The Current State of Digital Home Décor

Written June 30, 2020

Categories: Digital Textile, DT Articles, Journal Articles

Whether it’s upholstery, bedding, draperies, wallcoverings, or linens, the term home décor covers any fabric that might be used in and around the home. Digitally printed home décor presents a lucrative opportunity for today’s printers and entering this market may be more achievable than they realize. It just requires understanding the processes and standards involved.

The Digital Difference

Digital textile printing is best described as any inkjet-based method of printing colorants onto fabric. Most notably, digital textile printing can include the process of printing smaller designs onto garments (also called direct-to-garment or DTG) and printing larger designs onto large-format rolls of textiles. For the basis of this article, we will be discussing the latter.

Unlike traditional rotary or flatbed printing, digital does not involve using screens, which have always been a limiting factor for seeing more colors in prints. This is due to the high cost for flatbed and rotary screens (approximately $175-350 and up per screen, depending on what type is used). In addition, flatbed and rotary printers are generally limited to 12 to 14 screens, which coincides with the number of colors one can use. It takes about four hours to set up a 12- to 14-color printing screen, with each color being set up and mixed separately. A great deal of manpower, expense, and energy goes into a traditional printing setup.

Another important factor with digital printing is photo-quality printing, which is impossible to achieve with rotary or flatbed printing. Whether customers want a picture of cherry blossoms on curtains, or a landscape print on pillows, the design choices are limitless with digital printing.

Digital also allows the layering of colors and designs. A designer can add a photo on top of a traditional print, which might layer over another type of print. Text can also be added on top of that. This type of design printing was unheard of using traditional methods. Of course, these creative designs can be used for bedding, couches, chairs, and draperies; traditional rules are broken, and designers can go wherever their imagination takes them.

In addition to creativity, there are significant factors that make digital printing appealing. Typically, rotary and flatbed standard size runs are about 3,000 yds. (Anything less would be considered sample runs that incur sample charges.) This is because it takes so long to set up the machine and clean it thoroughly for the next job. In contrast, any amount of yardage is possible with digital printing — even one to two yards of fabric. There is no ink setup necessary with digital — it’s all done using a color chart. In rotary and flatbed printing, one color might require several different dyes or pigments (in addition to the base, which has the binder and other additives). These colorants and additives all need to be mixed for each color — a time-consuming and labor-intensive process.

Finally, and most importantly, is the carbon footprint. Rotary and flatbed printing have a tremendously negative impact on the environment due to the energy, labor, and physical waste incurred in screen production, the mixing and washing, energy costs, and water needed for cleaning. The digital printing process does not involve any of this — only ensuring the dyes and pigments don’t run out. There is minimal cleaning and setup on a digital machine compared to traditional printing.

Different Printing Methods: Ink Sets and Machinery

The first thing a printer needs to do is decide the type of machinery they will be printing with and which dye or ink set to use. The four dye/ink classifications are: disperse dyes, pigments, reactive dyes, and acid dyes. Each of these work on a different type of fabric, except for pigments, which can be used on all types, including blends.

Disperse dyes, which are used for polyester fabrics, can be printed either by dye sublimation or direct disperse methods. Dye-sublimation is a method that prints on a sublimation paper first with the design transferred onto fabric using a calender/heat press. The disperse dyes become a gas that penetrates the fabric when heated by the calender. Direct disperse is done by putting a coating directly on the polyester fabric at the mill state, and printing directly onto the fabric. It is then put through a calender to bloom the color. No paper is needed for this method. Typically, dye-sublimation is preferred for home décor, as it penetrates the fabric better and achieves more clarity. Dye-sublimation heat transfer tends to be recommended for home décor.

Pigments are often referred to as the holy grail of digital printing. Made up of a colorant plus a binder, pigments are not actually a dye or ink; they can be described as more of a coating. Instead of being absorbed into the fabric, pigments lay on the surface and are attached by a binder. The big barrier in the past was having a binder that could pass through digital printheads. As ink and printer manufacturers make great strides with new pigment binder technology, equipment, and coatings, pigments are increasingly being used in digital printing. It’s also gaining ground with cotton (natural fibers) and poly-cotton blends. Most rotary and flatbed printing production uses pigments, and it is used in most home décor fabrics.

Reactive dyes for natural fibers and acid dyes for nylons and silk require much more complex printing processes. The fabric needs to be coated first, then put into a steamer and washer after printing to develop the color and remove the excess dye. This requires printers have steaming and washing equipment at their facilities, as well as the ability and proper machinery to fix the shrinkage. This method is not highly used or recommended in the U.S. with the many permits required to run this equipment and the complexity and cost of the process. (Reactives and acids are seen more in other countries that have the appropriate
infrastructures.)

Home Décor Industry Standards

To be successful in the home décor market space, print providers must understand the industry standards and critical fabric certifications. Manufacturing fabrics requires extensive research and development, attention to rigorous testing, and certification. Fabrics for furniture, curtains, and tablecloths must follow strict guidelines, with testing completed for each fabric based on its intended use. This includes meeting and exceeding the abrasion, colorfastness to light, washability, and flammability standards for home décor products. There is also the added benefit of a C6 stain and soil release finish. For home décor fabrics, the highest testing standards include: 100,000-cycle abrasion (Wyzenbeek), NFPA 260 (fire retardance standards), Upholstered Furniture Action Council (UFAC), and CA TB 117-2013 (California flammability standards).

Printers should be aware that many polyester fabric suppliers offer fabrics that are primarily used for soft signage but classified as home furnishing. These types of fabrics contain optical brighteners and do not offer the same color, texture, and fastness properties. They are also limited in scope and applications and typically do not adhere to the high certification standards required for printed home décor. It’s essential print providers work closely with fabric manufacturers and suppliers to ensure they select the proper certified fabric for their intended home décor application.

Market Opportunities

Upholstery has been a traditional gateway for entering the home décor market. Not only are there upholsterers in every city across the nation, but this application does not require printers to buy additional equipment if they already do dye-sublimation and pigment printing.

However, it is important that printers realize they can produce more than just upholstery with the fabrics on the market today. Depending on weight and style, they can produce pillows, linens, draperies/ drapery sheers, bedding, sheets, and duvets, among many other types of applications.

For example, poly linen blends that mimic the construction of natural linen can also be used for tablecloths, linens, lampshades, shower curtains, pillows, and more. Printers may especially want to consider those blends that include a Class 6 stain and soil release, which allows for sublimation with the finish on it, and lasts longer. (There is no way to add a stain and soil release finish after sublimation on small runs without a lot of finishing equipment, which makes this a desirable option.)

The development of vegan leather fabric, which can be printed via UV, pigments, and latex, offers opportunities in upholstery, automotive interiors, handbags, messenger bags, luggage, boots, and bar stools.

Another game-changing development is printable fabric wallcoverings that replicate linen and silk looks. While they currently use UV inks, they are being tested with latex inks, which provide brilliant color and excellent light fastness properties.

Although the digital printing industry is overpopulated in many areas, one untapped market is home décor. The margins are high, there is less competition, and most digital signage printers already own many of the necessary machines. Due to the myriad testing requirements, it’s important for printers to have a fabric partner who has done their homework, knows the industry, and can help guide them. Having the right ink or dye, printer, fabric, and fabric partner is the difference between success and disappointment. 

Michael SandersMichael Sanders is the director of printable textiles and finishing technology for TVF. He has been part of the textile industry for more than 40 years and has extensive knowledge and experience in dyeing, printing, and finishing both natural and synthetic fabrics. His involvement and work with digital textile printing go back to the early days of the discipline’s existence. Today, Michael sits on boards and expert panels and gives lectures nationally.
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