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Digital Printing

A Fabric Printing Appraisal

Dye sublimation or direct-to-fabric?



In a discussion on weather, the US Geological Survey (USGS) describes sublimation as “the conversion between the solid and the gaseous phases of matter, with no intermediate liquid stage. In the water cycle, sublimation is most often used to describe the process of snow and ice changing into water vapor in the air, without first melting into water. The opposite of sublimation is deposition, where water vapor changes directly into ice – such a snowflakes and frost.”

In this descriptive paragraph, the USGS ( outlined, albeit abstractedly, the process of dye-sublimation and direct-to-fabric printing. In essence, dye-sublimation ink, like water transformations, sublimates to vapor and the “deposition” process illustrates the express application process that deposits ink directly onto a fabric.

In a digital print dye-sublimation process, liquid suspended pigment (or dye), once printed on transfer (“release”) paper and subjected to a heat transfer process while overlaying selected media, sublimates into an ink vapor that subsequently transfers the printed image onto the receptive media. The direct-to-fabric process is simpler: You simply print directly onto the fabric.

Both systems have advantages. When heated, sublimation-type ink will transfer to polyester fabric or such dimensional objects as polymer-coated coffee cups, smartphone covers and other specialty items. Further, dye-sub ink is less broadly dispersed onto the media; thus, the images are sharper than prints made with the direct-to-fabric print process. However, direct application systems are quicker (no paper transfer activity) and the prints offer brighter colors because directly printed inks are more inclined to saturate the fabric.

Direct-to-fabric systems offer quicker processing and no paper cost, but it’s possible that any dye-sub paper cost savings would be lost through increased ink use. However, Heather Rockow of KAO Collins Ink says ink usage is de-pendent on many factors and each case should be examined independently.

One common dictate is to choose direct printing for distantly viewed fabrics (think soft signage, banners, backdrops, flags) and dye-sublimation for fabrics that will be closely viewed (T-shirts, scarves, clothing and specialty items). Several manufacturers market print machines that offer both choices, but the dye-sublimation process provides more application choices for signmakers. Lily Hunter, product manager for dye-sublimation technology at Roland DGA said dye-sublimation-printed 100% polyester fabric products include soft signage, interior and exterior banners, flags, table covers and street and tradeshow graphics. Rigid products can include plaques, awards, promotional products, photo panels, memorial products, rigid signage, mugs, smartphone covers, laptop sleeves, stadium seats, pet products and more.


Dye sub isn’t a day at the beach, however, because some polymers (either fabric or spray-coated specialty items) may not withstand the temperature (up to 370º) and pressure required for sublimation, so test any new process before committing to the job. Regarding fabric choices, the fabric should be at least 60% polyester, but 100% polyester offers better color transfer and product life. This is because the heat sublimates the ink and causes the polymers to become more receptive to the ink. Once cooled, no drying time or post treatment is necessary.

Most dye-sub fabric printers suggest polyester as the best and least costly fabric, and your fabric buying choices should be easy because more than 50 trade names exist for polyester products.

Polymer-coated rigid materials – wood, metal, plastics, glass and ceramic – readily accept dye-sub processes, which expands the application list for signmakers. Note also that dye-sub transfer paper is unique to the process and constructed so the applied ink doesn’t penetrate the paper fibers, but instead rests on top, where it can easily sublimate and transfer to the media.

In this issue’s Tech Review (pg. 24-25), Chris and Kathi Morrison discuss an assortment of fabric printers, but also recognize that many desk- and tabletop dye-sub printers – and specialty presses for unique items – are available and can provide a reasonable entry into this field. Be aware that some dye-sub soft-signage products may require specialized finishing – pattern-cutting, sewing, seaming or dedicated frameworks to mount the printed signage.

Consultant Vince Cahill, owner of VCE Solutions (Waynesboro, PA), says tradeshow and soft signage processes may comprise design, prepress, print and post-print finishing. The process may then require the phases needed to convert a printed fabric into a useable sign: the sign component (framework) design, the materials to fabricate the frame, a sign/fabric pattern, cutting, fastening systems, seaming equipment and related processes. Cahill says such signage is often for temporary and transport-able use, thus additional production steps could include test fitting (and necessary adjustments), followed by disassembly, packing and shipping.

Question: When is a signshop not a signshop – and do limiting edges exist? The obvious answer is always and sure, the latter because four factors limit signwork: tools, materials, staff ability and money (read clients). Without these, a signshop is in the water. The former question – not a signshop? – requires a much keener analysis because it essentially asks if signshops only make signs. A tighter examination would discover that the livelihood of any signshop resides in its multiplicity and, although a shop’s purpose may be to make signs, the true character of the sign trade resides in its ability to accept diverse assignments and, in turn, produce objects that effectively communicate.


Enthusiasm? Yes, because passion is the first element of all sign design and fabrication work. It’s also a personality trait often found in signmakers, which is exactly what I thought when talking with Wes Shinn, co-owner and general manager of PVS In-Store Graphics, a privately held graphics company in Portland, OR. The other owners of the 38-person business are Nick Olson and Jim Fletcher. Shinn told me their shop uses both types of fabric print systems – dye-sublimation and direct-to-fabric.
The PVS ad spin says “We make things, cool things,” which indicates it is not an ordinary signshop. Shinn says that PVS helps corporations create a retail sales environment and specializes in custom store and point-of-purchase displays. He has a BFA in theatrical engineering and believes the best sales/marketing approach is to invite corporate creatives to visit the shop, so they can see new and unique ideas in process and then form and discuss their own.

PVS In-Store Graphics recently purchased an EFI Vutek® FabriVU 340 digital fabric printer that permits either direct or transfer print imaging, meaning it will print directly on fabric, or on transfer paper to sublimate onto fabric or rigid surfaces. EFI says the 2,400 dpi, 11.1-ft.-wide printer produces Pantone-accurate colors at speeds up to 5,381 sq. ft./hr. Built by EFI’s Reggiani textile printer operations in Italy, the FabriVU machine displays serial number one, which tells of PVS’ aggressiveness in adopting new technologies. To supplement the FabriVU, PVS added a Monti Antonio roll-to-roll heat press, a laser-cutting table and an Impulsa Synchromatic ECO sewing system to finish digitally printed textiles for fabric-based displays and signage. The 30,000-sq.-ft. facility also builds custom displays (it houses a metal and wood shop), packaging and more.

Shinn said PVS works with fabric-framing and extrusion manufacturers to design and construct structural frames for its fabric displays. He also noted that his firm beta tests Vutek printers for EFI, and owns a Vutek GS3250 LX, as well as a Vutek HS100 Pro UV-cure printer.

The HS100 Pro offers true grayscale imaging with six color + white ink channels (or an eight-color option) and variable matte or gloss finish for a broad color gamut and greater photographic image quality. PVS applies its print to indoor and outdoor signage, as well as backlit, display, POP, poster and exhibition signage.

The GS3250LX, a production-level UV LED hybrid, features an eight-color inkset (CMYKcmyk) + white, up to 1,000 dpi, and a print speed up to 2,400 sq. ft./hr. It can accommodate flexible or rigid substrates up to 126.5 in. wide and can simultaneously process two 60-in. rolls.

Shinn said PVS employees enjoy technically complex production work, especially when conceptualizing, design-ing and producing brand items for large-name manufacturers. For example, the company recently produced 200 custom packaging boxes for the Leatherman Tread multi-tool, which required extensive handwork. It has also produced innovative, hinged cedar boxes that hold Adidas’ $125, limited edition, Crazy 8 Brooklyn Nets shoes that the retailer distributed to prominent athletes. PVS also works with Chrome Industries, a maker of sports bags, footwear and apparel, which recently contracted with PVS to produce 30 wood, pipe frame and soft signage displays for REI stores nationwide. PVS digitally printed Chrome company signage on the fabric and plywood end caps.


Robin Donovan, Signs’ editor-in-chief, recently visited PVS. She said the Portland firm works with numerous brand names, ad agencies and environment organizations, and the company claims its success stems from a focus on unique design and fabrication work that’s accompanied by quick turnaround times. Robin said PVS also encourages its employees to create unique artwork during any down-times, to keep their creativity and enthusiasm going.



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