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Beautiful options

December 1st, 2014 / By: / Feature, Markets

New materials and technologies—and borrowing from other industries— drive variety and performance in the entertainment fabrics market.

Is technology driving the evolution of textiles in the entertainment industry or is industry demand driving technology? That’s the chicken-or-egg question that Jon Weingarten, president, Dazian LLC, South Hackensack, N.J., asks. Either way, there’s always something new to report.

Right now the focus isn’t on fashion; it’s on using new materials to do traditional jobs better and more artistically, according to Megan Duckett, president of Sew What? Inc., Rancho Dominquez, Calif. “What we’re seeing from a design standpoint, I think, is a return to a lot of traditional textile design.

“I think there’s kind of a revolution and rediscovery in terms of traditional draping design. You won’t beat a gorgeous stage design with giant swags and big embroidered motifs. That will always exist. It will always be gorgeous. It’s just how we are creating it, and what resources we are drawing on in the production of that, that has changed,” Duckett says. “It’s exciting to have a lot of options open to us in terms of materials, to be honest.”

Modern fabrics are lighter, brighter, more flame-retardant, silkier and (in many cases) able to be digitally printed. There are wider milled goods available and a greater variety of wide-milled goods, in general, which allows for less seaming in large draperies. There are textiles borrowed from other industries, simply because they have desirable characteristics. The end result is a better looking, better performing version of classic theatrical beauty.

Let there be light

To a great extent, the entertainment industry chooses fabrics based on how they will interact with lighting and projection. For example, Kevin Greenwood, founder and president of Stage Tops USA, Manchester, Tenn., says he uses a lot of white-faced, black-backed vinyl for music and theater show structures.

“I don’t have to double-skin it,” Greenwood says. “It serves a purpose on the inside because it’s black, so it’s great for lighting and there’s no light going to penetrate the image. Why go to the expense of having two-faced material for a blackout inside when you can use a black back?”

LEDs have been a game-changer, both for lighting engineers and for the fabricators who work alongside them. Weingarten says because LEDs use comparatively little power, they can go where traditional lighting can’t go—and be powered by unobtrusive battery packs. And they’re great for putting behind translucent fabrics, because they create a consistent glow without any hot spots. They’ve become a favorite at corporate product launches, sporting events and hotels.

“Just like they do on the architectural side, where they use it as cove lighting, we can line the perimeter of a structure and really reflect across the perimeter so you get a glow or a halo effect,” says Weingarten. “That technology is really booming. I saw that in Europe and I couldn’t believe how much it was being used.”

Theatrical clients tend to use LEDs front and center. Duckett says solid-surface LED walls are hugely popular as backdrops and can be programmed to display video content, but clients are gravitating toward LED-embedded fabrics, which have the additional advantage of being able to be folded and packed instead of stacked on dollies. Some clients use them to augment LED walls, while others use them in lieu of them. Other LED-enhanced fabrics are used as curtains and draping to produce a “starry night” or twinkling effect.

LEDs have been heating up for a couple of years already, but Weingarten says the newest light-related trend is projection. “It’s the advent of 2-D and 3-D projection or video-mapping technology, which is basically computer software-driven, where a projector can be instructed to just project on a specific shape of an image,” he explains. “It first started when they were projecting on the outside of buildings. Now you can take a three-dimensional shape and just project video on that shape or that structure, and nothing else to the left or the right, above or below, will get that image. There’s no bleed of the image past that specific structure.”

The technology has been around for a couple of years, but at first it was so expensive that only a few very large organizations were able to make use of it. Now it’s coming within reach of event clients, stage clients and other theatrically-inclined customers. The mainstreaming of 3-D projection and video-mapping has meant a surge in the usage of opaque fabrics—especially stretchable ones—to make fabric shapes on which the machines can project. And it doesn’t really matter what the fabrics are made of, as long as they have projection-screen opacity.

“A couple of years ago, the price would start off at—just for an event—$20,000 or $30,000,” says Weingarten. “As more and more people got into it, it got down into the $5,000 or $6,000 range. Now that everybody has moved into it, it’s probably going to be just a couple thousand. It’s not the software [that costs so much]; it’s the projectors.”

The next big projection trend on the horizon, he says, may be 3-D holographic projection, which, again, is heavily dependent on the projection screen. It’s done on a specialty holographic film—more of a plastic than a true fabric. “It’s evolving slowly because I think it’s technology trying to find an application,” he says. “But we’re seeing people using it, and we are working on the substrate to make it big enough.”

The great repurposing

Large outdoor events are among the most conservative entertainment industry consumers of textiles, because they have special environmental constraints. And weather can be a factor. “The last Super Bowl was a very hard one for everybody because the wide-format printing material [used in many of the structures] just didn’t hold up for the weather,” says Greenwood. “It was breaking up because the materials for digital prints are not designed for -22 degrees. And that wind chill was horrible.”

As a result, Greenwood says he uses tons of vinyl for structures and projection screens and a whole lot of 73 percent black mesh for logo speaker panels, scrims and backdrops. “A lot of people still want the black stuff on the stage,” he says. “And the great majority of it is just mesh.”

But there’s no reason for other segments of the entertainment industry to prefer traditional industrial fabrics over newer ones, says Duckett. She says the days of strict categorization are over. Fabric sellers might divide materials into upholstery fabrics, architectural fabrics, fashion fabrics, and safety and protective fabrics, for example, but EPMs are saying, “Show us what you make and we’re going to see how we can use it differently.”

Of particular interest are fabrics manufactured for digital printing. “We’re seeing a crossover,” Duckett says. “A lot of what I’ll call print-friendly textiles—textiles that were in the past only seen in the sign and banner marketplace and were designed specifically for wide-format digital printing and wide-format mural printing—we’re actually seeing some of those fabrics step into the drapery and backdrop marketplace without the printing on them. We’re now looking to some of these unique microfibers and poly-fiber materials to actually be a drapery substrate that doesn’t need printing on it.”

What’s the appeal of digital printing fabric without the printing? Width, mostly. Many print substrates are being milled at 120 inches wide, while traditional substrates are milled at 54 to 60 inches wide. That means half as many seams, which translates into a more seamless drapery option. Especially with lighting designers shining lights from so many angles, visible seams are unwelcome.

That doesn’t mean Duckett and her colleagues never print on wide-format printing fabrics, though. “We have the opportunity to print, maybe, a minimal design on there,” she says. “We have the ability to tone it with a slight color opacity to match it to a client’s wall paint or carpet color or already-installed upholstery in their theater. So we can use it as a white substrate or we can use it as a printed substrate. We don’t have to print design on it; we can just print solid color. So it does open up new options.

“These wide goods are being made both in the U.S. and internationally, and they’re being made to very high flammability standards. It’s exciting for us because it’s opening up more options that meet the FR or flame-resistance requirements that are imposed on the textiles that are in a public space.”

In general, entertainment-industry fabricators are extremely practical when it comes to fabric choice. They don’t care if a textile was intended for sails or draping construction sites. What they want to know is, will it work and will it look fantastic?

“We’re always looking for wrinkle-resistant, always looking for the best in flammability resistance or flame retardancy,” says Duckett. “We’re always looking for the widest materials possible so that we can minimize the seaming, which creates a better looking product. We just want what looks best.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer based in Woodville, Ga. Turn to page 78 for contact information on sources used in this article.

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