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Flexible fabrics, functional lighting

Feature, Markets | April 1, 2012 | By:

The combination of fabric and lighting creates beautiful, economical, efficient and fully functional results in interior and exterior applications.

In 2004, Minnesota resident Jay Maynard went online and unveiled his homemade “Tron” costume—an ode to the 1982 science fiction film. The getup (spandex covered in electroluminescent wiring) made its wearer a cult hero of sorts, with a strong Web presence and more than a dozen appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Maynard might not have been the first person to put lighting and fabrics together, but his costume certainly illustrates the ingenuity—and opportunity—afforded by the combination. Whether you’re talking about new ways to illuminate awnings and tents or creating interior installations that are at once decorative and functional, end product manufacturers are finding innovative and economical ways to integrate specialty fabrics and lighting.

Illuminating applications

Fabrics’ flexibility, lightweight construction and formability are among the characteristics that make them an ideal partner for lighting, says Dr. Uwe Möhring, managing director of TITV Greiz, the Institute for Special Textiles and Flexible Materials in Greiz, Germany. When it comes to integrating lighting directly with fabrics—often for clothing applications—Möhring cites the three most common active lighting sources: optical fibers (made either from glass or PMMA, a clear plastic), LED and electroluminescence.

“Optical fibers can best be processed by embroidering, while LEDs are advantageous for the integration into woven fabrics,” he explains. “Embroidery of optical fibers is used for design-oriented applications, while textiles with integrated LEDs are used for protective clothing and interactive textiles such as police vests. Electroluminescence can best be applied to textile materials as a coating for fabrics…and is used for the creation of printed tapes which can be used for safety applications, for instance.”

Möhring sees many uses for textile and lighting applications, including the construction of trade shows, advertising, the security industry, the automotive sector and even simple ambient lighting for homes and offices.

Inside story

Count interior architecture among those potential markets. SEFAR Inc. in Depew, N.Y., has recently introduced to the U.S. a product called LightFrame, a fabric ceiling framing system that provides a high amount of light transmission and diffusion. SEFAR’s design team developed the system—initial applications have been installed in Europe over the past five years—to assist the architectural community in using fabric applications easily. LightFrame was developed to provide a fully engineered and aesthetic solution to support acoustic and lighting creativity in interior environments, according to Peter Katcha, SEFAR’s director of North American sales.

With LightFrame, SEFAR also aimed to add a few factors they believed were missing from existing fabric ceiling and wall systems. “The number one priority was to provide high levels of diffused light,” says Katcha. SEFAR utilizes a PVDF fabric (part of the PTFE family of materials) that allows 80 to 90 percent light transmission, providing an energy-efficient interior space.

Easy maintenance was also important in the system’s development. LightFrame is built with individual, hinged rigid frames that allow direct access to building equipment and appliances in the ceiling cavity or plenum. The product’s secondary skin, in addition to facilitating light diffusion and improved acoustics, eliminates penetration of debris more effectively. As Katcha explains, “The dual-skin system is airtight. This reduces the maintenance requirements, but even more importantly maintains the clean transference of light over time.” He adds that clients mostly use fluorescent tubes as the lighting source; some have used LED arrays, but the price point is higher than their fluorescent counterparts.

Jim Miller, president of J. Miller Canvas in Santa Ana, Calif., fields multiple requests for one-of-a-kind fabric and lighting projects in both interior and exterior applications. One of the shop’s more memorable projects involved changing rooms, or “pods,” made of white spandex for the Bloomingdale’s store in Santa Monica. “They retract with the flip of a switch to open the space for events,” Miller says. “When retracted, they become lanterns that are lit from within. When down, gobo lights project changing images and messages on them.”

Take it outside

Awnings are another big player in the fabrics and lighting industry. “The thing with lighting is knowing how much you need,” says Craig Fawcett of Lethbridge Custom Canvas Ltd. in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. “It also depends on what customers want the awnings to do. Awnings aren’t only used for signage; they’re used for accents, too. Historically, awnings have been lit from behind to give a nice, warm glow. A wash of light falls down the face of the building, making it more inviting for people while at the same time providing improved security by illuminating previously dark entrances.”

What’s more, in the last decade, Fawcett has noticed a small trend toward top lighting or front lighting flat-panel awnings using gooseneck fixtures that extend out over the awning from above and shine a pool of light down onto the area where the graphics are applied. “This kind of lighting is well-suited to restaurants and boutiques that want a trendier, upscale look and where businesses are restricted to more ‘Main Street’ themed signage,” he says.

Lighting sources for awnings are also changing. Fawcett sees a shift from the old high-output fluorescent tubes—which he says are harder to find now—to LED lighting. “LEDs are brighter than fluorescents and require less energy and virtually no maintenance,” he notes. “LEDs generally cost 20 to 30 percent more [than fluorescents], but they will give you a lot longer life and much lower long-term operating costs.”

Lethbridge recently retrofitted an awning system at a TV station, removing old 8-foot fluorescent tubes that lit the entire awning and replacing them with strips of LED lights that illuminated only the lettering. Fawcett used a black fabric where the color was removed, or eradicated, from the area on which graphics were applied—thus allowing only the lettering to light up, rather than illuminating the entire awning.

Lighted awnings aren’t just for commercial applications any more. For example, Sunesta in Jacksonville, Fla., has introduced an outdoor light bar that can be mounted directly onto a retractable awning, wall or ceiling. The fixture comprises three individual lights, each of which can rotate 360 degrees and pivot 60 degrees. “This allows the homeowner to direct the light to a specific area, creating their desired setting,” notes Chris Green, Sunesta’s marketing manager. “An example would be that they wanted to aim two of the lights down to illuminate an eating area and aim one light upwards to accentuate and highlight the fabric of their awning. The light bar gives the consumer the flexibility to create an exact lighting scheme for their event, which fixed lights do not.”

Special events

Like awnings, event tents use lighting to create ambiance while sending a message. And, like awnings, tent manufacturers and rental companies are using LED lighting more frequently—particularly because of the color effects it provides. Eureka! Tents in Binghamton, N.Y., has recently added a Basic LED PAR (parabolic aluminized reflector) for its rental customers. “LEDs are great for tents, as they don’t require a lot of power, they stay cool and they are very versatile,” says Carol Lee Cundey, Eureka!’s marketing communications manager. “One of the most stunning uses of fabric applications is [putting] LED colored lights behind the tent liner. The effect of the color ‘glowing’ behind the liner is beautiful.”

Event tents use other types of lighting as well: spotlighting to showcase a head table or specialty food display; decorative chandeliers that also serve as task or ambient lighting; and ellipsoidal or gobo lights, which can display a corporate logo or theme pattern onto a tent liner. “The white tent is like an artist’s canvas,” Cundey says, “and the lighting can paint any picture to create any mood or enhance any theme.”

In some instances, fabrics and lighting work together to create a stand-alone fixture. Such is the case with Umbrella Lights, developed about a decade ago by Filmwerks International Inc., Wilmington, N.C. “We needed a light that could stow ultra compactly  on our company trucks, which were chock full of generators, large HVAC units and power distro for concerts and events,” explains Filmwerks vice president Steve Thompson. “We had been using balloons, but they were blowing out often and used a lot of helium. The Umbrella Lights were quick, easy and fast.”

The lights, most of which measure 4 feet in diameter, implement a variety of lighting sources, including tungsten, metal halide, sodium vapor, fluorescent and incandescent. The company has also started working with LEDs. Fabric options range from a sailcloth material to ripstop nylon to Nomex®, which has a high heat tolerance. “The exterior lights feature a waterproof laminate, so they can be out in the rain for two to three days,” Thompson says, “or we will use awning material if we want the balls to glow and be more uniform.”

Umbrella Lights are used in a number of applications. The globes—often used to create a moonlight effect on a movie set, for example—are branching out into other areas. “Right now, many construction companies working on roads or industrial sites use light towers, which create a lot of glare and blind traffic,” Thompson says. The Umbrella Lights—which are currently being used on a construction site in the Mojave Desert to avoid distracting drivers—“are softer, but they are really bright, and we can make them directional.” Filmwerks has started promoting the lights’ use among first responders because the fixtures are quick to deploy and reduce glare on the highway.

Umbrella Lights also find their way into event tents. “When you get into these tents with large footprints, you want to use light to start creating more intimate spaces,” notes Jill Blackman, light shop technician for Filmwerks. “We dim the lights to break up [the square footage] of the tent.” Filmwerks has screen printed and used Velcro® to apply corporate logos to the fabric, illuminating the graphics from within.

LEDs in the lead

As applications in fabrics and lighting grow, manufacturers and fabricators continue to meet challenges head-on. “When working on the combination of lighting and fabrics there are several challenges; for instance, the power supply, the interconnection between fabric and lighting source, the possibility of short cuts and—in the case of special applications—the occurrence of abrasion and moisture,” notes Möhring.

Many specialty fabrics professionals foresee growing opportunities in fabric and lighting uses, whether it’s a corporate client wanting to make a splash or architects seeking new ways to soften interiors. As far as lighting technology goes, end product manufacturers predict good results with LED lighting. “We’ve seen our awning customers retrofitting old signs with LEDs,” says Fawcett, adding that their low power requirement is appealing. “People are much more cost conscious, especially with the economy the way that it is.” Fawcett also is keeping his eye on applications where lighting is integrated directly into the fabric. “It would be great to see fiber optic lighting incorporated into the actual awning fabric.” (Kaplan’s Enterprises Inc. of Easton, Pa., has started making custom awnings that are lit from within using fiber optics, in connection with JFMagic LLC, Bethlehem, Pa., which licenses the fiber optic technology developed by Off-Grid Technologies LLC in Bethlehem. For more, read “Shedding new light” in the Nov. 2011 issue of the Review.)

In the tent rental industry, Cundey of Eureka! also predicts continued use of LED lights as they become more affordable and easy to use, not to mention their low energy use. “In the future, most rental companies will be able to offer a basic lighting package that includes white light, as well as basic gobos, color-changing LEDs and some moving head lights.”

Holly O’ Dell is a freelance writer based in Pine City, Minn.

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