Printed Fabrics in the Digital Age

Over the past 15 years, the trade show, retail and event industries have seen a surge in fabric usage due to emerging applications, demand and cost savings.

In general, printed fabrics all have the same visual appearance. Either draped or stretched, fabrics are soft, luxurious-looking and incorporate the sense of touch, compared to their predecessors: paper, boards and vinyl. Fabric is lightweight and easy to ship, which is especially cost-effective for changing out graphics while keeping existing hardware. Over the past 15 years, the trade show, retail and event industries have seen a surge in fabric usage due to emerging applications, demand and cost savings. Fabric suppliers have more than tripled during this same timeframe and the fabric media offerings are continually growing. This continuous development is driven by the quest for the latest and greatest because things don’t stay the same in this industry for long.

Trade show booths are incorporating silicone edge graphics (SEG) and hanging tension fabric signs now more than ever. Pop-up displays and backdrops, which are not new to the industry, are an excellent solution for temporary, easy-to-install signage that makes a significant impact. Table throws and banner stands can transform a small space and give a clean presence. In retail, hanging banners and banner stands have been a constant for years, and SEG is becoming more popular for in-store signage and window graphics. Outdoor events rely heavily on flags, canopy tents and street pole banners to generate branding and wayfinding for concerts, festivals and sporting events. More recently, printed fencing fabrics have emerged as crowd control barriers, or as stadium runners inside arenas, or to camouflage construction zones. Step and repeat banners are essential for red carpet events and sports media press conferences.

With all the options for fabric applications, finding the right fabric for a job can be a daunting task because there are so many fabric media choices available in the industry, and there is not one cookie-cutter fabric solution for every situation. When choosing a fabric, the most important factors to consider are the specifications required by the job itself. Does the material need to be wrinkle-resistant? Are there specific flame-retardant standards the fabric must meet that are required by the venue? What about visual properties, does it need to have a sheen or matte surface, translucent or opaque? Will the fabric need to be washed continuously? If used outdoors, does it need to be water-resistant? If indoors, does it need acoustic properties? Ask the questions before deciding on a media because these need to be explored before the fabric is chosen for the job.

Characteristics of the fabric itself will dictate how it is printed, cut and sewn. Fabrics need specialized treatment for direct printing based on the printer’s ink type (disperse, latex, solvent). However, no treatment is required for dye-sublimation (print to paper then sublimated with a heat press) or UV-curable printing. For finishing, woven fabrics fray when cut, so the edges will need to be sealed with laser cutters, sonic knives or sewn. Knit fabrics do not fray when cut so they can be cold cut in addition to the cutting options available for woven fabrics. The percentage of stretch in both a fabric’s roll length and roll width will determine how much tension needs to be applied when printing. Stretch also is an essential factor in sewing to ensure the best fit with nothing loose or drooping to interrupt the visual aesthetic of the finished piece.

Since there is a seemingly endless supply of digitally-printable fabric options, most all fabric suppliers will strongly recommend testing, printing and prototyping before making a final fabric selection. Finding the right fabric is a trial and error process, and the constant introduction of new printers and new fabrics into the industry keeps everyone on their toes. One thing is sure, the digital print industry is evolving and thriving, and we are glad to be along for the ride.

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Mike Clark

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