By Jeff Leagon
If you are a print service provider, it’s likely that most of your technical expertise is in the areas of digital printing and color management, and not necessarily in fabrics. Even if you print exclusively on fabrics, it’s difficult to become an “expert” on them since there are many different types and styles. The good news is that to be successful in fabric imaging, you don’t need to be a fabric expert. With a basic knowledge of different fabric types and their characteristics, you’ll be able to talk intelligently with your clients and help them make informed choices.
There are two basic building blocks that give a fabric its identity: what it’s made of (fiber content, such as cotton, polyester, nylon), and how it’s made (woven, knitted). With regard to the fiber content, cotton and other natural fibers are generally softer and more aesthetically pleasing than synthetics. Without coatings or pre-treatments though, their receptiveness to printing is limited. Natural fibers tend to be less resistant to weathering and abrasion, which can further limit their suitability for graphics applications. However, for applications such as in-store signage, an untreated cotton fabric might be perfectly suitable, particularly if UV printing is an option. Natural fibers have a “green” story, being biodegradable and made from renewable raw materials.
Among the synthetic fibers, polyester is the most widely used in graphics applications. Polyester fabrics are generally strong and resistant to the elements, and they are available in a range of styles, weights and constructions. Even though the fiber is man-made, the fabrics can be made very soft and supple, depending on how the yarn and fabric are formed and finished. Polyester is compatible with the disperse dye inks used in dye sublimation printing, which is considered to be the ultimate imaging process for fabric.
Construction options for fabric are weaving, knitting or nonwoven. Nonwovens aren’t widely used currently for graphics applications but they have benefits and will likely grow in popularity. Nonwovens are made by bonding together fibers, as opposed to yarns. Since the yarn-forming stage is bypassed, they are often less expensive than a woven or knit fabric of comparable weight. Nonwovens are used widely in household products, like disposable wipes and dryer sheets.
Knitted fabrics are formed by connecting loops of yarn through the use of needles. When compared to wovens, knit fabrics tend to have more stretch, are form fitting and are more resistant to creasing. Knits are well suited for performance apparel and for printed graphics, which must be stretched over multidimensional framing systems.
Woven fabrics are formed by interlacing warp and filling yarns on a loom. There are a multitude of woven pattern options such as plain weave, twill, oxford and sateen. Generally, wovens are more durable and dimensionally stable than a comparable weight knit fabric. Wovens are well suited for graphics applications such as retractable banners, wall coverings, custom printed upholstery and boulevard banners.
The end use or application usually drives the decision on what type of fabric to select. But, as a print service provider, you also want to “recommend” a fabric that works with your print system. If you don’t have dye-sublimation capability or access to it, you’re not likely to push a client toward fabrics that only work with dye sub. That’s where the fabric finishing or pre-treatment process comes into the picture. Through processes like scouring, heat setting, coating and saturation, fabric manufacturers like Aurora produce wovens, knits and nonwovens that are specifically engineered to be compatible with different printing systems. Knowing how and where a printed fabric will be used and how it’s to be printed will make the selection process quick and easy.