“And some of these [corporate clients] are beyond anal about color. The account jumps around from fabricator to fabricator until someone can do it right. Just because you run a test and it works out, it doesn’t mean it will print that way. And when you do something small, and then try it big, it doesn’t always work. We’ve thrown away quite a lot of material because it wasn’t right.”
Fabric’s stretchability means that other competencies in addition to color management must also be tackled, Sobel pointed out. “It’s easier to sew vinyl, because it folds over easily, and doesn’t stretch,” he said. “With fabric, you have to watch for wrinkles and bunching.”
Still, there are advantages to taking on the arduous process of becoming proficient in fabric printing. One of the most significant flows from the fact that fabric is lightweight, which appeals to trade show exhibitors seeking to trim costs. “One thing that benefited us is the drayage cost,” Murray said, adding that while fabric is more expensive in and of itself, when shipping, drayage and installation are factored in, the total cost of fabric is competitive with other substrates.
There’s also a definite cache to fabric that few if any other materials can boast. Fabric attracts attention, and there are few more important keys in the trade show world, Murray noted. “I go to trade shows and people will invariably come up and touch my display, and they don’t really know why,” he said.
“There’s a texture and dimensionality to fabric that’s not there in the flat printing world. Light bounces off it. It has texture, and it’s something that your eye sees but your brain doesn’t fully understand. In trade shows, you have maybe five seconds to stop someone, and fabric printing does that. That’s a benefit to the customer that they often don’t learn until they have a fabric display. It’s still so new to many people that it takes them a while to get it.”
Sobel has seen clients respond viscerally to fabric’s appeal. “Companies are looking for something different,” he said. “They’re looking for a different look. If you’re back about 10 feet, cloth looks about the same as plastic. But when those products are presented and sold to clients, they look at them from a foot away. They see this nice texture and say, ‘That’s a cool look.’
“We still do a lot of vinyl printing, but we’re steadily expanding into fabric printing, because we’re getting more requests [from customers].”
Andrade is another veteran who sees the look of fabric as one of its most salable characteristics. “It gives you a nice, classy, matte look, as opposed to a high-gloss vinyl,” he said. “It’s a lot more attention-getting than vinyl.”
What’s more, fabric is glare-free, a quality vinyl can’t boast. EXL Prints handles the printing for many media events that feature backdrops, and these settings have gone to printed textiles. “They all use fabrics,” Andrade said. “That’s because there’s less glare for the cameras to deal with.”
In addition, EXL Prints’ customers tend to like the ease of handling. “With dye sublimation, the dyes are heat transferred to the fabrics permanently, so you can wash it, roll it up, do a lot more than you could with vinyl,” Andrade said. “It’s easier to manage, to carry, to handle, and to store.”
Having been in fabric printing for more than a decade, Murray has had the chance to watch competitive companies make serious mistakes trying to jump into the sector. One of their biggest errors is trying to conquer the market in one fell swoop by investing too much in very expensive equipment.
“People have to take it a step at a time,” Murray said. “Start small, with minimal equipment, and learn it. To come into the arena we occupy, you’d have to spend two million bucks, and not many guys can do that. Even with big, expensive equipment, you still have to go through a learning curve, and you should be doing that with cost-effective machines.”
Another landmine for beginners is pricing fabric at price points that will allow for profit. That was reinforced when a competitor tried to knock McRae Imaging off its perch with a much lower priced product. “I know for a fact they have lost their shirts, and they’re in jeopardy right now,” Murray said.