Making the Case for Fabrics

Textile and fabric graphics have been around for a very long time. For centuries, armies have flown their colors as they went to war. Royalty has announced their heraldry on flags and pennants. And businesses have used banners and flags to mark their locations (signage) to attract customers for years. Now fast forward to end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st where digital printing techniques come into the picture. Printing on fabrics is becoming more prevalent than ever before.

When my shop got started in 1989 our primary business was screen printing on fabrics. We also hand painted and appliquéd (sewed on) images onto fabrics. Our first images were made with a projector — we’d turn off the lights and draw around the image we use to shoot the screen or for an appliquéd pattern. We moved to a plotter and computers to drive the plotter that cut the ruby or pattern and finally started making our own digital films for screen printing. During the 1990’s we also changed from screen printing with solvent ink systems to screen printing with water-based inks for all our interior projects.
The banner industry started to grow in the 1980’s and continues to this day. Vinyl and paper have been the mainstay banner medias, with fabric banners making up only a small percentage of products. But things are changing. Improvements in digital printing technology — in software, hardware and inks — have really pushed sign and banner companies to change the way they do business.

We got our first digital printers in the 1990’s. Instead of printing onto vinyl we printed onto coated fabrics. More recently we changed our ink systems to dye sublimation inks and now print primarily onto uncoated textiles. When we started the inks weren’t quite there yet for consistent printing using dye sub inks, but when we compared our digital printing directly onto fabrics versus dye sublimation images, the dye sublimation images still produced the better image.

The dye-sub images popped more, had a softer hand, and didn’t fade indoors; and the uncoated medias needed for dye sublimation printing cost much less than coated media needed for direct printing. At one point we moved from inkjet printers to electrostatic toner-based transfer printers, and finally now we are back to piezo head inkjet printers.

So why did we stick with textiles for banners and signage when it was such a small piece of the pie? For the same reasons sign shops should now consider offering fabric graphics now. Here are some obvious reasons and a few not-so-obvious ones:

* Fabric looks like quality. So if your customer wants to use a banner that sets them apart from the crowd choose a fabric banner.
* Fabric banners can be used over and over and still look good, most of the dye sub banners and table covers can be thrown in a washer and dryer.
*Fabric prints don’t give off an odor.
*Fabrics move with even a slight breeze; so they attract more attention.
*They can be folded, put in a suitcase and still look good at a tradeshow or event.
*Fabrics offer more finishing options than do vinyl or paper.
*Fabrics can be ironed in most cases.
* Fabric graphics rarely (if ever) curl.

There are many, many material options with fabrics — from sheers to shiny to dull to oxford to duck, to gaming suedes and everything in between.

If you don’t currently have fabric-printing ability, you can easily outsource the printing and finishing to another shop.

You may be able to use your current equipment to print on fabrics. The company you buy your supplies from and your equipment company should be able to help you decide. You will also need some finishing options if you decide to manufacture in-house which will probably mean outsourcing the sewing.

The most important reason for a sign shop to offer textile printing is that customers are asking for it in all kinds of markets. Point of purchase (POP) banners, museum banners, tradeshow graphics, street banners, school and university events. Many small businesses and trade associations ask for all fabric banners for various applications. And if you can offer a fabric banner or a table cover or runner or tote bag to an existing customer you are adding to your bottom line. You already have a customer base you are working with so you can grow your business by offering new choices to your customers.

How do you get started if you have a sign shop? You can learn from the experts. Companies that are already offering this product can answer questions for you, supply you with samples and you can outsource to them until you’re ready to buy equipment and do it yourself. You can find those companies by reading trade publications (like Digital Graphics), talking to your media suppliers and printer manufacturers, attending tradeshows and talking to your peers.

A few things to keep in mind when considering fabrics:

Fabric is different than what you’ve been offering. It has a soft “hand” which invites customers to reach in and touch. Have two or three samples at your shop to show your customer. Each fabric has its own look and application. Is the banner being hung from dowels, put on a retractable frame, grommeted, hemmed, or heat cut? Talk to your customer to find out their expectations and share this information with the company you’d outsource to.

There are always turnaround time issues. Whether you are outsourcing or doing the job in-house, color proofs need to be done and finishing (cut and sew) may take more time. Your customer may think that printing a fabric banner is like printing a paper one and you need to educate them. You want to supply your customer with a product that meets their expectations.

Color matching is an important issue to discuss with your client. Every fabric reflects light differently. A color that looks great on paper or vinyl may look completely different when printed on a fabric. And the color will look different from fabric to fabric. So, by limiting the choices you offer to your customer you limit potential problems. Naturally, sheer fabrics may need darker PMS colors to give the color you are looking for. A PMS color on a coarse fabric will look different when printed on a tightly woven fabric. If fabrics are stretched that same PMS color will look different again.

As I’ve said, the way a banner is to be hung needs to be taken into account. Knowing this beforehand allows you to produce it so as to allow extra fabric for hems, grommets, Velcro, dowels or other hanging accessories.

An important point to note is that fabric banners need to be “fit” to a frame. The company that is making the banners will need to have the frame in-hand to fit the banner to so that when the banner arrives at final destination, it fits.

Okay, now that your customers are starting to ask for textiles, and you are thinking about diving in and offering them, there is a another issue that looms large — green products!

Our customers have started asking us about green products and green inks for large-format fabric applications. What’s our answer? Well, we now offer dye sub printing with water-based inks on fabrics made from 100 percent recycled soda bottles. Two years ago we only had one choice, now we stock four green fabrics, and can offer many more. We are now a part of a program where you can return your banners made from recycled soda bottles to the supplier who’ll recycle the fabric, send it to a mill where it is recycled again into post-industrial products. Banners and table covers can be repurposed into tote bags.

We have seen our client base increase this year by about 250 customers this year, and they are all buying “green”. Things are changing fast and will change even faster — whether we believe in global warming or not. Our customers, as well as our governments are pushing us to make changes. Look at textiles and going green as a new business opportunity.

* Have fabric samples on hand to show your customers. Offer only a few choices.
* Talk to the experts / accept the recommendations of other textile printing companies.
* Allow time / for color proofs. Quick turns without a proof spell disaster.
* Purchase a dealer sample set for your showroom display. Actual products in your show room can show off what you offer better than a photo in a book. Use your sample for when you exhibit at a trade show.
* Customer supplying the hardware? Be sure you get it in your shop to fit the banner to.
* Green fabrics and dye-sub printing solutions are currently available. The trend toward green printing represents a market opportunity if you embrace it.