Coated Fabrics and Ink
Way back in 1985, a man named Michael Katz moved to the northern California town of Healdsburg and established a business known as Jacquard Products. It was something of a bold move. Katz manufactured specialty inks and fabrics, an anomalous enterprise for what was then a farming community -- or more accurately, a viticultural community.
The area surrounding Healdsburg was known for producing high quality wine grapes. And though the California wine boom was starting to take off, the town was still small and sleepy. The town square supported modest shops and mom-and-pop restaurants. There was no glitz and glitter.
Today, of course, things are different. Healdsburg has been wholly transformed by the growth and cachet of the state's premium wine industry. Visitors flock from around the world to tour the nearby wineries, dine at Healdsburg's exclusive restaurants, and lodge at the town's chic inns and hotels. But one thing is the same: Jacquard Products is still in business. And so is a sister company, Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems.
Katz retired in 2012, handing over the reins of Jacquard Products to his son and designating family friend Ellis as Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems President.
"I've known Michael since I was 5, and I've often described him as something of a mad scientist," says Ellis. "That’s a joke, of course, but there's also a certain amount of truth in that. He started out as a dye specialist, but he quickly expanded to lots of different projects. When people first started printing on inkjet printers he invented coatings, inks, and machines, ultimately spinning off this company."
Jacquard Products mainly sells dyes, and Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems purveys a variety of items, including inks and steamers for dye fixation. But Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems' main product line is specialty coated fabrics for inkjet printing.
"We don’t sell a lot of ink anymore because printer manufacturers have pretty much cornered the market on that," Ellis says. "With a lot of printers, your warranty is voided if you use third-party ink. So, we concentrate mainly on coated fabrics. We operate in two ways: our customers can choose from 60 fabrics we keep in stock, or they can send us fabric that they've picked out from whatever source, we treat it to their specifications, and send it back to them."
Silk products are a big part of Jacquard's business -- indeed, they're central to the company's reputation, says Ellis.
"If you want to do digital printing on silk, you're probably going to come to us first," says Ellis. "We're widely known for our it. We import a lot of silk fabric from China. We have long-standing relationships with several mills there."
But the company's dominance of the inkjet-printable silk market also comes with some challenges. The Trump administration's tariffs against China hit silk imports hard, and Ellis finds the policy confounding.
"The tariffs aren't protecting American interests in this case," he says. "Maybe with cotton, I can see some sense to tariffs -- a lot of cotton is grown in the U.S. But we haven't produced any silk in this country since the 1890s. No American interests are being protected by silk tariffs. It's not particularly difficult to pass the increased costs on up the line -- people understand that. But it depresses the demand for silk generally, and that hurts us. We're hoping the Biden administration will do something about the situation."
Jacquard Systems caters to a range of customers: artists working with wide format printers, mid-size businesses retailing printed canvas tote bags, and famous apparel manufacturers who need prototypes for candidate product lines.
"We produce fabrics that can be printed on any inkjet printer," says Ellis. "That's our main selling point. No specialty printers are needed. And our fabrics avoid that heavy gesso quality you get with many inkjet-printable textiles. They're beautiful and natural."
Challenges: "We're located in Wine Country, and it's very expensive here," Ellis says. "Most of our employees live paycheck-to-paycheck. And with this sudden appreciation in prices across the board recently, it has been very tough for them. Just the fact that gasoline has gone up $2 over the past year has really hurt them. We already pay higher wages than virtually anyone else in this industry, but it is still extremely hard for our people to find affordable housing and cover basic expenses."
COVID-19 reduced orders from one of the company's largest customer bases: colleges and universities. "They have large printing labs with lots of hardware, and students do a lot of textile printing," says Ellis. "But with the pandemic, that market essentially dropped out for us. Finally, with my pricing and sales strategies, I'm not competing with other manufacturers in America. I'm competing with overseas producers, where everything is cheaper. We have to find a way to make printing in America more appealing -- whether it's telling a better story, cheaper prices, or both."
Opportunities: "It's very difficult to push anything new in this sector as far as technology goes," says Ellis. "The hardware is driven by big companies selling machines worth a million dollars or more. So, promoting a new machine or ink without partnering with a larger manufacturer doesn't make sense for a small company like us. The area where we can grow is fabric printing. Most people don't realize you can print on silk with a standard wide format printer. And with our process, it's not detectable -- you don't get that heavy feel and consistency most other manufacturers create."
Needs: "Relief from tariffs tops the list," says Ellis. "Many make no sense. Most finished goods aren't subject to tariffs, but the raw goods we need -- such as silk -- are. Also, trade shows shut down completely during the pandemic. For a niche company like us, these shows are absolutely essential. It's tough to tell our story through standard avenues such as print, radio and digital. For us, the best way to advertise is to get out there and be visible to people in the industry, and you do that through trade shows. We need to get those events back on track."