All Signs Point To Fabric

As companies continue to push for indoor signage that is less expensive and more environmentally friendly, the digital fabric and textile printing market continues to grow. With new equipment and applications popping up every day, the market has zoomed to new heights. Wide-Format Imaging contacted a group of wide-format print providers that are creating fabric signage. We asked them to discuss the impact of fabric graphics, recent trends, specific projects, and predict where the market will go from here.

Banner Creations

Nora Norby, president, Banner Creations Inc., Minneapolis, MN, has printed on textiles since she started her company in June of 1989. “We used to screen print and appliqué and hand paint on fabric,” she said. “Now we primarily dye sublimate on fabrics.” Norby has seen the industry change during the past 20 years, noting that there are many more printers [equipment] for fabric than a few years ago, and many more companies printing on textiles. “There are more choices for us and this has resulted in more textile choices to print on,” she said. While fabrics are not interchangeable from one type of printer to another, Norby notes that suppliers often finish the textile to accommodate the different kinds of equipment.

As for recent trends in the market, Norby notes soft hand with a nice drape and, green, green, green. “Soft hand and nice drape is why many companies are turning to fabric,” she explained. “Fabric moves and attracts attention and doesn’t have the odor problems of vinyl.”

Regarding green fabrics, Norby said there are many mills out there right now making fabrics made from recycled soda bottles, which is quite different than three or four years ago. “Many are made for the dye sub industry,” Norby reported. “We have had several hundred customers buy banners made from this fabric in last two years, a distinct upturn from three years ago. For my business, this is a big change.”

The US Fish & Wildlife duck stamp banner is an example of such a banner. Norby estimates that Banner Creations has printed about 50 of these banners for different state wildlife associations. “This is an exciting new trend in the green market, where you can return your banner to us and we’ll send it back to the mill,” she explained. “Fabric seemed to fit their mission, preserving fish and wildlife, not polluting with vinyl.”

The recycling angle is helping to bring in new business. “We are working with a customer who called us wanting to buy green and wanting to return the banners and menus to us when done they are done with them,” reported Norby. “They sought us out because we work with the recycled soda bottle fabric and because we will take the banners back. This is a big deal to me, that some mills are willing to take back fabric and recycle it.”

Banner Creations is saving all its scrap polyesters to return to the mill for recycling as well. They have also established a product line available on that is all made from its scrap. “We established this website because of the volume of fabric scrap left over from big jobs,” explained Norby. “We’ve had some success with this, but really our main focus is on the custom products for business-to-business sales.”

A turning point for Banner Creations was the Eco-Experience at MN State Fair in 2006. Minnesota Pollution Control ordered banners and table covers made from recycled soda bottle fabric. “When the exhibition opened, it was second-most visited venue at the fair and won them lots of awards,” said Norby. “They have used us every year since then and since that time, we’ve had so many customers ask for the fabric and incorporate it into their displays.

As for the future, Norby sees companies using fabric in more ways than traditional usage, such as home and business decor. “It’s an inexpensive way to change your environment,” she said. “Now, with digital printing, you can order something custom made, like fabric walls, or pillow covers or other products.” Norby said she has even worked with a couple of artists who have put their images onto table runners, scarves and tote bags as a way to increase sales of their art.

Bay Area Imaging

As printing on fabrics continues to increase Bay Area Imaging is continuously testing new fabrics from a various manufacturers, because not every fabric works well on every printer. “We do direct digital printing with solvent and pigmented inks,” explained Walter Bernard, owner, Bay Area Imaging LLC, Webster TX. “With these types of ink, the coating on the fabric is of prime importance. Heavy coating usually results in better and more vivid prints, but takes away from the suppleness of the fabric and makes it more prone to wrinkles and scratches. We are looking for fabrics that print in vivid colors but do not have the feel of a starched shirt.”

Bay Area Imaging is experiencing an increasing demand for fabric banners in spite of the higher cost. “They just look more upscale,” said Bernard. He adds that while applications for trade shows and exhibits continue to increase, he wishes he could say the same for interior décor. “We still need to do a better selling job to interior designers,” he stated. “We do, however, see more projects for wall covering materials with fabric-backed vinyl.”

Perhaps the most significant trend, according to Barnard, is the demand for more environmentally friendly materials. “Cotton is, of course, biodegradable, but does not print as vivid as a coated polyester fabric,” he said. “It’s also more expensive.” He added that while polyester is recyclable, not all of the coatings applied to it are. “We see manufacturers working towards and beginning to offer coatings that are recyclable,” he said. “Another hurdle is to find recycling companies that will accept printed polyester fabric. We would like to see fabric manufacturers and distributors to set up recycling programs like Lexjet does with DuPont Tyvek banner material.

Fabric Images

Marco Alvarez believes that digital graphics and textile printing have opened the door of possibilities for the design community. “With the wide variety of textiles available, designers now have an incredible tool that will give them the opportunity to create unique brand specific environments,” said Alvarez, president/CEO, Fabric Images Inc., Elgin, IL. “The use of more translucent fabrics has become a growing trend.”

Fabric Images recently produced the Dr. Pepper Lounge for the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium. “This project was originally specified to be made of steel and laminates,” he said. “Using aluminum and fabric provided a cost-effective solution, while giving the client the look and feel that they desired.

Fabric Images has done several other unique projects this year, including the “Z Pod” Burnham Pavilion in Chicago, the stage for the G20 Summit in Philadelphia, the press event for the new Virgin Galactica, Blackberry U2 World Tour and a few more. “I think that an interesting one is the new Chedraui Store in Guadalajara, Mexico,” said Alvarez. “This store won an award this year from A.R.E (Association of Retail Environments) 2009 Grand Prize and 2009 Visual Presentation Award for the ‘Oval Fabric Ceiling Elements.’ The uniqueness of this project was the Oval Fabric Ceilings and the 150x18-foot organically shaped canopies.”

As for what’s next, Alvarez sees five-meter dye-fabric graphics. “I believe that the fabric market will continue to grow as it offers brand marketers and designers are great palette of styles and effects.”

McRae Imaging

Bob Murray, president and owner of McRae Imaging, Mississauga, ON, Canada estimated that perhaps as much as 90 percent of trade show displays are fabric. “Well, maybe not 90 percent, but the majority of displays,” he clarified. “It’s become incredibly well accepted into the exhibit and trade show arena, and people like Moss with their hanging stretchers have really done a good job of introducing fabrics.”

Murray said larger display houses and bigger displays started adapting and adopting fabric instead of heavy panels because it reduces drayage, is easier and quicker to ship, and you can do wider widths on fabrics than you can do typically on sheets of things.”

As for new trends, Murray said fabric graphics are beginning to migrate from the trade show floor out into the retail areas. “I was involved in a project about a year and a half ago when Circuit City was still around, where they started to use these round hanging structures in retail environments,” he said. “And that’s intriguing.”

Murray also feels that there is a tremendous green aspect that is still going to come. “I don’t think it’s there yet, but as more people—especially some of these larger corporations—start to make more commitments towards green and the environment, they’re going to realize there is good reason to use fabrics,” he said. “Fabric is printed with water-based inks, so there’s nothing harmful as far as VOCs going back into the environment, it’s lighter—the materials themselves can be recycled.”

Another reason for the popularity of fabric is that people are still developing and evolving creative solutions. “We’re finding that fabric, by its nature, and the use of it with metal structure, really has many interesting design potentials,” said Murray. McRae Imaging is involved with the auto show in Toronto and recently created a 60-foot car with bent metal tubing hanging from the ceiling, and it’s all in fabric. “It’s on huge wheels that are sort of arches down on the trade show floor and this 60-foot fabric car structure hangs up above these wheels,” said Murray. “We also did two 55-foot kayaks, all fabricated out of metal with aluminum, with inside lighting wrapped in fabric, and they were hung in a mall.” Another project McRae has recently done is backlighting Moss-type hanging structure. “We backlit them from inside so that they glow,” reported Murray. “When the client lit them at the trade show, they had people lined up all around the perimeter of the booth to see them. Their success was phenomenal.”

Optima Graphics

The increased demand for fabric graphics has gotten the attention of equipment and consumable manufacturers and has pushed the envelope of technological advancement. “With so many equipment manufacturers getting into the market, consumer options have increased and with it comes technical advancements like machines that print and transfer in one process,” said Tony Schmidt, product development director, Optima Graphics, Fenton, MO. “I have seen an increase in the marrying of fabric prints to aluminum extrusions. This sort of combines some of the old with the new demand for fabric.” Schmidt notes that most hardware suppliers offer an aluminum frame that is designed to allow for the easy application of fabric graphics. “This will expand market opportunities,” he said.

Schmidt recalled a project Optima Graphics worked on for the roll out of a new perfume that required graphics that were lightweight, compact, and easy to install because there was very little time for setup and they needed something very large that could be easily shipped. “Fabric prints draped over collapsible lightweight frames was the option the end client went with over some of the traditional options,” he said.

Schmidt thinks that the aluminum and fabric marriage is going to grow. “Beyond that, I see fabric graphics expanding into other markets more heavily and the printing process improving to become faster and easier.”