Rise of Digital Textiles

Victoria Gaitskell
October 17, 2016
By Victoria Gaitskell
Canadian designer Lucian Matis received major attention for the digitally printed dresses he created for Sophie Trudeau during her most-recent visit to Washington. (Photo courtesy of PMO.)
Canadian designer Lucian Matis received major attention for the digitally printed dresses he created for Sophie Trudeau during her most-recent visit to Washington. (Photo courtesy of PMO.)

The growth of digital technologies is now starting to make a major impact on the textiles sector, where new business models are opening up a world of possibilities.

If you don’t believe that digital textile printing has gone mainstream in North American fashion circles, ask Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. On March 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C., she wore a dress made with Canadian-manufactured digitally printed fabric to no less august an occasion than the welcoming ceremony for the first official visit of her husband, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to the White House.

To create the dress, Toronto-based designer Lucian Matis applied decorations made of silk that was digitally printed with a hand-painted pattern of pink and purple orchids onto a background of solid crimson crepe. Fashion media instantly erupted into raves about the dress, some commentators even going so far as to claim that its sensational colours stole the show away from the Prime Minister and the Trudeaus hosts, U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama.

In fact, Michelle Obama had already climbed on the digital textile printing (DTP) bandwagon seven years ago in May 2009, when she made fashion headlines by wearing a piece by U.K.-based DTP-pioneering designers Basso & Brooke to an evening of poetry and music at the White House. (Actually, her stylist shortened Basso & Brooke’s design for a digitally printed, Swarovski-crystal-beaded dress into a top which the American First Lady wore over white cropped pants. Another Basso & Brooke garment is the first digitally printed piece in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York.)

Equipped with these revelations about the wardrobes of celebrity political wives and a tip from a fashionista friend, I tracked down the printer who manufactured the sumptuous silk fabric used in Grégoire Trudeau’s Washington-arrival-ceremony dress: The Emerson Group Inc. of Mississauga, Ontario. Company President Michael Hawke confirmed that the distinctive material was one of their recent jobs and speaks at length in this report about the evolution of his DTP business over the past eight years.

Global growth statistics
Via email I also contacted Ron Gilboa, a Director of Functional Printing and Packaging at InfoTrends (Weymouth, Massachusetts) a worldwide market research and strategic consulting firm for the digital imaging and document solutions industry. While I was writing this article, Gilboa was preparing to deliver an overview of the DTP market and trends at the FESPA Digital Textile Conference on  September 30, 2016, in Milan, Italy. FESPA (formerly the Federation of European Screen Printers Associations) is a global federation of 37 national associations for the screen printing, digital printing, and textile printing community.

The Milan conference is one of a series of educational events on DTP that FESPA has organized since 2008. According to FESPA’s Website, Milan is the largest DTP market in Europe, and the nearby Como region a textile manufacturing and decorating hub that accounts for 55 percent of the European digital textile market and produced more than 180 million square metres of digitally printed textiles in 2015.

In an online description of the Milan conference, FESPA CEO Neil Felton comments: “Today, digital accounts for only a small proportion of all textile printing, but this is forecast to grow substantially in the years ahead, with estimates suggesting that digital could account for 5 percent of textile printing by 2020, up from 2 percent today. Clearly that’s a significant diversification opportunity for printers already invested in digital output technology and supporting workflows.”

Gilboa kindly furnished me with a statistical report he wrote with InfoTrends Research Analyst James Hanlon, entitled “Digital Textile Printing Market Overview,” that further explains and predicts the extent of the new global commercial opportunities cropping up in this up-and-coming segment of digital print. Their report expects DTP to reach an estimated global product value of over $30 billion by 2020, based on driving factors that include technology maturity, supply chain consideration, brand ability to develop new products, and a significant and positive environmental impact.

Additionally, although Gilboa and Hanlon predict DTP’s future growth will be concentrated in the Asia Pacific and other areas of the world where the most cutting and sewing is conducted, they add that “one of the trends we are observing keenly is the formation of localized production that includes print, cut and sew that are digitally enabled and automated. These allow for in-country production and consumption and new revenue streams for customized high value products,” as Hawke’s case exemplifies.

Emerson’s 8-year curve
Hawke’s business, The Emerson Group Inc. is a family-owned, integrated communications company whose current services, aside from DTP, include marketing and design. His father, John, first started the business as a prepress film company in 1986, and Hawke, now 52, jumped in soon after. His brother, Chris, joined them a year later and now runs production. Hawke’s wife, Kara, also joined them in 2000 and now works as Vice President of Sales. These days, even at age 75, John still keeps an occasional hand in the business.

As it evolved and the rise of computerized prepress caused demand for prepress film to shrink, the Hawkes bought a small design company and converted it into an advertising agency. Then eight years ago, after they first saw digitally printed fabric being produced in Europe, they decided to get involved in soft signage production. Hawke says they reached this decision in part because returning to some form of manufacturing seemed a more comfortable fit than staying with prepress and design work alone.

They started doing DTP with one large-format printer 3 metres wide and within the next three years added two more printers, both 1.8 metres wide. All three machines, manufactured under DuPont’s Artistri brand, are no longer available for sale. Hawke clarifies: “Although we do also own a dye-sub printer as a backup, we don’t do dye-sub” (short for dye-sublimation printing, a common process for decorating apparel, signs, and novelty items such as cell phone cases or coffee mugs. In dye-sub specialized processes apply sublimation dyes first to transfer sheets, then onto another polyester or polymer-coated substrate using heat.) Rather, all Emerson’s DTP work is printed directly to fabric.

Right now Hawke’s business employs 25 staff, six of whom work in the front end with the rest divided between two production shifts on weekdays. Production staff also routinely work overtime and on weekends during peak periods, which nowadays Hawke says fall practically all year round, except for summers and at Christmastime, when orders tend to slow.

Presently their DTP operation produces both large-format print on synthetic fabrics and textiles in natural fibres for fashion and interior décor. Their customers are located all over North America, many in the United States. Textile orders typically involve relatively small runs of 200 to 500 metres of printed cotton, linen, silk, viscose, or blends based on these fibres. Large-format orders include not only the usual signs, banners, trade show displays, and backdrops, but also frequent novelty items for theatrical performances, festivals, special events, weddings, and large parties.

One especially challenging job Hawke recalls was a wall covering for the theatre of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina--a project requiring them to print and sew together three separate panels into a gargantuan 30-feet-high-by-435-feet-long scene simulating the grandstand at a NASCAR race. Another was a tent for a corporate banquet with paintings by Old Masters printed on the interior walls, and a 50-feet-wide-by-165-feet-long roof printed on the inside to look like a ballroom ceiling decorated with elaborate crown molding.

“We are getting more and more orders for soft fabric walls and trade show displays,” says Hawke. “Although vinyl has traditionally been the main substrate for these products, fabric is so much easier to use in many ways:  it’s lighter, more resistant to creases, easier to move around, and easier to handle and store.”

DTP details
Hawke recounts that they have previously tried to run four different types of textile dyes on their equipment: acid dye, pigment dye, disperse dye, and reactive dye. Now, however, they specialize in only the latter two: disperse dye, which they run on their large-format printer for synthetic fibres, and reactive dye, which they run on the other two printers for natural fibres.

Reasons for limiting their production to this two-dye system include that washing the printers repeatedly to change over dyes is costly, plus the only fabrics they cannot print are nylon-based ones (because the dye won’t stay on the fabric.) Hawke specifies that the process of applying disperse dye to synthetics requires heat, while applying reactive dyes to natural fibres uses steam to avoid burning the fabrics. He adds that when using reactive dye, the type used to print the silk for Grégoire Trudeau’s dress, textiles turn out softest to the touch and their colours look the best.

“We try to offer our clients a range of about 20 different synthetics and 30 different natural fabrics that will work for a variety of projects, including displays, upholstery, drapes, household linens, dresses, and accessories,” Hawke continues, adding that textile orders for pillows and scarves seem to be especially popular. Designers can also bring in their own fabric for printing, providing it does not contain nylon, for the reasons explained above. After printing, both synthetic and natural fabrics go through a washing system to remove excess dye, then a post-treatment to apply water and dirt repellent or fabric softener, then larger fabrics are laser-cut to size.

Online and other advantages
“We don’t do a lot of advertising,” says Hawke. “Instead, a lot of our business comes by word of mouth, Internet searches, and our blog on DesignYourFabric.com, an online business we’ve operated for about a year, where designers can upload their own designs to print whatever quantity they want of their own fabrics. We’ve had some hiccups along the way, but since we got the bugs out six months ago, we’re seeing the on-line business grow.”

He explains that to obtain textiles via traditional screen- or rotary-screen printing methods from places like Europe, South America, China, or India, customers have to order at least eight weeks ahead and commit to a minimum order of 100,000 to 500,000 metres. “If they don’t use up all the fabric, they’re stuck having to sell off their inventory. But our on-line ordering system fits the way people shop now, there’s no minimum, we can usually fill orders in seven to ten days – and those time frames are shortening. In eight years, print heads have improved, so whereas we used to get 200 droplets out of one head, now we get 1500 droplets, and the newer heads can print four to five times faster than we used to.”

Gilboa and Hanlon’s report provides further supporting details on how digital inkjet technology has dramatically improved in recent years to facilitate a multitude of applications, ink types, print quality improvements, and faster production speeds.

Hawke comments: “It’s nice because DTP is starting to bring textile production back to North America. Printing small orders on demand is where the growth is going to be here, because customers can buy locally, they don’t have to buy minimums and don’t have long waits for their orders.”

Significantly, Gilboa and Hanlon’s observations on new opportunities mirror Hawke’s Web strategy and bode well for his business model: “New software and technology developments allow for greater brand, producer and consumer interaction. Web based applications are being developed that enable an individual to create designs and patterns for textiles, manage orders, and track fulfillment more easily. All of these combine to facilitate a streamlined supply chain while reducing operation cost.

Digital solutions help products reach the market faster, reduce overall inventory, and make purchase activated manufacturing possible. This is great benefit for both the consumer as well as the brand that are now able to develop new products at speeds not possible with traditional printing. Brands, with digital textile printing, can react faster to consumer needs, localize products faster, and produce in small batches and custom products. This all leads to the democratization of design, and helps support upcoming designers, as there is minimal inventory obsolescence risk associated with digital production. Areas of textiles where these benefits shine through include fast fashion, high fashion, sports apparel, home textiles, and outdoor furnishing. Major fashion brands such as Zara and H&M are deploying digital print to improve and reduce their supply chain complexity.”

Hawke continues: “Another of the nice things about our DPT business is that our dyes are all water-based, you can recycle polyester, and natural fibres break down in landfill, so our process is pretty green.” Gilboa and Hanlon’s report also emphasizes that “digitally printed textiles have one other key advantage over current methods, and that is a drastic reduction in overall environmental impact.

Digital systems are able to produce the same printed textiles with significant reductions in water consumption during the printing process, sometimes up to 90 percent when compared to rotary screen-printing. Reductions are also seen in energy consumption as well as CO2 emissions, where steaming, washing and drying occur.”

New steps
The business resources Hawke continues to rely on include the Canadian Textile Industries Association (CTIA) and ITMA, a global textile and garment machinery exhibition held every four years, next scheduled in 2019 in Barcelona, Spain.

His advice to DTP novices: “Prepare for a big learning curve – for one thing because, compared to other substrates, fabric undergoes a lot of changes. It’s not stable. It shrinks, for example, and batches of fabric can vary from one to another, so it’s important to locate suppliers who give you a consistent product.”

Hawke’s future plans for his own business: “We’ve reached the stage where we’re maxed out for both space and electricity. So we have a choice of either moving to another building or trying to get more space and more electrical power at our current address. Once we’ve secured more of both these resources, we’ll take another step forward by purchasing more equipment.” 

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