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Creating Soft Spaces

(November 2010) posted on Mon Nov 08, 2010

Fabric Images Inc. helps awaken the world to dye-sub's possibilities.

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There was a time when all tradeshow booths and exhibits were built of metal and wood, painted wall panels hung with vinyl banners.

That’s changing, thanks in part to some pioneering work in digital dye-sublimation printing undertaken by Fabric Images Inc. ( of Elgin, Illinois.

“There really are no limits to what we can print on fabric today,” says company president Marco Alvarez. “Dye-sub printing is now one of the most cost-sensitive ways to create an environment that’s lightweight and durable, with whatever look you want.”

Fabric Image’s creations are now a fixture in exhibit halls, museums, stores, and stadiums worldwide – wherever people gather. The company has become an international player in the market it helped create, with eight locations worldwide and more than 200 employees. Its 100,000-square-foot headquarters boasts an array of dye-sublimation wide and grand-format printers, capable of printing on material up to 16-feet wide. There’s also a metal-fabrication facility to produce the frames and structures that make fabric printing such a practical solution.

All of this is the realization of Alvarez’ singular vision and determination to combine the advances of digital printing with the versatility of fabric.

Tradeshow specialists
In 1995, when Alvarez joined the company founded by his father-in law Pat Hayes, Fabric Images had six employees and specialized in carpet bags and appliqued banners for the tradeshow industry. “I’d worked at DuPont, where I had seen what was going on with digital printing and inkjets, so I had some idea of the technology out there,” recalls Alvarez.

“At that time, we were cutting and sewing appliques onto fabric, and were limited in what we could do in terms of the color and graphics. Early on, I started looking for some way to print directly on fabric, and take the hand-crafting out of the process.”

He discovered that inkjet required special coatings for colors and graphics to adhere, essentially changing the nature of the fabric. By using heat-transfer dye-sublimation printing, however, prints could be infused into fabric without compromising its feel or flexibility, he found.

“Dye sublimation gave us the opportunity to print on more exotic polyester fabrics with the color gamut we were looking for,” Alvarez says. “Since many of these polyesters are also stretchy material, we could create new environments with printed graphics.”