The Evolution of Digitally Printed Textiles

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Feb 27, 2013


In January 2012, at Rochester Institute of Technology, I defended my Master’s Thesis, “Consumer Perception of Inkjet Printed Textiles.” My thesis work focused on how observers perceived various samples of wide format inkjet printed textiles when applied to different applications. The goal of my research was to find what types of textiles consumers want and need.

At the time of my thesis, it was just an idea to have the ability to see wide format printers printing textiles in a production environment. Flash forward to 2013–as I read InfoTrends’ new multi-client study Transforming Textile Printing, I see that the market that I had profiled two years ago (as I began my work) has totally changed with new hardware, a wider substrate selection, and more acceptance from the fashion community.

Digital printing of textiles has been used in the garment industry in the past, but mostly as a way to proof textiles before a larger run on a traditional press. Previous production speeds of these digital printers were slow and not logical for large runs. Now this is less of a concern. The rated speeds of the high-end digital textile printing systems has increased dramatically. For example, the MS-LaRio by Ms Srl prints over 8,000 m²/hr of fabric, while still keeping high image quality with its use of 600,000 inkjet nozzles.

Figure 1: MS-LaRio by Ms Srl

Vendors in digital textile printing tend to focus in specific segments of the market. For example, there is a large sector of digital textile printer manufactures found in Italy for the high-end fashion industry. Vendors, such as Reggiani and Robustelli, offer high quality digital printers for the high-end fashion market, keeping with the rich history of luxury textiles that has originated there.

In the low-end of the market, many of the systems that are offered are modified versions of wide format digital printing systems based on Seiko Epson print head technology from companies like Mimaki, Roland, or Mutoh. Mimaki represents the most widely used system throughout the industry. The Mimaki TX2-1600 and TX2-400-1800B can use up to 8 colors and print in single and bi-directional modes. Many of the leading systems integrators, such as QualiJet, have chosen to build their digital textile printing systems on the Mimaki printer models. Vendors like QualiJet have even gone as far as to base their model QualiJet HS on Mimaki print engines.

The Substrates and Inks

As the interest in digital textile printing has increased, due to the increasing number of fashion seasons and with retailers wanting to take advantage of the opportunity to streamline supply chains, we are also seeing an increase in the amount of substrates approved for use with wide format printers. A key enabler for digital textile printing will be the development of ready for digital print (RFDP) fabrics, which are equivalent to those found in traditional print processes. When doing my research, the available textiles were restricted to polyester or polyester-blend fabrics. If a printer was able to print on a cotton or silk, image stability on the substrate was a problem. However, now many digital printers are able to print on a wide range digitally treated substrates and with a variety of inks to match substrate specific needs.

Figure 2: Digitally Printed Fabric Sample from my Thesis

When looking at inks for textiles, one type of ink will not be suitable for all fabric types. As textiles can vary in weave, weight, and treatment–each requires a different ink set. Inks for textiles can be broken into five different types: reactive, acid, direct disperse, transfer disperses, and pigment. Different inks are used for different textiles. For example, reactive ink is used mostly with cottons as opposed to acid-based inks that are used on silk, nylon, and wool. To help print service providers and allow flexibility of substrates, vendors have made wide format textile printers with the ability to use multiple types of ink. There is also a growing desire to use UV-curable inks for digital textile printing, the incentive being high-speed single-pass printing and an instantly dried print. InfoTrends believes this is a development that is coming, although the timing of its arrival is uncertain.

The Road to Acceptance

There are key advantages of running a digital textile printer. Digital printing has the ability to eliminate cost-intensive, environmentally unfriendly steps and allow a single operator to handle multiple tasks. Digital textile printing also allows for customization and personalization of a garment, which is a service that could prove to be very lucrative. InfoTrends believes that, until the market is educated about ALL of the operating cost advantages, including – changeover costs, energy costs, and the premium prices for inks, digital textile printing is still too expensive for main stream markets. Digital textile printing cost per square meter is above what chain retailers can incorporate into their price point right now. Digital print for textiles is being used in higher-end markets, but it is restricted.

For “off-the-shelf” consumer textile products, which are produced in long runs and where time-to-market is not a critical issue, digital printing is probably not an appropriate production choice. However, for premium textile products, custom textile products, brands that desire local textile production, and for products where time-to-market is critical, digital printing offers significant advantages that InfoTrends believes will fuel significant growth over the next few years.

Companies interested in the digital textile study should contact Steve Adoniou or Tim Greene directly.

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