Tension Fabrics

Tension Fabrics: A Look at Turnkey Tension-Fabric Systems

Fabric has a lot of attractive qualities as a printed medium, and there are a lot of options on the market from which to choose. For instance, fabrics with an inkjet-receptive coating are becoming the material of choice for retractable banner stands, hanging banners, free-floating backdrops, and even adhesive-backed versions for wall and window murals.

Tension fabric tube systems can even be shaped into room-like shapes that make for an interesting and attractive booth. (Image courtesy of Orbus Exhibit & Display Group.)

Fabrics and Frames

In the trade show market, fabrics are increasingly being used as part of the booth frame structure. For this type of application, the preferred print method uses dye-sublimation or direct-to-fabric print technologies because the fabric used for trade show booths must be stretched and tensioned to the structure. Inkjet-coated fabrics tend to be stiffer, and thus more difficult to stretch and tension. Plus, with dye-sub and direct-to-fabric printing the fabrics can be washed repeatedly and thrown in a dryer to fluff them out when they wrinkle.

Tension fabric, as it is called, is stretchable, and can be attached to a structure using either a “pillowcase” method—where the fabric is sewn much like a pillowcase and then stretched over a tube-type system and then zippered into place—or a silicone edge graphics (SEG) type system where the tension fabric is edged with an extruded silicone or PVC and then tucked into a groove around the edge of an extruded aluminum framing system that is typically assembled with screws and fasteners.

“We are doing both transfer dye-sublimation and direct-to-fabric printing with various print equipment including Roland dye-sub printers and D-Gen Teleios Grande direct-printing machines,” says Natalie Whited of Orbus Exhibit & Display Group, Bolingbrook, Ill. “Incorporating both printing processes for fabric allows us to expand our capabilities and helps us dedicate certain machines for custom or commodity projects.

“Our nine fabric printers can print up to 4,300 square feet per hour. The fabrics we print onto are zipper pillowcase for most of our tension fabric solutions, so there is a lot of stretch and give. We have a team of seamsters who custom-fit each graphic to the frame. They make sure that everything is seamed in the right spot for the artwork and the material. Every fabric is a little different and fits a little differently.”

Challenges and Solutions

Using fabric on exhibit structures requires finishing methods that many print shops and sign companies don’t have in-house. And it’s why exhibit structure manufacturers also provide fabric prints with the structures they sell. In fact, exhibit structure manufacturers rarely sell a structure designed for fabric without the print to accompany it.

“We have mainly been a hardware provider, but when we moved into fabrics we found that the print providers in fabric are fewer and farther between,” says Larry Ragland, president of Mark Bric Display Corp. “It’s a two-pronged process. The finishing side is as tricky, if not more so, than the printing side.”

Mark Bric Display recently introduced the ISOframe Fabric System, which uses an SEG system to tension the fabric across the structure. The edge of the fabric tucks into a groove in the ISOframe extrusions, which are then assembled with a patented FASTclamp system that doesn’t require special tools or screws.

Orbus developed a division focused on fabric tension display and exhibit systems called Origin Exhibit Structures that can be configured in different, flowing shapes. (Image courtesy of Orbus Exhibit & Display Group)

The system is also connectable to other Mark Bric ISOframe systems so that you can build a multi-paneled structure with fabric on one wall and rigid graphics on the other, for instance.

“We know from our experience that fabric is taking a big piece of the market because people love the flexibility of printed fabrics. Fabrics have a lot of good features, not the least of which is that they’re lightweight and easier to care for because you can wash them and throw them in the dryer if they get wrinkled.

“We knew we needed to integrate fabric into our displays, and our ISOframe fabric system provides a new foundation that will continue to expand,” says Ragland. “Right now the components we have are only for flat walls, but the size of the display can be easily adjusted by using different extrusion lengths to make any size wall you want. You can create a room, or a standalone fabric version of a floor stand, because we have accessories like twist-on feet that would allow it to stand in the middle of a room.”

North America Display Corp., Beaverton, Ore., prints tension fabric custom graphics that are used on a wide variety of displays, including modular frames, pillow case tube frames, SEG frames, and backlit graphics. William Weber, marketing manager for North America Display Corp., reports that requests for tension fabric displays have been increasing significantly recently.

“The last few months have been extremely busy, and most of that is due to the high demand in our custom tension fabric display. In fact, the majority of our recent production has been for some form of tension fabric display. On average we are receiving very positive feedback on these types of tension fabric prints. Whether at a direct place of business, an off-site high traffic space, or of course at a trade show, they are becoming the go-to form of visual advertising,” says Weber. “Some of our more popular configurations would be our 10-foot modular hybrid display, our wave tube display, and the star fabric pop-up.

“Our 20-foot displays have also seen a significant uptick in popularity, which typically use a combination of two 10-foot displays. They’re easy to set up, offer lots of versatility, and you can combine them with other accessories like custom acrylic header panels that are lit with LEDs, iPad kiosks, and even counters that double as carrying cases; there’s just a lot of flexibility with all the different combinations you can use.”

The “pillow case” style of tension fabric system allows the printed fabric to be pulled over a tubular frame and zippered into place. (Image courtesy of North America Display Corp.)

Lighting the Way

While LED lighting has changed the way the sign industry lights its signs, the convergence of LED lighting and indoor exhibit fabric display structures is just beginning. Exhibit manufacturers are working on new LED systems designed to work in conjunction with their fabric tension systems.

“There is a lot of opportunity with tension fabric to illuminate with LED lighting using strip and bead LED lights,” says Orbus’ Whited. “If you walk a trade show hall these days versus 10 years ago you see a lot more backlit and illuminated displays. Tension fabric lends itself to incorporate LEDs.”

Orbus developed a division focused on fabric tension display and exhibit systems called Origin Exhibit Structures that can be configured in different, flowing shapes for trade shows and other applications. Though the most common application for tension fabric graphics is for trade shows, they’re versatile enough for use in other display environments.

“A lot of graphics providers are looking to provide a total solution, not just for trade shows. If they can dress up someone’s corporate lobby, banquet hall or hotel, it provides a more sophisticated presentation,” says Whited. “Some of the environments where they can be used include universities, step-and-repeat back walls for large events, hanging structures in lobbies and entryways, and banquet rooms. Not everything in the Origin line is specific to a trade show setting.”

Increasing Demand

As alluded to earlier, tension fabric systems represent a fast-growing segment of the market. And this is not a case of the tail wagging the dog, where manufacturers develop products they think will sell; instead, they’re responding to increasing market demand.

“I don’t think we would invest as we have unless we saw that opportunity and movement in the market. Especially over the past few years we’ve seen more of a demand in tension fabric. The end customer is driving that, and our dealer customers are responding to demands in the market. One of the largest growth areas we’ve seen in the past few years has been in the tension fabric arena,” adds Whited. “One of our most popular tension fabric displays is the Hopup display, a portable display similar to a traditional pop-up booth but with a fabric graphic. We’ve seen a transition in the demand in the marketplace from traditional pop-up displays that have fabric or graphic mural panels to the Hopup portable tension fabric display.”