen Fabrics, Inc.
Above: Ultraflex’s VorTex line of fabrics are considered ideal for SEG framing systems.
Talking Inks and Fabrics
It’s well known that dye-sub printing processes do well with synthetic fabrics. However, it’s not a steadfast rule as many textile providers offer specialty options with natural fibers also compatible with dye-sub processes.
“Nearly 99 percent of fabrics employed in the field of sublimation graphic printing are predominantly composed of polyester. This is because dye-sub ink—the primary choice for such fabrics—exclusively interacts effectively with polyester surfaces. Notably, the application of dye-sub ink on polyester does not alter the fabric’s natural feel and exhibits remarkable durability, remaining impervious to damage from folding or scratching,” explains Bach.
In contrast, ink varieties like latex, solvent, and UV rely on a binding agent to adhere to the fabric’s surface. “This bonding method makes them susceptible to scratching or damage, compromising the longevity of the print. The inherent advantage of dye-sub lies in its ability to permeate the fabric, ensuring that the ink becomes an integral part of it,” continues Bach.
“Most fabric types printed with dye-sub and used in SEG for display, signage, and events are a polyester or polyester blend,” confirms Lisa Scarafoni, national account executive, Global Imaging, Inc.
Eric Tischer, senior business development manager, Serge Ferrari North America, adds that polyester and/or recycled content polyester make up the vast majority of dye-sub fabrics used in SEG frames.
“We focus on polyester fabrics to go along with our TexPrint dye-sub papers,” adds Jeff Mills, national product manager, TexStyles Graphic Fabrics, Beaver Paper & Graphic Media Inc.
Polyesters and/or poly/spandex blends are “soft, flexible, and stretchable—the materials need to be evenly stretched to fit into an SEG frame perfectly and tightly without harming the print or distorting the graphic in any way,” explains Kylie Schleicher, director of product development, Ultraflex Systems, Inc.
Some products, like Berger Textiles’ be.tex Icon media, are 100 percent cotton canvases printed with sublimation technology. But in general, Giorgio Volpi, head of marketing, Berger Textiles, also says polyester is the fabric type that stands out for dye-sub textiles used for SEG.
Megan Hardison, director of graphics operations, Orbus Visual Communications, can attest to this, as Orbus produces all of its SEG products on polyester fabrics using either direct to fabric or transfer dye-sub processes.
This is also the case for Expand International of America. “We use fabrics that are mostly polyester—90 percent and above—for the best color results,” shares David Nanamaker, national sales manager, Expand.
Dye-Sub for SEG
Dye-sub processes offer excellent image quality. They also work well with fabrics exhibiting stretch characteristics, which allows fabric to keep the original, soft feel, states Tischer. “Each of these qualities are essential and ideal for the many applications where SEG is used.”
Scarafoni points out that textiles designed for dye-sub are produced with features that are highly useful in signage, display, event production, and other SEG uses. These features include sound dampening, blockout with black backing integrated into the fabric, and being crease- or fray-free after being cut.
It is possible to produce SEG graphics using both direct to fabric and transfer dye-sub methods. Depending on the exact scenario there are differing opinions on whether one process over another makes a difference in terms of quality and performance.
“Both processes require testing and setting up proper workflows to account for material stretch. We encourage testing the print, color profiling, sublimation, and the cutting and finishing process as they all influence the fit of an SEG push-fit graphic,” suggests Hardison.
Other considerations for SEG textile selection include ink/process compatibility, the hand or feel of the finished product, visual impact, ship-ability, as well as stretch, reusability, and durability.
It is important for these materials to be compatible with dye-sub ink. “Dye-sub fabrics are designed to complement dye-sub ink. Since SEG printing relies heavily on dye-sub, using fabrics specifically engineered for this purpose ensures optimal color saturation, clarity, and vibrancy. The ink integrates with the fabric at a molecular level, resulting in a durable and fade-resistant print,” explains Bach.
Dye-sub on polyester maintains the natural hand and feel of the fabric. Bach says this is crucial for SEG applications where the tactile quality of the display might be a consideration, especially in retail or exhibition settings where customers may interact with the graphics.
Visual impact is crucial for SEG applications where the goal is to effectively capture attention and convey a message. “The dye-sub technique excels in delivering sharp, detailed, and eye-catching graphics,” comments Bach.
Consistency and precision also play a role. “Dye-sub technology allows for precise and consistent color reproduction. This is essential for SEG displays, especially in environments where branding or image consistency is critical. The process ensures that each print is uniform, meeting high standards for quality and professionalism,” offers Bach.
If it’s a backlit application, blockout SEG fabrics help keep colors brilliant by preventing light from shining through. “Backlit fabric is ideal for illuminated SEG applications. The colors really pop and light shines flawlessly through. Blockout fabric is ideal for non-lit SEG applications as it keeps colors brilliant by not allowing light to shine through,” shares Hardison.
Nanamaker adds that dye-sub fabrics can be folded, which reduces shipping costs.
Volpi does caution that not all fabrics printed with dye-sub are ideal for SEG applications, so it is important to do the research and make choices based on the application at hand.
SEG frames favor fabrics that handle tension and stretching to achieve a smooth, taut display surface. “When printing sublimation the fabric goes through heat, tension, and pressure processes, which means it is important that the product is correctly manufactured with special coatings, washing, and pre-shrinking techniques to ensure the product retains these admired characteristics like good stretch for SEG applications once printed,” explains Joel Willcock, commercial director, UFabrik.
“Polyester, the primary component of dye-sub fabrics, is known for its elasticity, allowing it to conform seamlessly to the SEG frame without distorting the printed image,” shares Bach.
Getting the right percentage of stretch is key. “A product’s stretch percent must be consistent in order for print houses to effectively manufacture SEG frames to the tight tolerances required. If not, the image may not fit into the SEG frame and/or be too large and not taut enough,” offers Tischer.
“The choice of fabric itself plays a crucial role in determining the stretch. Different fabrics have varying levels of elasticity. It’s essential to select a fabric designed to maintain its stretch even after the dye-sub process,” recommends Bach.
Scarafoni notes that polyester blends are usually produced with two to ten percent elastic, which is helpful when installing graphics in an SEG framing system.
“Stretchability is an important feature of the fabric when you need to put it in a frame since it makes the job easier,” comments Volpi. Users should take care not to exaggerate the stretch or the print may not fit correctly in the frame.
When it comes to stretch, opinions vary whether or not the dye-sub process—direct or transfer—makes a difference.
“One of the most positive aspects of the printing process when it comes to dye-sub is that it doesn’t affect the stretchability of the product,” offers Volpi.
Bach also believes that the type of dye-sub printing—direct or transfer—does not typically significantly affect the stretch of the fabric. “Dye-sub is a process where heat is used to transfer dye onto a material, resulting in a vibrant and durable print. The process is often used for textiles because it allows the ink to become part of the fabric rather than sitting on top of it.”
Both dye-sub methods involve heat, so if the heat is not controlled properly it could potentially impact the stretch of the fabric. “However, modern dye-sub equipment is designed to provide precise temperature control to minimize any negative effects on fabric properties,” says Bach.
“The only time the stretch can be affected is if during the process the material is over heated, but with proper settings this is a rare occurrence,” agrees Schleicher.
Nanamaker points out that transfer printing is well suited for fabrics with stretch because it is more controlled. “Using the direct method works but results may be inconsistent. Most direct printer manufacturers recommend fabrics with less than six percent stretch.”
Scarafoni cautions that ink saturation, number of passes, and amount of fabric printed on may impact the amount of stretch of certain fabrics. “But users don’t have to chase stretch. The correct RIP, color profile, and cutter help compensate for stretch issues. RIPs can create extra bleed to compensate for stretch percentages, then when the print is complete, we recommend using a fabric laser cutter that compensates for shrink and stretch and automatically recognizes changes in material and edits the cut lines.”
Dye-sub printed SEG graphics are designed to be easily changed out. Sometimes this means going back and forth between various prints, which requires durability. If an SEG print is intended to be used more than once, this should be considered up front.
“Dye-sub creates a graphic that will stand the test of time. Whether you are printing direct to fabric or printing to paper and transferring it to fabric using a calender, the durability of the print will be lasting,” stresses Scarafoni.
“Reusability is a big consideration and benefit of SEG, and dye-sub printed fabrics can be put to the test,” adds Scarafoni. “If the silicone beading is sewn in properly, high-quality fabrics should stand the test of time. A high-quality fabric that is printed using a true dye-sub process and is taken care of and not abused should be able to be reused as many times as someone might need and look as good as new each time. They will not degrade on their own. Dye-sub inks are sublimated into the textile, becoming part of the fabric and they cannot be washed, scratched, or worn off.”
Tischer adds that the quality level and type of yarn and coatings used make a big difference in the overall quality and longevity a fabric possesses. “A key feature needed for longevity when it comes to reusability is the fabric having wrinkle resistance or being crease free so that it can be folded, stored, and reused.”
Volpi points out that since many of these textiles are used indoors, tear resistance should not be as much of an issue. “So, more than the resistance to wear and tear itself, I would put the emphasis on the possibility of reusing the fabric while keeping the printed image in mind. If the fabric is crease resistant, you will have the possibility of folding it and storing it to be reused in the future without compromising your graphics.”
Mills says Beaver Paper’s fabrics can be put in a frame and then be reused. “I would fold them up after use. The fabrics are not going to tear or rip unless they meet up with a pair of scissors or a knife.”
Nanamaker adds that dye-dub fabrics can be cleaned and in most cases washed.
“Since the ink is embedded into the fibers of the fabric during the sublimation process, these fabrics can be cleaned in a standard washing machine,” says Hardison.
Reusability goes hand in hand with the durability of SEG prints.
Bach explains that SEG polyester fabrics are typically produced using the warp knitting process. In this manufacturing method, lengths of loops are formed in the vertical direction of the fabric. Multiple yarns are fed into the knitting machine vertically, resulting in a tightly knit and less stretchable fabric. The loops are intricately interlaced row by row, yielding a fabric material that is not only robust but also exhibits excellent stability.
“This warp knitting technique contributes to the strength and durability of SEG polyester fabrics, making them well-suited for applications where resilience and stability are essential,” adds Bach.
These fabrics are put to the test as SEG displays often undergo repeated assembly, disassembly, folding, and transportation. “Dye-sub prints on polyester are remarkably durable and resistant to damage from folding or scratching. This durability ensures that the SEG display maintains its visual appeal and quality over time, even with frequent handling,” says Bach.
Nanamaker admits that it is possible for colors to fade under direct sunlight exposure after some months, but overall dye-sub offers long durability for fabric prints.
“The only process that can affect the print—talking about the image and not the fabric—is long exposure to ultraviolet rays—that’s why for outdoor use we always propose a promotional option,” advises Volpi.
Durable and Changeable
Dye-sub printing processes—both transfer and direct—are well suited for SEG applications. According to Bach, the combination of polyester fabric and dye-sub ink caters to the specific requirements of these applications, not only for visual appeal but the durability and flexibility needed for a wide range of display scenarios.
With dye-sub, inks turn from a liquid into a gaseous state and embed into the yarns of the fabric. “This is different from other print outputs like UV where the inks sit more on top of the fabric,” adds Tischer. The end result is a printed fabric that offers vibrant printability while maintaining the original stretch and soft feel.
Keep these traits of dye-sub in mind when planning future SEG work.
Feb2024, Digital Output