By Cassandra Balentine
Textile printing spans beyond garments and excels in signage as well. This industry experiences advancements across the board, from the print engines themselves to fabrics and inks. The textile printing market has options when it comes to ink. Reactive, acid dye, disperse, dye-sublimation (dye-sub), and pigment inks are all utilized to print to fabrics through direct or sublimation processes. Pigment inks remain popular in textile printing, especially for natural fibers; as well as dye-sub inks, specifically for synthetic materials, with room for crossover. Those with latex and UV printing capabilities are also able to print to textiles under the right conditions.
Above: NUtec currently offers sublimation inks for digital printing.
Trends and Advancements
The evolving demands of the textile market are supported by improving digital print solutions.
Marco Zanella, global business development director – inkjet, INX Europe, INX International Ink Co., says notable trends include waterless processes and reshoring production. Several factors contribute to both points, such as the complexity and cost of logistics today, the environmental impact, and water waste.
“Major trends like increased purchasing capability, population growth, and rapidly changing fast fashion brands are key drivers for market growth. Moreover, there is a rise in demand for printing methods that are not only efficient and cost effective, but also environmentally friendly. These trends have opened the market for digitally printed textiles,” comments Malan Calitz, R&D manager – water-based inks, NUtec Digital Ink.
In the last five years, Eric P. Beyeler, global marketing manager, Artistri Digital Inks, DuPont, notes short runs and customization as key drivers of digital textile printing. Over the last two years, he sees a focus on nearshoring and shorter supply chains, as well as sustainability. “Digital textile printing offers solutions for these key trends and as a result has seen a significant evolution of the technology. On the roll-to-roll side, pigment printing offers a viable alternative to reactive and analog printing. On the print to garment side, direct to film delivers an affordable path to print on polyester and other manmade fibers.”
The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the advantages of digital print. “Many brands were caught with open orders—placed months in advance—or inventory in transit by sea when stores closed, and the garments were unable to be sold through traditional channels,” shares Simon Daplyn, manager, product marketing, Sun Chemical. “There is now a greater understanding of the importance of inventory management in a supply chain that can be more flexible in terms of both minimum volume per design and having production closer to the consumer. The trend of re-shoring is accelerating but will take time for the supply chains to balance the need of fabric, finishing, and printing.”
Another effect from the pandemic is the growth in digital printing for home textiles. “As people spent more time and money on home renovations, the demand for customized interior fabrics grew. This is also reflected in the increase in digital pigment printing. That being said, digital textile printing still only represents seven to eight percent of the total textiles printed, meaning the potential for further growth is significant,” offers Daplyn.
The return of in-person events is also expected to positively impact the growth of textile printing.
“The expected increase in events and trade shows means that more companies will look to offer textile printing of soft signage including banners and flags,” says Beyeler.
“There is a large increase in double-sided fabric printing for products like flags or blankets,” adds Michael Litardo, marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
A trend observed by Nitin Goswamy, president, A.T. Inks, involves customers printing dark designs that were previously printed via screenprint. “We believe this is a sign of increased interest from printers to make the transition to digital printing.”
The Problem and Potential of Pigment Inks
Pigment inks are getting a lot of attention. Zanella says this is due to demand for smart, flexible, and sustainable print processes with greater reduction of water consumption when compared to the already small consumption levels of other inkjet ink technologies.
Daplyn explains that in traditional printing, around 50 percent of textiles are printed using pigment inks. “The share of pigment printing of textiles printed digitally is around four percent today, having grown from 2.5 percent in 2019. The potential for further growth is great, but will require advancement of technology—both in terms of quality and price—to enable wider adoption.”
Pedro J. Martinez, CEO, AFFORD, sees improvement in pigment textile inks with the development of new resins that provide better fastness of the final prints.
“Pigment printing requires no post washing or steaming process, and is therefore more environmentally friendly than reactive, acid dye, and direct disperse inks,” comments Calitz. He says the push to make the entire printing process more sustainable will certainly aid the growth of pigment inks in the digital textile market.
Beyeler agrees, noting that pigment and sublimation inkjet inks enable sustainable printing solutions with a low(er) cost investment, “enabling fast transition to a shorter supply chain and still delivering great colors and durable prints.”
“We cannot underestimate the energy footprint of traditional processes versus digital,” stresses Zanella. “In my opinion, pigment printing is the number one trend linked to them since it potentially offers solutions to both concerns. However, many issues related to digital printing with pigment inks still need to be clarified,” he admits.
These challenges are in relation to color vibrancy, feel of fabric, and washfastness. “The success of pigment ink depends on how much print customers are willing to compromise in terms of quality and textural feel. Pigment inks might succeed in small niché fields where the need for color vibrancy and fabric feel is only secondary,” shares Goswamy.
When printing to textiles, the type of fabric plays an essential role in ink selection. Natural fibers, like cotton, can be challenging. Reactive inks are traditionally utilized here, but because pigment inks do not require post-steaming and washing, they are also favored.
“Reactive inks are definitely the most popular as they have washing longevity. Pigment inks are also popular but pretreatment is recommend for adhesion,” explains Litardo.
Daplyn points out that reactive printing is growing within fashion markets due to strong and vibrant colors and exceptional print quality. “This technology will remain in place for many years with future upcoming innovations to improve the sustainability credentials.”
Reactive inks are also used for materials like silk and wool. “Two great advantages of using reactive inks for textile printing is the high quality of the colors and the high washfastness,” comments Calitz. He says the best color quality is reached when using reactive inks to print on cotton or viscose. When printing on silk or wool the colors can become less bright and intense. “The high washfastness is an important advantage of reactive inks, especially for top-level fashion brands.”
Daplyn feels that pigment inks are improving in quality and performance and will therefore start to take a larger market share in coming years.
Martinez agrees, noting that improvements in the fastness of pigment inks allows more players to enter into this market without the need for investments in post-treating processes.
“Several pigment ink brands are Standard 100 OEKO-TEX certified, meaning they are suitable for children’s items. In a direct comparison to acid and reactive dye, prints with pigment inks seem duller. Pigment inks don’t penetrate the fabric´s surface, but rather settle on the fiber’s surface. While colorfastness is usually good, the washability is sometimes lacking. Pigment inks have a distinct advantage that a white ink is available, which means they can be used to print on dark fabric too,” shares Calitz.
When properly applied, Tim Check, senior product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, Inc., says pigments provide long-lasting prints with a soft feel and excellent washfastness. “These inks are frequently used in direct to garment (DTG) printers for printing on t-shirts, and direct to fabric printers for producing roll-based fabric ideal for bedding and décor.”
“Recent advances in pigment inkjet inks and digital printing technology make pigment inks a great fit for home furnishing applications and garment applications,” agrees Beyeler.
Check adds that textile pigment inks are popular in North America because of the simplicity of the printing process. “Starting with digital print-ready fabrics, the ink is applied and then fixated to the fabric with heat. This is a shortened printing process compared to traditional inks such as reactive dyes that involves fabric preparation, printing, steaming, washing, and post-treatment operations.”
Daplyn says in DTG applications, pigment inks are dominant and offer a simple workflow and sustainable process. “The use of pigment inks in roll-to-roll textile printing will grow significantly and offer key benefits in terms of process time and efficiency, as well as reduce water consumption and energy costs.”
For synthetic fabrics—like polyester—dye-sub inks are common.
Dye-sub inks do not impact the fabric hand and provide a water/rub-resistant graphic. And, according to Bob Honn, director, marketing support, Canon U.S.A., Inc., tend to be less expensive than pigment and UV inks.
He adds that printers using dye-sub are available in low-cost, small format through large size, high-production models to fit the needs of any print service provider. “Dye-sub is very popular because it works great with inexpensive uncoated polyester fabrics and has very low production cost.”
“The unique chemistry of dye-sub ink is well suited to polyester fabrics where the individual fibers are dyed with the color of the inks. The result is a vibrant color fabric with no change in hand feel or flow where the ink was applied,” explains Check.
Disperse inks are also utilized for synthetic materials like polyester. “With disperse printing, the ink is sprayed directly on the textile, after which it is steamed and washed. The steaming process opens the fibers allowing the ink to fully penetrate the textile. After the steaming process, the fiber closes and the colors are locked into the material. This results in a high color brilliance and a high washfastness,” explains Calitz.
Beyeler says direct disperse was the ink of choice for fashion on polyester as it enables not only great colors but the pattern to show through the other side of the fabric. “Over the last ten years, dye-sub has migrated to being mostly used on polyester signage and activewear to being used in fashion applications as its process simplicity and low environmental footprint make it an attractive solution.”
Zanella notes that pigment is also starting to come into play in the synthetic market as well as natural fibers. “Dye-sub inks still play a prominent role when printing on polyester, whether used for printing directly on the fabric/garment or printing for transfer. Pigment inks, though, are getting an increasingly larger portion of the spotlight, with solutions becoming more available. Both solutions—dye-sub and pigment—are a water-less process and do not require heavy equipment investments. This makes them the right, flexible choice for a multitude of users, even those who are inexperienced.”
Many factors play a role in the perfect textile print. The inks, media, and process all impact the final outcome. As digital processes continue to advance, so too do inks and fabric treatment options that enable more versatility with one ink set.
Aug2022, Digital Output