theatrical display

Riding the Fabric Wave

The digital printing market is going gangbusters and textiles have become one of the fastest-growing segments of that market.

Mark Shaneyfelt, director of sales and marketing for the print media segment of Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc. in Aurora, Illinois, estimates that 75 percent of digital textile printing is going into soft signage like point of sale, retail promotions and trade show graphics.

The biggest driver of growth in the printable fabrics market is that “people like the look and feel, the appearance of a printed fabric vs. traditional vinyl or paper products,” Shaneyfelt says. “When people are talking about establishing and communicating their brand, they are very concerned about the perception. That’s where fabrics provide an advantage over more traditional substrates used for that type of printing.”

The other benefit is that fabrics are lighter, easier and more cost-effective to ship than plastics or other rigid substrates, he adds.

Shaneyfelt estimates that the textile segment of wide-format digital printing is experiencing 30 percent growth year-over-year and will continue to do so over the next several years.

Fabric is more luxurious than plastics or vinyl and the printing process is more eco-friendly because there is very little solvent left in the fabric media business, says Bill Shuford, TexStyles product manager at Beaver Paper & Graphic Media, Inc. in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

Beaver has been in the specialty paper business for 35 years. It added fabrics when it realized that its expertise in dye sublimation would work with textiles as well.

“It was a natural extension of our business,” he says. The company uses two domestic suppliers of woven and knit fabrics and it stocks these fabrics in multiple locations across the U.S.

Beaver focuses specifically on trade show graphics and marketing soft signage, like point-of-purchase, flags and backlit fabrics.

There is tremendous growth opportunities in this market for years to come, Shuford says.

“When you look at the worldwide textile market and recognize that only a small amount is digitally printed, there is going to be tremendous growth over the next few years,” he adds.

Shaneyfelt says the evolution of ink technology and printing equipment has really fueled the growth in the fabric printing market.

“At one time, to print stretchy knit material was very challenging for a lot of printers,” he says. “With today’s technologies and the evolution of different print technology, that is becoming easier for printers to do.”

He points out that he doesn’t just mean large printers but small and mid-size ones as well.

“We are seeing a lot of expansion of equipment being bought out by small to mid-size printers with under $5 million in annual sales,” Shaneyfelt says.

Mike Compton, business development manager for Top Value Fabrics in Carmel, Indiana, agrees that one of the most significant opportunities in the sign industry is in premium fabrics for retail, commercial and trade show displays.

“Increasing numbers of mid-range and high-end retail stores are opting for the look and feel of backlit fabric displayed in a variety of light boxes for in-store signage. The same is true with airports, commercial marketing venues and trade shows. Fabric displays often represent recurring business for print companies and end users due to the need to quickly turn around new signage for seasonal promotions and campaigns,” he says.

Popular fabric displays include banners, backlit displays, flags and environmental graphics, he says. “Canvas banners, murals and backdrops are becoming popular for indoor amusement parks, stadiums and museum graphics due to the vibrant appeal and upscale, textured look,” Compton says.

Mesh is growing in popularity as companies use it for retail banners, short-term outdoor sporting events, festivals and concerts.

So why are fabrics becoming a go-to substrate for printed graphics?

“Soft signage graphics are striking due to their outstanding printability, dimensional art capabilities and intriguing texture,” Compton says. “Stretch frame fabrics offer the capability of wrapping retail and trade show displays offering a unique look and feel when compared to vinyl. Fabric graphics can also represent overall savings as they’re lightweight, saving freight cost and easy to ship and install. Printers who have learned how to create striking graphics with fabric are earning business when customers want a sophisticated look. Textile printing continues to grow as printers educate themselves and their customers on how to differentiate using fabric.”

The biggest drawback to using fabric instead of other substrates is that it is best used for indoor or short-term outdoor uses.

“Fabric is not a viable option for every application,” Compton says. “Also, many buyers assume that fabric will be more expensive than other substrates. The cost of fabric can appear higher than the cost of other substrates when looking simply at cost per square foot. However, when total costs are considered, including shipping, it’s oftentimes apparent that the costs may be equitable.”

There is a high demand for woven and non-woven fabrics that have a bit of stretch in them to wrap around trade show booths or to use in tension frames, says Shaneyfelt. There also is huge demand for backlit printed material where the light can diffuse through the material.

A lot of retailers are going for fabric flags and printed awnings to communicate their brand.

“The ink technologies are getting better. The color reproduction is getting better so you can use fabric in place of traditional plastic or paper and you are not sacrificing color or resolution,” he says.

Aurora Specialty Fabrics doesn’t manufacture fabrics. It buys them on the global market and then preps, finishes and dyes them. It then applies the proper ink receptive coatings on them to optimize print performance on these substrates.

There are some instances where vinyl or other substrates might make more sense, particularly if the sign is being used for something that is only up for a day or two and the customer just wants something quickly and cheaply to communicate their message, Shaneyfelt says.

“If it is something they want to get some time out of and they want it to look good and maintain its appearance over a three- to six-month duration, we see fabric as a dramatic advantage to those types of applications,” he says.