Digital textile printing is the latest innovation within the textile printing industry. An increased number of printers are making the transition to digital printing and benefit from the competitive advantage that it offers them, the fast production rate and the possibility to print complex designs and fine patterns. Before deciding if digital textile printing could be of interest to your printing company, it is essential to know what are the possibilities of digital printing regarding the materials that can be digitally printed on.
Digital textile printing technology explained
Digital textile printing is an inkjet-based printing method that enables printers to print high-quality designs on an extensive range of fabrics. Nevertheless, there are some fabrics that are not suitable for this specific printing technique. In this article, I specify which fabric is best for digital printing. Which fabrics can and which cannot be used in digital textile printing?
To fully understand why certain fabrics cannot be used for digital printing, it is essential to understand the technology behind digital printing. In digital printing, the materials first need to be pretreated. After that, it will pass through the inkjet printer at high speed. A digital textile printing machine uses a printable design of a digital data file, reads the right color information, and prints the colors onto the digital printing materials.
The fabric is colored by minuscule droplets of ink, which are produced by numerous print heads. These print heads are positioned a few millimeters above the substrate (for example, SPGPrints Archer+ technology enables a distance of 4 millimeters from the substrate).
Digital printing materials
In digital textile printing, the many print heads ensure high-quality designs and enable a fast production rate. However, due to the print heads being close to the fabric, there are some materials that cannot be used for digital printing. For example, fabrics that have quite some loose threads, can come in contact with the print heads and cause damage.
The digital textile printing technique can be used for both woven and knitted fabrics. Below, I specify which digital printing materials there are and which materials are not suitable for digital printing. I will also mention which type of ink matches the digital printing materials well. If you want to know more about these inks, please download our Ink Selection Guide here.
Cotton is a natural fiber that is especially used for clothing within the fashion industry, mainly because of its high moisture control, comfort, and durability. With a digital textile printing machine, you can print on cotton. To obtain the highest quality possible, most digital printers use reactive inks since this type of ink provides the highest wash fastness for prints on cotton.
Viscose is also one of the digital printing materials widely used in the fashion industry. As is the case with printing on cotton, you will get the best results when printing on viscose with reactive ink.
Printing on wool with a digital textile printer is possible, but this depends on the type of wool you are using. If you want to print on “hairy” wool - meaning a type of wool which has a lot of loose threads sticking out - the print heads have to be positioned as far away from the substrate as possible. Woolen yarn is five times as thick as the diameter of the nozzle in the print head and can therefore severely damage the printer head.
For this reason, it is important to choose a digital printer that enables you to position your print heads at a considerable distance from the substrate. SPGPrints’ Archer+ technology supports a printer head distance of four millimeters, compared with the typical 1.5 mm nozzle-fabric distance offered by other print heads, which enables you to digitally print on any type of digital printing materials - even hairy wool.
Another natural fiber that can be used as a digital printing material is silk. Silk can be printed with reactive ink (when high-fastness is priority) or with acid inks (if colour gamut is priority).
Polyamide lycra is a type of fabric that is mainly used for swimwear. It is possible to use as digital printing material, preferably with acid inks. By using acid inks, you obtain the highest colour brilliance, wash fastness and resistance for saltwater and chlorine.
Over the last couple of years, polyester has become an increasingly popular fabric within the fashion industry. However, the most commonly used ink for printing on polyester, disperse ink, does not work well when printing with high-speed digital printers. A typical problem is printer contamination through ink mist.
Therefore, printers have switched to sublimation printing on paper and recently successfully switched to direct printing on polyester fabric with sublimation inks. The latter requires a more expensive printer since a belt system to hold the fabric is needed, but it saves printers paper costs and no steaming or washing is required.
Overall, general sublimation printing on polyester results in somewhat lower fastnesses than printing with disperse inks. But in the fashion world that is an acceptable compromise for sustainability.
Mixed fabrics - fabrics consisting of two different types of materials - can challenge digital printing machines. That's because only one type of ink at a time can be used in digital textile printing. Since all digital printing materials require a different type of ink, you have to use the ink that is suitable for the material that makes up most of the fabric. This can cause the ink not to stick to the other material that is used in the fabric, which could result in pale colours.
In general, digital textile printers can handle mixed digital printing materials with a minimum division of 70-30%. For example, a mixed fabric consisting of 70% cotton and 30% polyester can be printed with a digital textile printing machine with reactive inks. However, digital printing materials with a 60-40% division will limit the colour depth.
Producing high-quality designs on a wide range of digital printing materials
In short, the question "which fabric is best for digital printing?" really depends on your end product. Almost all fabrics can be used as digital printing materials, as long as the right inks are being used.
Digital textile printing enables you to improve print quality and accelerate your production rate. For these particular reasons, more and more conventional printers are making the transition to digital textile printing. Curious how digital textile printing can help your company optimize your printing process and meet increased customer demands for shorter-runs, fast turnarounds, and high-quality designs?
Portuguese printer Adalberto Estampados wanted to address the growth of fast-fashion and offer their customers new standards of quality. Digital textile printing proved to be the solution to their challenges. With the help of the PIKE single-pass digital printer, they’ve managed to reduce lead-times, lower production costs and keep up with their customer’s demands. Download their success story here: