By Melissa Donovan
As we venture outside of our homes once again it is no surprise that soft signage is all over—whether directional in nature, sharing important health and safety messaging, or used for marketing purposes. Soft signage is favored for aesthetic as well as practical reasons. It is associated with silicone edge graphic (SEG) frames, banner stands, tents, flags, and tablecloths.
“Cotton and polyester present advantages over vinyl media in many applications. Notably fabrics/textiles are recyclable, light weight, highly flexible, easy to handle, and non-reflective. Today with newer print technologies everything from gaming felt to sails or spandex can be digitally printed. Fabrics can be run on demand,” says Taniya Goyal, marketing manager, PFS, GBC North America.
Conveying an elegance in addition to exuding comfort, digitally printed textiles can be used in aluminum frames and banner stands, as well as hung from a ceiling or draped over a fixture. The fabrics used are optimized for digital printing so they excel wherever they are placed.
Above: Que Media has a weaving and warping facility that can produce woven textiles up to 3.2 meters wide.
Changes and Advancements
In the last five to ten years soft signage has continued to grow in overall usage as well as material demand. However, the COVID-19 pandemic played a pivotal role in the last year and a half.
“In North America, we are seeing a large growth in demand for soft signage. This can be attributed to a few different factors—the increase in the availability and improved capability of dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printers and equipment as well as a focus on sustainability and using PVC-free materials and also ease of installation,” explains Kylie Schleicher, product manager, Ultraflex Systems, Inc.
Goyal believes the popularity increase is due to the acceptance of textiles in the market. “Since textiles are eco-friendlier than PVC banners they get a lot of corporate sustainability requirements therefore leading to higher demand. They are used in almost every application a sign shop can think of today. Manufacturing flexibility associated with soft signage produces a multitude of warps, serfs, and weight to the meet the most demanding environmental stresses.”
Ralph Terramagra, Northeast sales and business development, Fisher Textiles, says the biggest jump in soft signage would have to be the use of SEG frames, both front and backlit. “For many reasons this has replaced older signage methods, including ease of use, better look and feel, and easier and less expensive to ship.”
COVID-19 had a large effect on soft signage and the markets that utilize it regularly—think trade shows, event arenas, and transportation centers. “The majority of soft signage is used for trade shows, events, theater, retail signage, airports, backdrops, and even red carpet events, which have been closed for approximately a year. The industry is hopeful that these events will begin to reopen and the fabric printers will be able to produce stunning graphics again,” shares Schleicher.
“I believe the impact has only begun to be felt. Shipping from overseas has become a nightmare causing more companies to look for domestic solutions and most importantly we need the return of live events and trade shows for our business to hopefully return to normal,” admits Terramagra.
With PVC production gradually becoming more expensive textiles are heavily favored, according to Brian Ford, wide format and digital sales, Que Media. “This is because of importing costs and/or raw material cost increases, along with the chemicals needed to produce PVC base material.”
On the positive side, COVID-19 has pushed development and fruition of antimicrobial fabrics at a feverish pace. “Antimicrobial fabrics are a trend to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for these fabrics are to ensure the end user that the material cannot grow bacteria or certain viruses,” notes Schleicher. For example, Ultraflex VorTex Grand Display D223 is an antimicrobial option, ideal for roll-up and pop-up displays.
Terramagra agrees that antimicrobial coatings are requested more frequently, so fabrics with these treatments is a massive trend. Fisher Textiles offers the HeiQ V-Block treated line of antimicrobial fabrics with material for SEG frames, flags, and tablecloths.
“Antimicrobial textiles have been developed for the textile graphic market. It is believed antimicrobial graphics in textiles and traditional graphics will play a larger part in the new beware-the-pandemic era,” adds Goyal.
The types of fabric optimized for digital print is growing. Characteristics to look for include ink, hand, and durability. Some of the newest materials designed for signage-type applications include BPET and cotton polyester blends.
In general, fabrics engineered for soft signage applications, “means everything from the construction, either the weave of the knit of the material to the printability options to hand are taken into account during development. Each print technology requires different coating requirements and can affect the hand of the product as well as the vibrance of the colors,” suggests Schleicher.
Some of the newest fabric materials are BPET and cotton polyester blends. “BPET is basically PET molecules manufactured using organic matter such as wood, corn, soy bean, and other organisms. Compounds that safely reenter the environment at the end of their useful life span. It is preferred because of their durability and can be used outdoors or indoor for banners, SEG frames, and flags,” explains Goyal.
Application-specific textiles that are gaining attention include blockout and backlit. “Blockout fabrics traditionally have a black backside, but we discovered most end users cover the black with a white blank for aesthetic purposes. Why not have the same technology and effect with a white back?” asks Schleicher. Ultraflex offers VorTex Glacier D365, which features a white backside and is ideal for trade show and hanging banners.
For blockout fabrics designed for digital decoration, Schleicher says it is important that “by making the product block out light, the white point of the material does not shift from a bright white to a gray. It is also important for dye-sub that the white backside does not react negatively with heat, especially when the material goes through the calendar.”
Backlit materials are also popular. Fisher Textiles’ newest is GF 33 Prime Backlit—DD 3300 Prime Backlit for direct print—that features excellent printability and stretch. “It has just a little bit of stretch, wrinkle resistance, and produces a great backlit print with no pin holes or hot spots,” notes Terramagra.
Another trend is “faux canvases” or décor woven polyesyers, stemming from demand from the décor art market. One these products is Que Media’s OMNI500 fabric. “There are many advantages to having a heavy woven faux canvas in your print shop.OMNI500 still has the fine art canvas weave pattern, but without the inconsistencies and shrinking of cotton. All while still priced aggressively enough to contend with many indoor banner PVC signage options,” explains Ford.
Coatings are an important part of the digitally printed fabric equation. Fabric used for soft signage should be coated if it is printed with dye-sub direct or another direct printing technology, this helps the ink absorb better and minimizes bleed. Beyond print method, applications and final end use dictate whether a coating is required.
“A coating, whether applied to the fiber or the produced textile holds a tight ink dot for best image quality. An untreated fabric disperses the ink dot or won’t hold it in place. Thus, the image quality is compromised,” explains Goyal.
Popular coatings are universal inkjet coated textiles that are designed to receive solvent, eco-solvent, latex, and UV inks. GBC offers SEAL VersaFabric, designed for all four of these ink sets. It provides sharp image reproduction and brilliant color finish, says Goyal.
According to Schleicher, the importance of coatings depends on how you plan to print the fabric. “Coatings are best for printing latex and solvent/eco-solvent. For dye-sub transfer, no coatings are needed and this gives the products a softer hand.”
“A good direct print coating is important for the fabric to hold the ink as it is printed and not allow it to bleed. This will give you a sharper, higher quality print with better color,” adds Terramagra.
Application-specific, Schleicher notes that coatings are important for outdoor fabrics such as pop-up tents as they can help repel water.
Terramagra refers to this as durable water resistant, or DWR. While important for applications like tents that need to be waterproof, he says it is also used in applications where liquids might be spilt on like gaming tables or tablecloths.
Fabric choices for soft signage applications are broad—since soft signage in and of itself encompasses so many different applications. That being said, the wide range of applications is reflective on just how versatile fabric is. One type might be used outdoors and coated to resist water whereas another will be used in a medical facility as a screen or barrier and coated with antimicrobial features.
While COVID-19 presented many challenges to this segment of the print market, as trade shows and events pick back up the more traditional uses of soft signage will be seen. However, newer applications like outdoor pop-up tents for curbside pick up and SEG frames as dividers will also continue in some capacity, further proving the versatility of soft signage.
Jul2021, Digital Output