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Finishing options for fabric projects

February 26th, 2010 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Knowing finishing equipment and procedures for fabric end products helps finish the sale.

As most professionals in the fabric graphics industry are aware, a project involving printable fabrics almost always extends beyond the printing procedure. Edges need to be hemmed, pockets need attaching, grommets need fastening. In the words of Truy Pham of welding equipment manufacturer Miller Weldmaster, “Our motto for the sign industry is ‘You printed it, now what?’”

When it comes to finishing procedures, there’s a lot to consider. And while some may consider finishing a project to be an “upsell” or an added bonus procedure, more are realizing that a project doesn’t end with printing. “Every printer knows that once you print it, you have to finish it somehow,” says Pham. “There are shops out there that charge separately for finishing. They will charge per grommet or they will charge to have a weld done or a pocket sewn in, but overall finish-ing should be a standard procedure.”

Jen Kester of Foster Keencut says that streamlining the finishing procedure can also help to improve efficiency. “With the ability of today’s technology to produce graphics faster, better and cheaper, finishing has become an even more critical procedure since that is where the bottlenecks tend to occur,” she says.

This article is a guide to help you determine which finishing procedure is best for which type of material, and how to choose the one that works for you.

Cutting

One of the most common finishing procedures is also one of the most straightforward: Using cutting tools to create a smooth edge or trim neatly around printed graphics. While many different kinds of fabrics can respond well to cutting, Bill Hartman, a marketing vice president for i-cut/Kongsberg Finishing Systems, says that certain materials are ideal candidates for finishing with a cutting procedure.

“The fabrics that tend to work better with cutting tools are those without a texture—not woven, which will fray,” Hartman says. “Polyester works well. Canvas is thicker and heavier, and not quite so delicate.”

Hartman says that businesses can take advantage of new opportunities with dye-sublimation printing and cutting by investing in a flatbed plotting table (like the one offered by his company, Kongsberg), which can provide efficient cutting help. “If a company currently owns a traditional printing operation and is already creating some signs and POP, it can find an opportunity for growth by adding fabric capabilities with a dye-sub printer and using the Kongsberg table,” he says. “Likewise, the Kongsberg table lends itself to fabric printers who are looking to expand to traditional print technologies and markets.”

While a plotting table like Kongsberg offers works best for materials like polyesters and canvas, there are cutting tools available for more delicate materials. Kester at Foster says that her company offers cutters that can accommodate materials as flimsy as tissue, and that adjustments can be made to the equipment to accommodate a wide range of fabrics. “Cutters and trimmers are used to finish all types of materials,” she says. “The type of material someone is working with will determine what type of cutter they should use. Precision cutting is key to make trade show displays, pictures and POP applications look professional with a clean and accurate cut.”

Welding

Another common practice for finishing fabric graphics projects is to add a hem around the edge of a piece of fabric or join two pieces of fabric together. While some still argue that sewing is the best way to execute this kind of finishing, new technology has opened up doors to allow small businesses to employ welding techniques.

Though welding technology has progressed significantly over the last 70 years, starting with radio frequency welding in the 1940s and leading up to the hot-air and hot-wedge welders that are being created today, all of the types of welding machines achieve essentially the same purpose: to bond fabrics together down to their molecular structures.

“It doesn’t matter what technology you use, whether it’s RF or hot wedge or hot air, you are essentially doing the same thing,” says Miller Weldmaster’s Pham. “That makes it one piece. Molecularly, scientifically, the materials are bonded at that point so the weld is actually stronger than the material itself.”

Because of the general nature of welding, many believe it to be the most durable form of finishing a seam. “If you are making a pocket with a sewing machine, you’re actually perforating the material, which does weaken the material for a tensile strip,” Pham says. “If you’re welding, you’re fusing two pieces to make one piece.”

Another benefit of welding is that it can create a seam without interfering with the graphics printed onto the fabric. “You can tell the difference in the look,” Pham says. “Obviously, if you’re sewing something, it’s punching the material and it’s pulling it forward, so it puckers the material a little bit. On a heat seal, it’s nice and flat and it doesn’t affect the print.”

Sewing

While Pham makes a convincing case for welding seams, many still prefer the tried-and-true method of sewing with a needle and thread. Terry Sheban of Super Stitches sewing shop in Youngstown, Ohio, says that sewing is one of the most accessible methods of finishing a project.

“Sewing equipment is durable and inexpensive, relatively speaking,” he says. “It has an extremely long life. You could start with a machine as inexpensive as $1,000 and you can hem the perimeter of banners.”

For a shop that’s just starting to examine finishing options, sewing can be one of the easiest places to start. “Some people would dispute this because a lot of people think that sewing is outdated, so there’s a prejudice, but it’s an old technology, and because of that, it’s a very proven technology and a very cheap technology,” Sheban says.

And though there are debates about durability and longevity, there are simply some projects that can’t be completed with the current welding technologies. Sheban says that the growing popularity of dye-sublimation printing has ensured that sewing is still a necessity for certain kinds of projects.

“If you had a really light or sheer fabric, it was difficult to print on because it was so light that you couldn’t use an inkjet printer,” he says. “So they developed a dye sub, which puts images onto a paper surface, and then the fabric goes through a roller and up against a paper, and the colors are transferred. It opened up the possibility of printing onto almost anything, including very light fabrics, even sheer fabrics. So that became something that we started doing about five years ago.”

But even a sewing enthusiast like Sheban admits that both methods have their benefits and drawbacks. While sewing is generally cheaper and more versatile, there are some projects that require waterproofing, and that’s a corner of the market that has been conquered by welding technologies.

“The downside of sewing is that you are punching a hole through the fabric,” Sheban says. “It typically was not the cosmetic appearance of the stitching that turned some people against sewing; it was the hole in the fabric and how to seal it. To some extent, they developed threads that would swell once they got in the fabric, but there still always was the issue of leakage. When truck tarps and awnings became vinyl, those materials were readily weldable. So that’s when welding really caught on.”

Choosing the right equipment

There are benefits and disadvantages to each kind of finishing procedure, and it’s ultimately up to the individual shop owners and project managers to determine the right fit for each unique project. But if a company reaches the point where adding a piece of equipment to aid with finishing procedures makes sense, there are still a few important issues to consider.

Pham says that he encourages his customers to make a list of questions before purchasing any equipment. “How easy is the machine to use, and what labor is involved in using the machine? What technical support and training will I receive when I take delivery? Every machine in the sign industry will require some type of training, for the most part.”

And while the prospect of investing a large amount of money and time into a new piece of equipment can seem daunting, Jamie Nute at Sinclair Equipment Co. encourages clients to compare the cost of new equipment with the cost of unreliable outsourcing.

“As always, investment cost is a concern,” he says. “Yet the outsourcing of finish work by others is time consuming and provides a greater risk of damage in the multiple handling of the printed piece. One ruined job or one late delivery can spell a loss of business and possible reputation that could far outweigh the cost of a quality finishing machine and keeping the work in house and on time.”

With the right amount of research and the right questions, exploring the addition of new finishing techniques can be a relatively painless process. Many of the manufacturers we spoke to are more than willing to sit down with customers and discuss the pros and cons of different options, and are reliable resources for information about cutting, sewing, welding and other finishing techniques.

Choosing and using the right finishing equipment and techniques can help businesses finish deals with their customers.

Andrea Swensson is a freelance writer from Minneapolis and an editor at City Pages.

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