As the future of clothing takes a turn to the sci-fi, apparel decoration continues to evolve and grow. Here are some of the greatest advancements on the horizon.
3-D Sublimation: Dye sublimation on polyester and polyester-coated materials is already a popular technique, but expect decorators and manufacturers to continue to push the envelope on the kinds of items they’re embellishing. “I think that sublimation will have a second-level explosion very shortly,” says Christopher Bernat, co-founder of Vapor Apparel (asi/93396). Of particular interest, he says, are European companies perfecting vacuum-based print and transfer presses for three-dimensional objects. Lots of decorators have sublimated smartphone cases. “It’s really easy to do that,” Bernat says. What blew him away, however, were some of the sublimated items he saw at this year’s FESPA conference in Munich. Exhibitors had sublimated sunglass frames, the heels of women’s shoes, buttons and plastic buckles on apparel. Bernat expects the advances in 3-D technology to catch on in higher-margin markets and trickle down as more clients crave that wow factor. “I can see how the promotional products industry would have a field day with that technology,” he adds.
Digital/Screen-Printing Hybrids: Another advancement on the horizon, according to Rick Roth, owner of Mirror Image, is equipment that combines traditional screen printing with digital printing. “It’s not entirely ready for prime time, but it’s certainly getting close,” he said of the technology, noting that he saw a machine at FESPA that integrated both processes. The equipment would be especially valuable for creative designers, because it would allow for both full color and textures, Roth says. Without texture, “digital is pretty flat,” he adds. The new machines would likely also improve a shop’s efficiency and speed.
Special-Effect Inks: Inks that change color in the sun or reflect the light are already on the market, though they cost a pretty penny. But for the right market, they can bring in an even prettier profit. Color-changing shirts and bags are particularly popular souvenirs at tourist gift shops, for example. “It’s always the cool factor,” says Marshall Atkinson of Visual Impressions. “People are always looking for that.” Even the world of high-fashion is not immune. Earlier this year, designer Alexander Wang sent apparel made of “thermo-reactive” fabric down the runway. His $8,000 coats start off greenish-brown, then morph to vibrant yellow, lime, blue or purple when exposed to heat, according to British Vogue.
The next wave of specialty inks is likely to merge with electronics to create decorated apparel that lights up or charges your smartphone or performs some other necessary function. Manufacturers are already using silver metallic ink to print flexible membrane circuit boards. “That’s just fancy silk-screening,” Atkinson says. It’s not a big stretch to imagine that technology being put to use on clothing. Jack Silver, a professor at Brunel University in London, has been leading a team that uses 3-D printers and specially formulated inks made with metal nanoparticles to make very thin, inexpensive electroluminescent displays. The displays, which have an electric current running through them and can be powered by an inexpensive battery, are slim enough to be incorporated into apparel.
Increased Specialization: As new fabrics are released, growing ever thinner and softer, the industry will continue to develop new inks and techniques to optimize how they are decorated, Roth says. “It used to be the industry was pretty standard. You could get a 50/50 ink, and it would be OK on cotton and polyester. Those days are gone,” he says.
Ink and machine manufacturers are working on methods to ensure prints look correct — and stay looking correct — on all manner of materials, particularly performance fabrics. “People are working on it,” Roth says. “That trend will absolutely continue.”