Fabric graphics in “outer space”

Fabric graphics: charting new territory—and new opportunities in the exterior marketplace.

“Take it outside” is a command that supposedly many tavern owners have barked when customers get riled at each other and start misbehaving.

But these days it could just mean those tavern owners want to promote their businesses on awnings, or banners hanging from light poles.

You can’t just take the same formula you’ve used for indoor applications of printed textiles and take them outside, any more than you’d go out in the winter without a coat or in the summer without sunscreen. You’ve got to contend with wind and weather and UV radiation and myriad other factors. But continually advancing technology in fabrics, inks and equipment makes outdoor graphics entirely feasible for projects from small (such as a flag) to enormous (a printed textile covering the side of a high-rise building).

“Most of Flying Colors’ projects are short-term events, taking place both indoors and outdoors,” says Elissa Decker, fabric product manager of Moss Inc. in Elk Grove Village, Ill., which provides fabric structures and graphics for outdoor sporting events through its Flying Colors sports marketing division. “We assess the products we choose for our clients up against the specific requirements of time, weather, UV exposure, facility operations, etc. What’s great is that there are so many substrates out there—all engineered with different properties in mind. We are continually sourcing materials.”

Application, application, application

Realtors’ “location, location, location” mantra only hints at the considerations with which fabric graphics suppliers must deal.

“The outdoor elements can clearly be very detrimental to exterior fabrics. It’s imperative to have all the details surrounding the environment, application, finishing needed, fabric and ink so that you can offer your client a viable solution,” says Eric Tischer, president of Verseidag Seemee® US, a fabric manufacturer based in Randolph, N.J. “If one of these items underperforms, it will almost always cause product failure. Due to the elements, outdoor life can vary drastically, so it’s never as simple as just looking at the fabric and ink’s expected life. The more data you have on the requirements and aspects of the job—including application, location, environmental characteristics, finishing—the better. Depending on the size and lifespan of the job, we typically recommend that an engineer be involved to ensure the fabric and finishing are appropriate for the specs.” Verseidag Seemee offers a range of PVC and polyester fabrics for outdoor use, including Insight Light (100 percent polyester with double-side acrylic coating) and V300 (100 percent chlorofiber).

“Finishing is a large key to any exterior product’s success,” Tischer says. “Wind load plays a huge part in the success of an exterior job, so it’s vital to have a proper understanding of the environmental characteristics of the location.”

In early 2012, Fisher Textiles introduced 1010 Element for awnings. The water-repellent fabric (8.5 ounces per square yard and 60 inches wide) is also recommended for street pole banners and patio furniture. Later in the year, Fisher added 3030 Fencing (3 ounces per square yard and 126 inches wide) to its lineup; the fabric with small holes was created specifically for short-term construction fencing and sports events. The company’s Waterfall fabric is specifically designed for pop-up event tents. Poly silk is for feather banners, and Paper-Backed Flag is obviously for flags. All are 100 percent polyester.

“Our solvent-coated fabrics have the best chance for long-term outdoor durability, because they are heavyweight or open and coated to be solvent ink receptive,” says James Gay, director of marketing for the fabric supplier based in Indian Trail, N.C.

“Polyester fabrics work well outdoors and set a high-quality visual standard,” says Moss Inc.’s Decker. “Polyester is a strong, resilient fiber with excellent dimensional stability. It resists bacteria and mildew. We use both warp knit and woven polyester fabrics. We also are very careful to select fabric that will allow wind to blow through or provide water resistance as needed. Lightweight fabrics are ideal. Oftentimes, the size of one banner can be 50 feet long. I would also recommend matte vinyls, either perforated or flex, because of their supreme durability, strength, color quality over time and resistance to harsh weather conditions. Our challenge in using these materials has been their limited repurposing options and inability to biodegrade. Luckily, with a concerted effort by the manufacturing community, more and more reuse options are arising.”

Working fabrics: that’s tough

“You want to stay away from cotton or poly-cotton blends [outdoors], so I would recommend 100 percent polyester,” says Michael Richardson of Aurora Specialty Textiles Group in Aurora, Ill. “We have two fabrics: VC Poly Woven 8 ounce and VC Poly Oxford, which are 100 percent polyester with a PVC coating that allows the use of solvent, latex or UV-cure digital printing. If the point-of-service provider is using dye sublimation for outdoor application, I would recommend our Act II, Pack Cloth or Upholstery fabric. All are 100 percent polyester and are durable for six months or more, depending on climate conditions. For longer terms (greater than one year), then we would point them in the direction of Glen Raven’s Sunbrella products.”

A solution-dyed acrylic, Sunbrella® is well known not only in the awning and marine trades, but also in the residential arena for its ability to withstand weather extremes and its wide range of colors and patterns (more than 140). The company’s Firesist®—a solution-dyed polyester with fire, mildew, chemical, water and oil resistance—is used primarily for commercial awnings.

“If it’s going to be an awning, be familiar with rafter spacing and reinforcements on the fabric,” advises Mike von Wachenfeldt, technical services manager for Glen Raven Inc. of Glen Raven, N.C. “If it’s a free-hanging application, is it going to be hitting a building or trees? What kinds of things may come into contact with it that may damage the image?”

Herculite® Inc., a fabric manufacturer based in Emigsville, Pa., offers a vinyl-laminated polyester called Bantex® in a range of weights, with ratings ranging from six to 18 months of outdoor use, depending on the specific product.

“The fabrics, inks and finishing technique choices for outdoor applications will differ, depending upon the environment involved,” says John Evans, vice president of sales/graphics media. “Is the project in a high-wind area? Will there be high or low temperatures involved? Are there flame-retardant requirements for the job? Are there building codes or local statutes that must be addressed? Each application should be thoroughly researched before choosing your materials, inks and finishing techniques.”

It’s about time

“Maintaining quality over time is more challenging with outdoor applications,” Decker says. “Durability, wind blow-through, water resistance and fading of graphics from UV rays are the biggest concerns.”

According to Aurora’s Richardson, the best combination is a PVC-coated fabric with solvent or latex ink. “These inks will resist fading, compared to water-based dye sublimation ink,” he says. “The addition of a PVC coating will give the fabric extra resistance to the effects of UV sunlight. This is for short-term graphics—six months or less. If you are looking for long-term durability (greater than one year) and if you are looking for resistance to fading of both the ink and the fabric, your best option is an acrylic-dyed fabric.”

“Sometimes, our suppliers will come back with new recommendations or advancements in technology that result in better installation solutions for outdoor applications over longer time periods,” Decker says. “We also utilize feedback from installers and facility managers who have the hands-on knowledge of what has worked or not worked for them over the years.”

“What’s happening more and more is that companies—fabricators and vendors—are working together more closely than they have in the past,” von Wachenfeldt says. “They’re looking to expand into more markets. There are markets that are virtually untapped—especially the marine market. There’s not much graphic application there, and there’s just huge potential.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and editor based in San Diego, Calif.

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