Choosing the Right Fabric for Reusable Display Graphics

RIP, Van, Wrinkle

A lot of time and effort goes into creating an attractive trade show or retail environment, and your clients have high expectations when they open the shipping containers and pull out the materials they ordered. The graphics have to be light weight, easy to set up and visually appealing. They need to look beautiful for a few days or weeks, then fit neatly into compact, portable containers to be stored or shipped to the next location, where they will be set up and expected to look beautiful again. One crease can significantly decrease the impact of the entire display.

Unlike the story of Rip Van Winkle, who fell into an enchanted sleep for 20 years and woke up old and wrinkled, you want the graphics you RIP and print to travel by van or truck and arrive at the other end fresh and smooth. Depending on the application, there are many options available in fabrics and printing methods that are designed to accomplish this feat. Whether you are printing in-house or ordering wholesale digital prints, knowing the right materials to use will help you and your clients put on a great show without a snag.

Dye sublimation is the most durable print method available because the ink is converted to a gas and infused into the fabric, making it permanent. It works only with uncoated polyester materials, but if done correctly, it produces the highest-resolution images, the most-saturated color, and the softest-feeling result.

Since the image is embedded into the fibers, the fabric is washable and impossible to scratch or chip. Depending on the fabric, it can be stretched onto a frame, shaped and curved, back lit, or even worn as part of a garment. Dye sub fabric is usually light weight and very flexible, and can be easily rolled and packed for shipping or storage.

These walls and structures, including headers & rotunda pillars, are created by Moss with fabric graphics stretched on lightweight frames. Visual Impulse booth at Globalshop.

Dye sublimation printing requires specialized equipment that many sign shops do not have, but you can still offer this option to your clients by working with a partner such as Moss, Inc., a provider of tension fabric structures, display hardware and large-format printing for the exhibits, event, retail, and sports industries. They offer a comprehensive line of portable walls, towers, hanging shapes, and more to add depth and drama to any event environment. Unprinted shapes can be accented with lighting or customized with Photo Fabric printed graphics by purchasing a fabric cover and renting a frame.

For those shops with dye-sub printing capabilities, most suppliers offer a wide range of compatible fabrics for any application. Ultraflex recommends using their poplin products, composed of knitted polyester, which has a soft hand and wrinkle resistant characteristics. They can be rolled and folded for shipping, and with a little tension, stretched onto the display frame without a wrinkle.

Fisher Textiles has several wrinkle-resistant fabrics made to withstand storage and multiple uses. GF 9049 EZ Stretch is totally wrinkle free and has stretch in both directions. Typically used for geometric shapes and photographic backdrops, this heavyweight stretch fabric gives a decent amount of opacity and great definition on all colors. Commonly referred to as Celtic Cloth, GF 4417 Soft Knit is a wrinkle resistant fabric that presents a very high-quality print. Applications include banners, trade show exhibit graphics and photographic backdrops. GF 4480 Heavy Knit is one of their most popular fabrics and is wrinkle resistant and moderately opaque. It is primarily used for trade show exhibit graphics.

GF 4607 Power Stretch is a warp knit fabric that is 94 percent polyester and 6 percent Lycra. This fabric features equal stretch in both directions and offers excellent wrinkle-resistant characteristics. GF 8874 Tri Poplin is a three layered woven fabric that is very wrinkle resistant. Because of its tightly woven yarns, it is an excellent light box fabric. Fisher’s own trade show exhibit graphics are made with this fabric. All of their dye-sub fabrics have been prepared for print and heat setting at extremely high temperatures and dwell time to prevent shrinkage.

Another option for reusable graphics is Photo Tex, a repositionable, adhesive- backed polyester fabric material. Photo Tex can be installed on virtually any reasonable surface and will not peel, rip or wrinkle indoors or outdoors. Photo Tex can be moved and re-applied over and over again, and the patented adhesive will not weaken or strengthen over time, or leave a residue when it is removed. It can be applied to a flexible material such as styrene or polycarbonate to make panels that can be rolled for shipping and unrolled for display at a trade show or retail environments. It is excellent for use in wall murals, and because the adhesive will not stick to itself, it is so easy to handle and apply that a novice can do it. Your installation crew will love it.

Photo Tex also offers an Opaque Blockout version and some with a 50 percent stronger adhesive for special needs. It is compatible with all sorts of inks, including dye-sub, though some printers have reported dye-sub issues due to the high heat required for transfer. Photo Tex always recommends testing by requesting a free sample roll.

Two wrinkle-resistant fabrics make up the Fisher Textiles trade show booth. GF 9049 EZ Stretch forms the wall of the circular office area and GF 8874 Tri Poplin was used to create the columns.

Each ink type has its pros and cons, but whatever fabric or print method you use, there are some guidelines to follow if you want to keep your graphics looking crisp and clean. Moss recommends handling the fabrics with white gloves and a drop cloth, making sure that everything is completely dry before packing, folding along seams and then rolling around a core and packing in the same bags and containers that they came in. Store and ship in a cool, dry environment protected from crushing or compacting. If you have to clean dye-sub printed fabric, check before you put it in a washing machine, and allow to air dry. Fabrics are wrinkle-resistant but may be ironed using the permanent press setting with un-waxed, un-printed paper between the iron and the fabric. Lint or dust may be removed with a static wipe or a vacuum with an upholstery attachment. 

For outdoor or longer-term uses, solvent-based inks have the ability to dissolve, suspend or extract other materials without causing a chemical change to the material or solvent, which makes the colors more durable and stable. Most Ultraflex fabrics can be printed with solvent, UV and Latex inks, while some are for UV, Latex or dye-sub only.

Fisher Textiles offers flag, tent, fencing, street banner and awning materials for outdoor use. Their solvent and eco solvent fabrics have been specially coated to allow for direct printing onto the fabric. The coating also helps make colors more vibrant by reflecting light back toward the viewer rather than allowing it to absorb into the fibers.

Limited color gamut and lack of saturation are the biggest drawbacks to printing onto textiles with solvent inks, according to fabric distributor Milano Digital, a manufacturer and distributor of large-format printer supplies including paper, banner fabric, vinyl films, digital inks and ink cartridges for wide-format water based and solvent-based inkjet printers. All of their fabrics are digitally printable with any ink type except dye-sub, in rolls from 36 inches to 16 feet wide. They claim that UV printing delivers the greatest durability and best image quality of all the other print technologies.

Latex is a close second. Outdoor fabrics have to have vinyl or acrylic added to make it more durable, but of course that changes the look and feel of the material. It also makes the fabric more susceptible to creasing, wrinkling and cracking, so most outdoor fabrics are not suitable for multiple uses. In general, most canvas, cotton and woven products should be avoided when wrinkling during storage or shipping is a concern.

On the positive side, all fabrics are inherently green and biodegradable by nature. Banner vinyl is not technically a fabric, and although it does break down in the landfill, it also releases toxic chemicals into the environment. Eco-friendly materials are almost always less durable and more expensive, but for temporary graphics, this is not so much of an issue.

Moss offers five fabrics with recycled content, plus a biodegradable PVC-coated material. They also have a program in place to recycle scrap fabric, and have kept more than 125,000 lbs. of waste from entering the landfill.

Ultraflex also uses polyester made from 20 percent recycled materials with a water-based coating that is biodegradable. Fisher Textiles offers their Enviro-Tex line consisting of fabrics made from recycled Repreve yarn, which meets FTC guidelines for recycled products. All of the Photo Tex products are biodegradable, non-toxic, and recyclable.

So if you want your display graphics to be fresh, crisp and beautiful time after time, choose a soft knit that is wrinkle resistant and be sure that it is compatible with the printing method that you decide to employ. Dye sublimation has a lot of advantages, but may not be worth an investment in new technology and training. UV, solvent and Latex inks can produce beautiful results on the right fabrics, and you might even be able to go green, too!