Honest answers from interviews with industry experts from the Fabric Graphics Association reveal the benefits, the challenges and the growth areas of using fabric for digital printing projects.
By the Fabric Graphics Association
Fabric is all around us. It’s useful, versatile and can help expand your business’s product portfolio. Fabric offers traditional graphic suppliers a high-end, environmentally friendly alternative to rigid substrates and, to fabricators of specialty textile projects, printing on fabric expands their current product lines.
Fabric is a flexible substrate made up of a network of natural or synthetic fibers formed by weaving, knitting, coating or laminating. In the specialty fabrics industry, it goes by names like polyester, rayon, nylon, vinyl and acrylic.
Fabric is the business foundation of textile companies that cut, sew, print and finish fabric into products. Fabric offers the sign industry a wonderful new world of opportunities to explore as a complement to current vinyl offerings, and it’s becoming the preferred choice for printing applications.
“Fabric is the premiere solution,” says Jana McQuilkin, marketing manager at Moss Inc., Belfast, Maine. “Using fabric in a project, such as a hanging retail sign, makes the banner look like a high-end product. An important characteristic of the fabric used at Moss Inc. is flame resistance, as it is often requested by clients.”
Using fabric as a substrate on a display or banner typically reduces the overall weight of the graphic, which lowers shipping costs and improves ease of handling. In addition, using fabric increases the reusability of the graphic and generally enhances the appearance of the finished graphic. Even if the initial cost of a fabric banner is more than other products, the return on investment is greater because of the longevity and elegance of the fabric project.
Fabric is available in many textures and finishes, which introduces the sense of touch into an environment. This is a definite advantage over a rigid substrate. Fabric and frame constructions also break down into a more compact package for shipping.
Paul Glynn, vice president of production, Portland Color, Portland, Maine, likes fabric’s classic look and the fact that it offers a high-end solution to customer needs. “Fabric is lightweight, comes in wide widths up to 10 feet for printing and the relative cost for the size of the material provides a reasonable value,” he says.
Jim Knoche of Lawrence Fabric & Metal Structures, St. Louis, Mo., adds: “Fabric adds a softer feel to the finished product, and it comes in a variety of textures. It’s washable, printable and offers an array of standard colors.”
“Fabric projects are quicker to produce in a world that wants it all yesterday,” says Maureen Kelly, owner of The Design Loft Inc., St. Louis, Mo. She enjoys working with fabric because of its versatility and increased venue opportunity.
Working with fabrics
Adding fabric to end-product offerings provides a company with additional solutions.
“Eighty percent of our business is working with fabric and 55 percent of those fabric projects involve printing,” Kelly says. “Indoor banners, flags and custom fabric projects are part of our company mix. Our customers demand quality banners, and our fabric banners meet their expectations.”
Knoche experiences repeat business from display exhibit products sold and then updated periodically with new graphics. “Last year, our company fabricated 70 percent fabric projects and 30 percent metal projects due to the increase in re-covers of exhibit projects,” Knoche says. “This is up from previous years when our projects were 60 percent fabric and 40 percent metal.”
Fabric display exhibits are easy to strip from a current frame, update the print and reposition the new graphic on the frame. Shipping new graphics to the customer becomes a simple, cost-effective process. According to Knoche, the use of fabric has generated more satisfied customers for the company and has helped to grow its customer base.
“I wouldn’t have a business without fabric,” says Judy Dioszegi of Dioszegi Designs, Libertyville, Ill., a small, family-owned business specializing in indoor artistic fabric displays. Dioszegi’s free-flowing fabric creations have been placed in business lobbies, hospitals and churches throughout the world.
Dioszegi doesn’t have to sell fabric to her clients because they are aware of her past projects. However, she is still quick to recommend fabric whenever there is an opportunity. “Fabric creates energy and life in projects,” she says. “I enjoy working with fabric for the brilliance of colors and the ability to achieve different feelings and attitudes with color matching.
Fabric Images Inc. of Elgin, Ill., does a majority of its business working with fabric and aluminum frame constructions. “We have noticed that more designers are requested to closely watch the budget on a project and look to us to provide direction on alternative fabrics that will still have impact,” says Valerie Cuchna, material resources liaison. “There is still a strong demand for dye sublimation printing on polyester materials.”
Due to the variety of substrates available for fabric and graphics projects, finding the perfect one can be a challenge. “A flame-retardant, green, strong fabric that reliably prints each and every time is on every fabricator’s list,” says John Evans, vice president of sales, graphics media at Herculite Products Inc., Emigsville, Pa. “And manufacturers strive to deliver.”
Many times, all the preferred fabric specifications can be found, but just not in the fabric selected. This often forces companies to rank the desirable level of fabric specifications. Price is often the deciding factor.
When selecting a fabric for printing, companies must first consider printing equipment, finishing equipment and type of ink. Manufacturers of printing equipment and ink suppliers are able to assist fabricators with specific fabric requirements, such as coated or woven polyester as the desired substrate currently being used.
Fabricators will then source fabric suppliers for fabrics having the desired weight, finish and width. The “Guide to Fabric Substrates for Digital Printing,” published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Fabric Graphics magazine is one resource for locating new fabrics.
Attending industry trade shows, networking with fellow printers at conferences and talking to fabric sales representatives can result in new fabric selections, the development of a support team for color profiling the fabrics, and project finishing options. Through trial and error and customer requests, companies soon develop a preferred list of fabrics and develop a product line.
According to McQuilkin, business has been good, with 2011 seeing a slight increase over 2010. Growth areas included the retail market and in promotional marketing of special events, such as sporting events.
Knoche agrees. “The biggest growth areas in our industry are in retail signage, hospitality and hospitals,” he says.
“I believe that the biggest opportunity for growth in the fabric and printing world is in architectural signage,” Kelly says. “If someone can get it together, recycling all that old vinyl out there could be a huge growth area for our business.”
As for fabrics, Evans notes that sustainable green fabrics should continue to see growth as the economy improves. Flame retardant fabrics could also see growth as specifications begin to tighten.
“The requests for wider, seamless prints have been increasing, and I see this continuing to grow,” Cuchna says. “The key is doing them well. There are a lot of companies that have entered the dye-sublimation market over the past few years and the key is to choose a partner that knows their product and is not afraid to push the envelope.”
“Picking the right fabric always is a challenge,” Evans says. “Choosing a low-price option for a fabric will backfire if you have to print the graphic twice—or more—to get it right. The job winds up being late, causing excess shipping charges and loss of customer goodwill.” The best advice is to know the required characteristics for the job at hand if you want to receive the best results during the first printing.
For Glynn, dye sublimation is the primary challenge because of the reliance on the use of polyesters for the printing process. Additionally, the use of different fabrics often requires additional equipment. “If you wanted to print on rayon, you would have a different approach with different printing equipment,” he says. “Printing on nylon requires an investment in additional equipment. The method for printing on cottons would be direct print using latex inks. Figuring all of this out is the challenge.”
“Our biggest challenge when applying graphics to fabric is hitting the exact color,” Kelly says. “This is especially true when printing nylon flags.”
Knoche agrees that matching color is a big issue when adding graphics to fabric. “Our biggest challenge when printing on fabric is color matching to clients’ expectations of coated PMS color (like a paper print) to uncoated PMS color like a fabric,” he says.
Suppliers to the industry spend much time trying to stay ahead of the competition. The biggest challenge for them is that while a supplier may excel at offering good, quality products, the printing and fabric industry—at this point—is a market focused on price rather than quality.
Fabricators of printing and fabric products continue to experiment with endless selections of textiles, inks and new printing techniques. They strive for the new custom request and the knowledge that will be gained from that project and then used on future projects. It is a big world out there and fabric printing is becoming a bigger part of it every day.