By Jake Kulju
Fabric graphics technology has reinvented much of the textile industry by giving customers more options and allowing manufacturers to display a greater selection. Fred’s Tents, Stillwater, N.Y., used fabric graphics to submerge customers in a unique tent experience that incorporated translucent fabric, projected images and digital printing.
When Fred’s Tents decided to debut a tent displaying an underwater scene at the 2011 IFAI Specialty Fabrics Expo in Orlando, Fla., the company turned to fabric graphics technology to create a structure that made a real splash.
“The outcome was fantastic,” says Fred Tracy, owner of Fred’s Tents. “This tent was a hit when it made its debut…and has been widely recognized ever since. We really captured the look, the feel, the sound of the ocean waves, and the smell of sand and seashells.”
To show the possibilities of digital printing on tents and other fabric structures, and to stimulate the senses of those who entered the tent, Fred’s Tents created an installation that showed a bright, detailed underwater scene. Images of coral reefs, snorkeling mermaids and starfish were printed onto the vinyl tent fabric. Tracy went the extra mile by printing water drops onto a wraparound film that was attached right onto the aluminum frame of the tent. Inside, images of sea turtles were projected onto the walls with a standard projector. Music was used to enhance the experience.
“When it was outside and lit, it looked like you were underwater,” he says.
The coral reef images were printed on three of the tent walls, while the larger-than-life mermaids and starfish were printed on the tent top fabric, giving viewers the sense that they were under the water in the reef.
Snyder 16-ounce translucent vinyl was used for the tent top fabric. The tent rental company used full color digital direct-to-fabric printing. The company used HP wide format printers with solvent ink. Fred’s purchased the images from online image site Flickr.com.
“Solvent ink is a great application for outdoor products because of the ability for it to adhere to non-absorbent materials,” says Jennifer Hull, marketing assistant at Fred’s Tents. “It’s fade proof, and water and scratch resistant.”
Creating stunning fabric graphics on the scale of tent installations requires planning, appropriate equipment and vision.
“What we do is take a tent drawing file and lay the artwork over the drawing,” explains Tracy. “We get an exact layout of what parts of the artwork land where, and how the graphics match up. We don’t always use fabric templates, because each of our tents is so unique and has its own drawings. It always varies job to job. We take the drawing file of the tent itself, and work based on that.”
Once the artwork was acquired and matched with the tent drawing software, it was laid out and nested according to the exact size of the fabric. Once the final measurements and nesting was complete, the project was sent to the printer.
After the images were transferred to the durable, translucent Snyder vinyl, the sewing began.
“We cut and sealed the tent together like a puzzle piece, leaving 1-inch overlaps so no white showed and it made one seamless image,” Tracy says. “We’ve printed jobs for Nextel, ESPN Longhorn Network, GE and many more using the same method.”
The level of excellence this tent achieved didn’t come without effort. Working with high-resolution images and maintaining their integrity throughout the design and printing process along with the challenge of positioning the images perfectly on the fabric without distortion were unique obstacles.
“Using some extra water to fill in empty places was a simple solution,” Hull explains. “A typical challenge for our larger print jobs is lining up the seams that have artwork; not the case here. Print jobs that use photos are slightly easier and simpler than print jobs that consist of logos you see every day that need to line up perfectly. This was a smaller tent, but when you’re working on a 100-foot-wide tent, on a 24-inch monitor, you better make it perfect.
Tracy remains energized about the possibilities of fabric graphics for tent applications. He sees endless possibilities for printed applications.
“A corporation could include its logo, brand color or slogan,” he explains. “They could also create a theme or mood related to their brand.”