Most professional fabric graphic printers understand that there’s more to a project than just printing. Once you print it, you have to finish it and oftentimes, finishing techniques can make the difference between a high- end looking product and something that isn’t compelling enough to compete in the marketplace. Finishing procedures can range from seaming and hemming, to adding pockets and grommets. While the options are numerous, the equipment to perform these tasks is also formidable. Fabric steamers, heat presses, industrial-strength sewing machines, sergers, welders and seamers all contribute to the successful finishing of soft signage and textiles.
In Part 4 of our 5-part dye sublimation series, we provide you with information on the various finishing procedures, the equipment available to achieve the best results and ways to determine if a finishing department can contribute to your business success.
Fabric graphics often require some finishing in order to present well. These famous album cover designs are printed onto fabric that was then stretched over wooden frames.
Q: What are the advantages of investing in a dye sub fabric finishing department?
A: These days, finishing is seen as a necessary part of the dye sub process and a business should consider it seriously if it’s going to get into the game. Adding an internal finishing production area can help retain customers and build loyalty. It alleviates the cost of outsourcing for these services and in the long run, can make a shop owner more money. It also is added value to be able to offer high quality finishing as part of the entire project, saving time as well as the risk of error as multiple people handle the project if it’s not under one roof.
Q: What should digital graphics and sign shops know if they are just starting to explore offering finishing services?
A: Sign shop owners need to understand the equipment requirements for the various finishing techniques, look at the pros and cons of each piece of equipment, research the pricing, labor and training involved and determine what types of applications they want to pursue, whether it’s large or small scale production. Also a shop needs to have enough space to stage graphics for large applications. The application determines if it is sewn or welded. With dye sublimation, sewing is the most common finishing technique. However, both welding and sewing have their benefits.
Q: What type of equipment is used in finishing procedures?
A: Depending on the type of fabric being used, there are required pieces of equipment needed in order to properly finish the printed graphics. Fabrics made of natural fibers, such as silk, wool or cotton, need to be steamed after they are printed. The steaming fuses the dyes to the fabrics. Once that is completed, the finished fabrics need to be washed before final finishing. With dye sublimation printing, polyester fabrics need to be heat set or transferred on a calendar or heat press after printing. Once this is completed, then the final finishing can take place.
Most print shops finish fabric graphics by sewing them. There are a variety of industrial level sewing machines on the market today designed for many different applications. The final application and install location will determine the level of finishing needed for the graphic. For example, if a graphic is going to be mounted in a stretch frame with a silicon bead, then the fabric is usually cut with a hot knife and the silicon bead is sewn into the fabric. This application does not allow the fabric to be hemmed as the hem would make the edge too thick to fit in a stretch frame.
Although more commonly associated with cutting rigid substrates, an X/Y cutter can be very beneficial for high-production needs. Some manufacturers carry special blades that will cut fabric very easily, such as Zünd’s Driven Rotary Tool (DRT).
If a graphic is going to be used in a double-sided application (such as a hanging aisle marker for a tradeshow), then the graphic is usually printed twice, sublimated and has a black fabric (or other blockout layer) sewn in between the two facing graphics so no light passes through the finished product. These require some skill during sewing as you are sewing three layers together. Heavier duty applications such as this may require a double stitch. There are sewing machines that have this capability automatically built-in.
A serger sewing machine is also a valuable tool to have for sewing graphics with a heavy duty stitch that can have some stretch. A serger creates a stitch with two, three or even four threads and can also cut the edge of the fabric automatically to create a finished edge. They are also very helpful for adding strength to a seam. Keep in mind that while a serger can do a wide variety of applications, it will not replace a standard sewing machine for basic seams, such as zippers or top-stitching.
Fabrics can also be welded, similar to how welded vinyl graphics are created. Although this isn’t as popular as sewing, it can leave a very clean edge for those applications where a sewn edge or seam is not desired. It can also create a very strong bond that can be more durable than the fabric itself.
Another aspect of finishing is the cutting of the fabric graphics. Most graphics are trimmed manually with scissors. For high production needs, an X/Y cutter can be very beneficial. Some manufacturers carry special blades that will cut fabric very easily, such as Zünd’s Driven Rotary Tool (DRT). An important thing to note when cutting fabric is that the system is designed to take fabric stretch into account as it registers the cutting geometry with the actual printed graphic. These flatbed cutting tables are very versatile, not only for fabric graphics, but for cutting of all graphics produced in a shop.
The sewing station is an important part of any sign shop that’s serious about tackling dye-sublimation work.
Finally, all shops should have a hot knife for cutting graphics that cannot or may not need to be hemmed. A hot knife basically has a blade that is heated above the melting point of the polyester fabric and sears the edges as it cuts the fabric. This can be particularly useful for woven graphics that tend to fray after being cut with a scissor.
Q: What should you look for when buying sewing equipment for dye sub finishing?
A: It really depends on the needs of the company. A shop that only does a few sewn products a day should consider a low volume solution for their sewing needs. A standard sewing machine and serger in this category can be obtained for under $800. If a PSP is a very high- volume shop, then they should consider an industrial solution for their needs. Equipment in this category can cost from $6,000 on up. There are benefits for these industrial machines as they will last a lot longer in a high production environment and can often have features not available in the lower volume segment.
Both automated and hand-action grommet machines are available. Which is the best choice?
Both pieces of equipment are valuable and again, the choice really comes down to the volume of work in the shop. A high-production facility will more than likely have an automated grommet machine that will automatically punch and grommet the fabric, but a smaller shop with less volume can function just as well with a hand-action, manual grommet machine.
Grommets are not often used with fabric applications, but can come in handy. This tool is commonly used to set grommets into vinyl banners.
Q: How can this equipment increase productivity and profit?
A: Higher-end sewing machines are faster and can increase productivity, but you still need talented sewers to provide damage control and produce the high-end finished product that customers expect. Additionally, by bringing the finishing in-house, a print provider can further control costs, scheduling and manage the entire project to ensure a high level of quality and increase efficiencies.
Q: What are the various finishing options and their applications?
A: Finishing techniques really depend on the final application and need. Here are some common ones:
Pole pocket—mostly used for hanging banners. The poles are inserted in the top and the bottom. Equipment: sewing machine or welder.
Grommets—not often done in fabric, mostly used for vinyl. Equipment: grommeting machine.
Hems—for finished edges, seams and multiple panels. Equipment: sewing machine, welder.
Stretch Frames—sewing of silicon beads that mount to a channel and snap into a frame. Aluvision makes the frames and sells the beads. With stretch fabric you want to avoid ripple or waves. A lot of the same techniques are used on fabric and vinyl in this application. Equipment: sewing machine and the frame.
Q: What are some of the challenges in running a finishing department?
A: One big challenge is finding skilled labor that can sew. Another challenge is having the space to stage large graphics. When bringing in fabric printing (along with large banners in general), it is important to properly plan the space so there is enough room to stage graphics for finishing. In addition, if the final graphics are being used on a stretch frame, it is advisable to stage the frame and attach the graphics to the frame for proper fitment.
Many applications are 3-D in nature so time needs to be spent in creating the graphics and the seams the final image lays properly on the 3-D frame. The stretch of the fabric needs to be taken into account, along with the location of the seams and how it will attach to the frame (Velcro, zippers, silicon beads, etc.)
Fabrics can also be welded, similar to how welded vinyl graphics are created. Although this isn’t as popular as sewing, it can leave a very clean edge.
Q: What are some of the trends in the finishing arena?
A: As far as trends go, it seems that many PSPs are continuing to look for ways to minimize the steps in the production process with equipment that is faster and used for various applications. Shop owners want consistency, reliability and more and more are bringing finishing in-house to cut down on outside sourcing and fulfillment. Many PSPs are looking at ways to finish graphics more efficiently to improve their turnaround time and reduce labor costs. Equipment such as faster sewing machines, automated x/y cutters with fabric attachments and welding units designed for textile are some of the products shops are looking to invest in for future.
To continue to Part 5, Click Here.