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Direct to Garment Printing

With sign companies looking to diversify, many are enhancing their décor offering – but should they move into garment printing? Val Hirst considers the pros and cons

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Richard Quinn has a distinct style that incorporates vintage flowers, created with Epson technology

A gimmicky curiosity or a viable process?

Once upon a time, any sort of garment printing involved pre-treatments, screens, heat fixation, washing and drying. It is no wonder then that, by and large, sign and print companies have traditionally given it a wide berth.

Is it any easier now?
 
Well, the answer is yes and no, depending on what precisely you want to print.  The good news is, that if it is non-bulky cotton garments, such as T-shirts, it could not be easier, as Epson offers the perfect direct-to-garment printer. Introduced last January, the SureColor F2100, which replaces the previous SC-F2000 model, is faster, more versatile and easier to maintain than its predecessor, according to Phil McMullin, Epson’s sales manager, pro graphics. Furthermore, thanks to its use of five colours, CMYK, plus white, the SC-F2100 can be used to print onto both light and dark colours, such as black.

Epson’s SC-F1200 uses CMYK plus white ink to achieve excellent results on both white and black fabrics


McMullin explains that previously, it was difficult to achieve a good result on black fabric, but Epson has worked hard on both its ink technology and print nozzles to ensure a smooth delivery of white ink. This ensures that the resulting image is as bright and vibrant on black as it is on white.

The SC-F2100 is easy to use. Once the image is printed onto a white or light coloured garment and heat is applied via a heat press to fix the design and ensure its future washability and durability, it’s good to go. Dark garments require the addition of a pre-treatment liquid, and an application of white ink, before the image is printed on top. Once again, heat is applied and the garment is ready to be worn or sold.

Epson’s easy to use SC-F2100 direct to garment printer


Another advantage of the SC-F1200 is that despite its robust build, it is relatively transportable, and its ease of use permits even novice operators to achieve predictably good results. This means that it can be used at fairs, fetes and festivals to offer bespoke designs. In fact, McMullin reports that it was recently used for precisely this purpose in pop-up shops located in Topshop’s flagship London store on Oxford Street and at Liberty’s on Regent Street with great success.

He adds though, that sign and print companies could also consider using the machine to enter the world of corporate workwear too.  “After all,” he says, “they already provide clients with everything from external and internal signage and wayfinding, to interior décor and promotional graphics, so why not printed polo shirts and sweat shirts too?  Most customers are only too delighted to use a single supplier for all of their print needs, and sign and print businesses have the expertise and equipment necessary to provide every printed element required.”

Rugby retailer

The first UK company to purchase an SC-F2100 was the Edinburgh-based rugby retailer First XV, which uses the printer, together with Epson’s Garment Creator Software, to produce its own brand T-shirts sporting unique designs and slogans.  Adam Clark, one of the partners in the business said: “Since we’ve acquired the SC-F2100, we are able to offer our own merchandise as well as branded products and plan to gradually increase our in-house production from around 100 T-shirts per week upwards, because we believe that we can generate extra profit margins from this type of work.”

For those aiming for something a little more ambitious, Epson offers the SureColor F Series, a range of dye sublimation printers that print on transfer papers for heat-application onto polyester or polyester mix fabrics. One of the enthusiastic exponents of this technology is none other than British designer Richard Quinn, an alumnus of Central Saint Martins, who this year won the first Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. Quinn and Epson have enjoyed a highly successful relationship, with Quinn using the Epson SC-F machines to produce stunning textiles for use in both fashion and soft furnishings.

McMullin concedes that this method of printing requires a little more skill, but adds that the smallest printer in the SC-F series, the 44” wide SC-F6200, represents a cost effective investment for sign and print companies who want to try their hand at textile printing.  He says: “The beauty of dye-sublimation printing is that it can also be used with rigid materials with a polyester coating, such as mugs, phone cases, mouse mats, signs and so on, as well as T-shirts, sportswear and bags made from polyester/poly mix fabrics and thus enables its users to produce and test market a whole range of output, before deciding which offers the most lucrative new revenue stream.”

As well as T-shirt printing, sign and print companies should think about producing printed workwear too


Fast fashion

Brett Platt, textile product manager at Hybrid Services, Mimaki’s exclusive UK and Ireland distributor, agrees that dye sub is a flexible process and one that is increasingly used by the major fast fashion retailers, particularly as the range of polyester fabrics now available is vast. He opines: “Polyester used to get a bad press, but nowadays, it convincingly simulates the appearance of all sorts of natural fabrics, such as silks, satins and linens and that, plus the fact that it can be printed either via the transfer paper method or directly, with the application of heat, but without the need for any further finishing processes, means that it’s often the first choice for those producing instant fashion.”

Mimaki has been manufacturing digital textile printers for 20 years and its current crop of machines includes several dye sublimation printers and printer/cutters that print onto transfer paper.

Platt recommends that those seeking to enter the garment printing market start with the Mimaki TS30-100, an easy to use, entry-level dye sub machine that outputs onto transfer paper and, which with the application of heat can be used to decorate sportswear, promotional apparel, soft signage and a range of rigid items too.

Another entry-level option is the CJV series, which offers dye sub printing with vibrant inks and contour cutting in one machine and can also be used to produce the full range of display graphics and promotional items as well as sportswear and fashion garments.


Mimaki’s entry level the CJV150-75 printer is the perfect choice for those wishing to try dye-sublimation


A further option the TS300P-1800 printer series can be used with neon fluorescent inks to produce really eye-catching sportswear and memorable fashion garments. 

Platt advises that as confidence and demand build, these machines can be replaced by more productive dye sublimation alternatives, such as the TS500-1800 which, Mimaki claims is the world’s fastest printer for transfer paper.

Silk and linen

What happens though, if users want to print directly onto textiles and perhaps move away from polyester and on to natural fabrics? Platt agrees that this is where textile printing becomes a more challenging proposition. He observes that while Mimaki’s TX300-500 series can print directly onto polyester using dye sublimation inks and is designed to provide the tension necessary to hold modern stretchable materials firmly in place, while also providing a high head gap setting when working on thicker textiles, it is not quite so simple when they use the reactive inks that are necessary when printing onto cotton, silk and linen.

O Factoid: Digital textile printing now accounts for three to five percent of printed textiles worldwide, but that’s set to grow by 50 percent over the next decade O


He says: “While there’s no denying that digital technology speeds up the printing process, natural fabrics need to be pre-treated prior to printing and although there is now a wide variety of ready-treated fabrics to choose from, that still leaves heat fixation, washing and drying processes that require a substantial investment in further kit, plus the space to house it and to store the printed fabrics so that they remain in pristine condition.”

Direct-to-garment printing in action


When asked if he can see a time when a single machine that can pre-treat, print, heat, wash and dry might be produced, Platt refers to the refinements that have already taken place, but predicts that it will be some time before such an entity is fully up and running. 

Despite the current difficulties though, he insists that Hybrid enjoys brisk sales of its direct to textile printers – not just the TX300-500 series but also Mimaki’s latest industrial-level Tiger 1800B, a beast of a machine that prints directly onto both polyester and transfer paper, but can also be customised to suit individual customers’ precise requirements – to colleges, design studios and, increasingly to some of the larger digital print companies too.

The reason for this enthusiasm is, Platt believes, the opportunity inherent in digitally printed textiles. He says: “Currently digital printing accounts for three to five percent of printed textiles worldwide, but it’s predicted that that’s set to grow dramatically to 50 percent in the next ten years. It’s a huge market and many companies are now seriously considering how they can equip themselves to capitalise on it.”

If that is the case, it seems that sign and print companies should begin their textile-printing odyssey sooner rather than later and, with a selection of versatile machines to choose from and a plethora of textile-related applications already there for the taking, it might well turn out to be their most worthwhile venture yet.

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