The Evolving World of Fabrics and Soft Goods

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Feature
Sew What?/Rent What? provided Decorative Mylar Rain Curtains for The Romp Show at CSU Long Beach.
Sew What?/Rent What? provided Decorative Mylar Rain Curtains for The Romp Show at CSU Long Beach.

Whether its cutting-edge projection, new weaving techniques—or even moving the fabric itself—designers and manufacturers are finding exciting new ways to use fabric 

The toolbox for soft goods continue to get bigger, and designers seem to never run out of ideas on how to adapt to new technology. It’s up to the suppliers to keep up, and they appear to be doing so.

Increasingly clients are looking at soft good companies not just as suppliers, but partners. “People come to us not just for the need of fabric or drapery but for solutions,” Paul Grider of Dazian Creative Fabric Environments says. “When they need that support or reassurance that their design is feasible, we provide that and show how together we can accomplish it.”

Rose Brand’s Joshua Alemany says that wide-width fabrics continues to trend. “We have been able to continue to push our mills to create ever wider looms.” He adds that one interesting trend is the use of ultra-wide soft goods as high end projections surfaces. In addition to this, their grand format printing—greater than 10-foot-wide printers—has allowed for their customers to develop the equivalent of custom print patterns and even custom color match solids.

Sew What?’s Megan Duckett says while in the last 10 years a lot of designers and theatre artists embraced LED screens and massive iMag video content, she’s actually seeing a shift back to more tradition soft goods included in the mix. “I’m seeing a growing appreciation of a blend, and seeing fabric being integrated into the video environment. Bringing back traditional textile elements changes the audience’s experience in a positive way, and it’s great to see a bit of everything on the stage. That’s what it’s all about, being creative, and that’s great for us.”

Projection plays on fabric set pieces designed and made by Dazian Creative Fabric Environments.
Projection plays on fabric set pieces designed and made by Dazian Creative Fabric Environments.

Projection Technology Continues to Grow 

Grider sees a rich diversity as designers push limits. “Projection technologies and applications continue to grow, and the surfaces/structures we provide fabric for are more unique and complex than in previous years,” Grider says. “We learned quickly that we could not just offer a few fabrics for projection since every job we worked on was completely different from the last.” Fabrics for digital printing rank high in trending textiles this year, and with advancements in digital printing Dazian clients are turning to print as a way to create impactful scenery, branding opportunities, and custom décor, all in a space where LED display once dominated. “Our print media line has doubled in size this year due to this growing trend, a trend we don’t see fading anytime soon as budgets and production lead times shrink.”

While Sharkstooth Scrim is that traditional material used on almost every stage production to create visual effects or to diffuse light, “we’ve worked on quite a few projects this year where the need for a scrim material was necessary but Sharkstooth Scrim’s technical properties was not the right fit. Designers are inspired by the visual effects scrims/meshes offered today and are designing some of the most extraordinary dimensional stages, spaces and elements we’ve ever seen. To effectively deliver the designer’s vision we offer a wide variety of meshes and scrims with varying stretch, opacities and reflective properties.”

Projection screens are becoming more popular and, according to Grider, more imaginative in application and size. “Traditional square and rectangle shaped screens are still common but irregular shaped surfaces and screens that can be incorporated into the design of the show/stage are becoming more popular,” he says. To create these surfaces traditional PVC or vinyl materials are often too expensive and many don’t have the ability to conform like fabric, not to mention the cost savings, options and turnaround time to manufacture that fabric offers.

Rose Contour Curtain in their Domino fabric shows several DMX Winch 10s.
Rose Contour Curtain in their Domino fabric shows several DMX Winch 10s.

Make the Fabric Move

Rose Brand’s Louis Peter confirms that projection continues to evolve. To meet the demand Rose Brand has a Screen Goo Scrim that makes projecting on black scrim brighter and crisper. This is a paintable surface, and is pre-coated 31-foot-wide Flame Retardant Black Sharkstooth Scrim and is available by the yard or as finished goods. “The addition of Screen Goo boosts the gain by up to 50 percent compared to untreated black scrim and allows for see-through lighting effects without losing the front projected image.”

In addition to that, they have two new premium front projection PVC screens that offer reduced glare and reflection. Each comes in up to 94 inches in width for those who want an extra wide seamless PVC surface. “Users often want seamless screens and so just last year we had added a number of front, rear and HD projection screens that are 10-foot wide. These are great for scenery and framed units.” Beyond the Rose Brand Premium PVC line, “we have also formalized our offering of extra-wide fabrics that make phenomenal projection screens. Some of these fabrics offer the widest, seamless screens in our inventory such as our Aglo fabric, which is 16 feet, 4 inches wide and can be used for both front and rear projection.” 

But it’s not just images moving on fabric—sometimes designers want the fabric (and scenery) to move in interesting ways, too. New at Rose Brand is their new line of light-duty scenery automation tools, all controlled via DMX. “By working with manufacturer Wahlberg Motion Design, Rose Brand offers users a way to reduce the cost and time involved with automating the movement of lightweight scenic pieces.” The line includes DMX Winches; the DMX Scenery Rotator; the DMX Track Runner; and the DMX Roll Drum. “The first application that appeals to almost the entire range of Rose Brand is to use the small winches for affordable, reliable drapery rigging, as well as the spot-line rigging solutions that typically need a big investment in time/labor,” adds Alemany. 

Also new at Rose Brand is a “custom jacquard” fabric. This material is a custom dimensional weave where a designer’s pattern can be woven directly into the fabric using two color threads, thus achieving a three color pattern. “I think this is the coolest new product that we’ve brought out over the last few years,’” says Alemany. “This allows for dimension textures with a large repeat to be made or even text, logos and step and repeat messages to be woven into the jacquard. With proper lighting, this is just one of the most amazing new ideas in fabric we’ve ever seen!”

New Materials, Traditional Technique

“I just see a massive shift from cotton goods to polyester goods,” says Sew What’s? Megan Duckett. Reasons include the rising price of cotton combined with the falling number of local U.S. cotton mills, and it’s to the point the amount of work the company is being asked to do with polyester has gone from 80/20 in favor of cotton to 60/40 in favor of polyester. “The advantage is you can easily launder polyester, while cotton can be problematic to clean.” When a cotton soft good product is cleaned, it has to be treated with a flame retardant spray or dip, whereas today most polyester products are inherently flame retardant so you can clean it without that extra expense. “I’ve seen this shift go from every theatre having heavy-weight cotton soft goods to now a majority having 25-ounce polyester velour. It’s also exotic and hangs beautifully.”

While digitally printed drapery has certainly gained popularity in the touring market place, Duckett says that theatres are still inclined to go with hand-painted backdrops. Digital certainly has the advantage of getting to market quickly, but she says that there “are still traditional purchasing and design decisions made in the theatre environment that lean toward what hand painting has to offer.” But she thinks theatre designers might benefit from looking at the work she brings to life for her A-List rock ‘n’ roll clientele. “Any theatre would enjoy and get a thrill from combining rock ‘n’ roll methodology with traditional theatre approaches to set and scenic designs to create something unique. There’s a lot of value in looking what is happening on those concert tours that might inspire theatres to approach their next show a little differently. Take Sharkstooth Scrim – it’s been around in the theatre since the 1800s but has been absorbed by the rock 'n' roll touring marketplace with pretty cool results. Everybody can benefit from looking at what the other camp is doing.”

On the rental side, which is around 20 percent of Sew What?’s business, their recently expanded drapery collection is extremely popular. “Everything has been done in two sizes,” she says, noting they offer products in 30-foot-by-60-foot for arenas, and 23-foot-by-40-foot for theatre. “What designers can do is grab a pre-designed theatrical drapery set that is ready to hang. And they know that when they rent instead of buy, they get to have a completely different look the next time.” She adds that a lot of clients are focused on that big summer tour, “but meanwhile they have a Christmas show for six weeks at the end of the year, and they come to us and ask what we have.”