Fashion Forward: The Fast-Paced Business of Digital Garment Printing
Digitally printed garments is one of the wide-format printing industry’s fastest growing markets. In fact, according to a recent Smithers Pira report, “The Future of Digital Textile Printing to 2021,” the overall digital textile print market is growing at 17.5% annually through 2021, with “the greatest acceleration [in growth] . . . in clothing, which has the key sub-segments of fashion, haute couture, and sportswear.”
As projected by Credence Research, in its report “Custom T-Shirt Printing Market — Growth, Share, Opportunities, Competitive Analysis, and Forecast 2017-2025,” the global custom t-shirt printing market alone is expected to “cross $10 billion” by 2025.
This is great news for print service providers (PSPs) who may already have many of the technologies needed in-house to expand into the digitally printed apparel market. However, print technology for this application marches on, and working with fabrics — and the processes used to print them — can be tricky.
“Anyone can sublimate a print, and anyone can go to a wide-format printer manufacturer and buy the equipment to do it,” says Kai Low, owner of Vancouver-based Oddball Workshop. “To do it well, though, to understand how to color correct and print consistently, that is where our experience comes into play.”
The shop entered the market in 2008 with direct-to-garment printing, and now specializes in digital dye-sublimation, though Low emphasizes that his company does more than print fabrics. “We offer graphic design, screen printing, and embroidery services, and we have a cut-and-sew operation in-house as well,” he says.
Paterson Fabric Printing, LLC, of Paterson, N.J., also has an established history in the garment printing industry.
“Our father started our first dye-sublimation business in 1978,” says Ginetta Marino, creative director for Paterson Fabric Printing. “We worked with him until his death in 2016, learning the ins and outs of the production process for traditional dye-sublimation.”
Today, notes Marino, Paterson Fabric Printing has “the whole package available under one roof — everything from digital artwork creation, pattern creation, digital dye-sub, heat transfer, cutting, sewing, finishing, and packaging.”
A Digitally Transformed Industry
According to Marino, recent advances in digital sublimation printing technology have transformed the industry — and shaped consumer expectations.
“We added the digital division to our business in 2015, as we saw the shift in the marketplace beginning to gain momentum,” she says, adding that the company today prints its fabrics with an Epson SureColor F9200. “Clients were looking for custom designs, quick turnaround time, and fair pricing at the highest quality to gain a competitive edge. We wanted to be that provider for the New York metro area, as California was already booming with this type of business offering.”
Oddball Workshop, says Low, has carved out a niche for itself for small and mid-size apparel brands, as well as for team sportswear and uniforms, relying on its Mimaki JV300-160 and JV150-160 wide-format printers. “We provide roll-to-roll printing for U.S. and Canadian companies in smaller runs where it doesn’t make sense to do the printing in Asia,” he said.
“The challenge is always pricing against the Chinese marketplace,” adds Marino. “But we feel that we provide enough of a custom, differentiated service that not only merits the price point but also allows us to be very competitive domestically.”
For brands that produce apparel in volume runs in Asia, prototyping and sampling are a growing business for Oddball Workshop. “It is quicker to have us sample their prints than for a brand to go to Asia, get a fabric dyed — make the adjustments and go back and forth until the colors are right,” Low says. “We can get a file and print it within a day. Then the client can proof it, make changes, and send it to the mill in Asia for production.”
Not Your Father’s Polyester
Low sees new fabrics as helping drive demand for digitally printed garments today.
“One of the biggest challenges has been the perception of the fabrics with clients,” he says. “Polyester media is used for sublimation, and the fabric is very athletic. But people remember the old tracksuits that were kind of hot and rough — unless you are 40 or under. Then you understand the technical attributes of polyester, the wicking, and other benefits of it. And in the past two or three years, the knitting mills have embraced polyester fabrics and improved them — making them more comfortable and functional.”
He emphasizes that today there are many new types of synthetic fabrics available to brands. “The athleisure industry has taken off and propelled our own industry,” he says.
Among today’s design trends, adds Low, are fashion-forward fabrics and fabrics that mimic natural fibers.
“Designers today want natural fibers,” he says. “Recycled polyester is getting more sustainable, though, and there are different ways to make polyester fabric where it is environmentally friendly, using recycled pop bottles, for example. That gives a better story to it. Plus, it takes a lot of resources to produce many natural fabrics.”
Another factor driving demand for Paterson Fabric Printing’s services, says Marino, is its clientele’s preference for high-touch service experiences.
“Clients want to be hands-on and on the premises with the service providers,” she says. “We have always prided ourselves as being partners in our clients’ businesses and encouraging clients to schedule on-site meetings, be it creative development, quality control, etc.”
Getting Color Right
When it comes to sublimation processes, having quality control practices in place is essential to achieving color consistency, Marino notes.
“We know fabric, we know how it will perform under the dye-sublimation process, and we can adjust and tweak our processes — including machinery, software, tension, and speed — to achieve the color, quality, and goals of the client, providing an advantage over our competitors,” she says.
Low adds that several factors can impact the quality of sublimated fabrics. “Heat, the temperature of the press, the amount of ink laid down on the paper, and the shop environment for the press all affect how true the color is,” he says. “For example, our falls and winters are very wet in Vancouver. If we print a job in the fall when it is wet and cold, it will print differently than in the spring and summer when it is dry.”
Which is why, over the years, Oddball Workshop has adopted a set of seasonal “checks and balances.”
“We ensure for our clients that if we print one job this month and then another four months later, the jobs will look the same,” Low says. “I’ve seen sports teams, local teams, where you can tell when one half of the team ordered jerseys one year, and the other half the next year. We work within a 5% tolerance — while some shops work with up to a 15% tolerance.”
He also notes that for some clients, it is easier to dye-sublimate a team or brand’s colors across all fabrics required than to match another printed fabric.
“We have a lot of clients who will order dyed fabric from a supplier and ask us to match a certain shade of purple, for example,” he says. “We explain to them that we are using process inks to create spot colors — and sometimes you can’t print the exact shade using this process. The sheen of a fabric impacts the color as well.”
Regardless of its complexities, sublimation technology continues to open doors for Paterson Fabric Printing. “Our clients span from the intimate apparel market and outerwear markets to activewear and promotional item companies,” Marino says. “With our technology, we have acquired new clients, such as a large shower cap account and our latest new business account in the specialized bowling marketplace, EJ Bowling. For this client, we provide everything from concept development, digital marker creation, fabric sourcing, custom prints, cut/sew/finishing, packaging, and distribution.”
Fabric’s Bright, Bold Future
As for the future of garment printing, Low expects advances in digital printing technology to further enhance print quality.
“Up until a couple of years ago, there wasn’t even such a thing as a sublimation printer,” he says. “Our equipment was repurposed from eco-solvent printers that were converted into sublimation printers. So, now Mimaki, HP, Epson, and others are making application-specific sublimation printers and fine-tuning them for water-based inks.”
Marino sees the industry migrating online. “The future of retail is e-commerce, and the business models are consistently calling for no inventory and production on-demand,” she says. “Quick turn for quality items is key to both Paterson Fabric and our clients.”
And Low expects the service demands of clients to remain high. “If there is a problem, they want to talk to a designer right away,” he says. “Unlike print providers located overseas, we are here in North America, and we can air ship the same day.”