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When seeking a new solution to add some versatility – and some extra income – to a small print shop’s operations, the notion of getting into fabric printing can be an excellent path, not only for new customers but also to provide extra apparel products to go along with logo or graphic designs you've already output for signage.

You also don't have to break the bank nowadays to get involved in rudimentary fabric printing with professional results, rather than the more significant investments required for dye sublimation or silkscreening setups.

Lily Hunter, product manager with Roland DGA's textiles and consumables division, says there's a plethora of good, affordable equipment available to do the job on a do-it-yourself scale.

“Take your time to learn about each manufacturer, the printers they offer, the benefits of the printers and the warranties,” she notes. “Be sure to consider what comes with the printer as well – included items that will help you start production.”

Hunter also suggests some research to make sure you aren't aiming a little too low for your long-term professional needs, especially if a few initial t-shirt orders turn into a lucrative business.

“The fact is, many of the less-expensive printers actually end up costing more in the long run due to issues with ink waste, longer downtime for cleaning and maintenance, and simply low-quality output,” she says. “Don't forget to consider durability. It may make more sense to buy a more robust model, knowing that your purchase will last many years as your business and production capacity grows.”

And while you can easily purchase nearly professional-level printers at big box stores to do rudimentary transfer printing, to do any volume in apparel, or have the ability to turn out complex-shaped fabric products, direct printing is a whole different ball game. A good professional fabric printer needs a few core capabilities, says Tommy Martin, product manager with Mimaki USA’s textile and apparel business development and marketing department.

“Entry-level basics should include a printer that uses inks that are clearly made for that specific model and its printheads, and built-in systems that reduce branding – ask about special nozzle banding control,” he says. “Advanced technologies may include things like a special nozzle mapping system to control quality when nozzles are missing, an external heater, a media take-up system, profile-making software, or something as simple as a printer stand.”

High-quality and easy-to-use RIP software, allowing you to use your existing digital graphics files for printing output, is also critical to your printing success – Hunter suggests checking their ability to interface with your existing design software, as some printers' RIP tools are OEM-branded, and many will do a better job than the others when it comes to fine details, gradients, transparencies, overall output and, most importantly, ink consumption.

And while a transfer printing system might be fine for some commercial applications, Randy Anderson, product marketing manager with Mutoh America Inc., says direct printing can also serve you well, with different ink types available to vastly broaden the versatility of your output.

“You can print directly to fabric, and when using a dispersed pigment with a coated fabric you can print to both natural fabrics as well as polyesters, sometimes without pretreated fabrics for fashion, home furnishings and similar applications,” he says.

“Dispersed pigments also allow printing onto coated polyesters for soft signage, and similar applications, with a better resistance to UV fading over dye sub applications. Acid and reactive dyes can be used for direct printing as well for flag production, cotton and other natural fabrics that need the advantages of dye over pigment.”

The only disadvantages, Anderson adds, are that all direct print jobs need some form of post-treatment. “But this can be as simple as heat for ink setting pigments and flag applications, [or as elaborate as] the need for high-pressure steam and post-washing in some dye applications.”

Martin says direct printing does create a few limitations in your choice of printable products, so don't go out and buy a million cotton t-shirts before you do your research.

“Fabrics for direct printing need to be coated, which increases the cost of the fabric, and coated fabrics are limited in types and weights,” he says. “Each different fabric has to be individually profiled and ink limits need to be set. And when directly printing to the fabric, the images are not as sharp and colors don't ‘pop’ like they do with transfer printing.”

Tim Check, product manager with Epson's direct printing unit, says direct printing's key application is in polyester products, so keep that in mind when thinking about the projects you'd like to do.

“Polyester is definitely the strong spot, though blended material does work – especially a 50 percent polyester with a rayon/cotton blend,” he says. “You're not competing, but complementing with your ability to do performance apparel, or swimsuits. And it's still extremely versatile – you can do water bottles, pillows, upholstery or even table tops.”

So what can first-time professionals expect in the shop when they start out with a new direct printing rig, and what are the easiest and most profitable applications, to help justify the investment?

“The most profitable applications are probably custom silks and fashion/custom clothing,” Anderson says. Once you've mastered the basics, coated fabrics for home furnishings or soft signage are the next step.

“The easiest fabric applications are the ones with no to light stretch, so pre-shrunk fabrics are best,” Hunter adds. “And the most profitable fabric applications are highly customizable specialty products, where you're not competing against low-priced screen-printed products. The value comes from the high level of customization and/or low production runs.”

Martin says you can also get creative with your direct printing projects, opening up a much larger range of print media with better profit possibilities. He suggests name and number drop projects such as sports jerseys and special event shirts (the classic “over the hill” birthday shirts or family reunions).

“But you can also get into coated hard substrate items, such as phone cases, metal pictures, ceramic tiles, or even print special awards (e.g., crystal, metal, wood),” he says.