Banners and gazebos, flags and marquees – soft signage is everywhere! We take a look at how and why garment decorators should get into this growing market

Soft signage is a go-to option for businesses wanting to promote their brand with big logos and vibrant colours. For garment decorators wanting to move into this area of the market, it’s the perfect opportunity to expand your customer offering, as well as establish on-going business with local companies and retailers – especially those that need seasonal advertising or regularly change their promotional signage.

The term ‘soft signage’ refers to any digitally printed fabric signage, which may include banners, feather flags, gazebos, marquees, wall hangings and coverings, room dividers, backdrops and fabric graphics for modular exhibition stands, as well as free-standing units. Highly visual, soft signage is used as an advertising medium for businesses and brands to help make their brand and campaigns stand out and get noticed. Retail companies, in particular, are increasingly aware of the benefits of using fabric in their window displays and point-of-sale (POS) materials, as it’s lightweight and easy to transport and set up. The popularity of soft signage has also grown due to the environmental benefits of using sustainable fabrics: recyclable and easy to remove, as well as less likely to get damaged, it can help both large retail companies and small business owners to reduce their waste output and improve their eco-credentials.

Easy cross-selling for additional revenue

So, why should a garment decorator be considering soft signage? Put simply, diversification. The ability to offer soft signage opens up a range of possibilities for garment decorators to expand their business and, more importantly, gain additional revenue through new sales opportunities, explains Grant Cooke, product manager at Xpres. “As well as providing the opportunity to enter a growing market, soft signage is a great means for garment decorators to enhance their printing set-up for generating add-on sales, he explains. “For instance, if your business prints uniforms for car dealerships, there is a huge opportunity for you to create flags and banners to serve as additional branding on the forecourt.”

Soft signage offers many such opportunities for cross-selling to existing customers: a café owner who regularly comes to you for custom polo shirts for their staff may also have a requirement for external signage and internal POS; or the annual fun run organiser who puts in a large order for commemorative T-shirts every year probably also needs signage at the start and finish points of the run as well. Event and exhibition organisers who purchase logoed shirts and jackets are also prospective customers for banners and stand graphics, both inside and outside their events. Leisure centres, sports clubs, pubs and small businesses are other potential customers for outdoor feather flags and banners to help them advertise their business. “The options available in soft signage products are really endless, and the opportunity exists to talk to almost anybody about it,” confirms Brett Newman, chief operations manager at Hybrid Services. “Depending on how you choose to define soft signage, it’s highly possible that customers will have some need within this category.”

Similar skill sets and machinery

One of the major attractions of soft signage is that it relies on skills that garment decorators already possess, making it easy to try out something different that could take your business in a completely new direction. “Having an understanding of the process – the temperature, pressure and time that will work for a specific job in the garment industry – means this knowledge can be easily applied to soft signage, as many of the principles are the same,” says Phil McMullin, sales manager for Pro Graphics at Epson UK. “The equipment, while often bigger for soft signage, is often effectively just a ‘scaled up’ version of the kit you’re already familiar with, so in terms of up-skilling to deliver additional services, garment decorators are already likely to be most of the way there,” he adds.

If you already own a wide-format sublimation printer for decorating sportswear or other polyester apparel, it is even easier to move into soft signage as there’s no requirement for further significant financial outlay to get started. For those new to sublimation printing, the major industry suppliers all offer affordable printers and ancillary equipment, allowing for low-cost entry into the sector. In terms of essentials, Grant of Xpres says a sublimation printer along with a calendar of 64” width will suit the most popular soft signage textile width of 1.6m, though decorators will need to have adequate space for loading and unloading wide rolls. “For finishing the printed textile, a fabric cutter (hand-held or digital flat bed) and a sewing machine will be required too,” he adds. 

Phil mentions that your choice of equipment will depend on the size of the soft signage that you’re hoping to offer. “Some garment printers might have a 24” machine, which is only going to produce small-format soft signage, but is certainly a way to start to test the water without needing to invest in a larger heat press.” He suggests that an entry-level, 44” soft signage printer would be able to print on a wide range of fabric signage, as well as garments, but will require the user to obtain a larger heat press or a roll-to-roll calendar.

Getting started

Before jumping straight into the soft signage market, Grant advises that it is often a better idea for garment decorators to outsource orders, to fully understand the demand for soft signage amongst your customer base. Similarly, Phil recommends that the fastest way to get into and test the soft signage market could be to offer what you can using your existing equipment, and then outsource anything that’s too big to handle in-house. “If it becomes apparent over time that there’s a growing demand for large-format jobs then you can look at making an investment in additional kit. Replacing an existing garment decorating machine with something that can also do soft signage is probably the lowest risk approach,” he suggests.

Brett adds that it’s worth considering the downside of failing to offer soft signage printing: if you’re not supplying soft signage then another business either is, or soon will be. Equally, if you give your customer no choice but to go elsewhere for their signage, consider the risk of them then deciding to place all their orders with your competitor who does provide a one-stop shop service.

Phil adds that the most important thing to remember before you venture into the soft signage market is to undertake thorough research first – you need to establish that there is a demand for this type of product amongst your current customer base. “Then, when you do decide to invest in a new machine, think about flexibility and what else it will enable you to offer your customers in terms of large-format printing.” Brett agrees that talking to your customers to see what they want, what you could be offering and how you could assist with their broader print requirements, should start to open some doors. “Don’t be afraid to explore the opportunities. If you need to explore outsourcing, then there are plenty of trade printers who can assist, but depending on your current wide-format kit, you might find you’re well placed to provide new products already.”

Xpres: Epson SC-F9300 Dye Sublimation Printer

Turning to the hardware aspects of soft signage printing, the major players in this market all offer a range of printers that cover the needs of start-up businesses through to large-scale, specialist signage print shops.

Xpres, for example, offers sublimation printers at various price points, and highlights the Mimaki TS1800-300P and the new Epson SC-F9300 as key systems for the market, in conjunction with the Texpres calendar unit.

The new Epson SC-F9300 dye sublimation printer

R A Smart: HP Stitch Sublimation Printers

R A Smart is the exclusive distributor of the new HP Stitch range of dye sublimation printers in the UK and Ireland. “This ground- breaking technology has reinvented how dye sub is produced and, in doing so, HP has created what many are calling the first generation of ‘smart printers’,” says the company. The HP Stitch S300 is capable of printing on both paper transfer and direct to textile, and features a built-in spectrophotometer for consistent colour accuracy. R A Smart says it is the “world’s first” 100% front operating dye sub printer at 160cm wide, saving “up to 50% on space”.

The new HP Stitch S300 dye sublimation printer

The S300 has been developed with productivity and preventative maintenance in mind. “One of the greatest benefits is the ‘up time’ they offer. For example, end-user replaceable print heads can be changed in a matter of minutes and fully aligned automatically, with virtually no operator input required.” S300 users are also able to log on to the HP PrintOS app, which allows them to view the latest status of their system, check the ‘health’ of the printer, install new colour profiles and more. “The HP Stitch Range should be on the horizon for anyone who is looking to get into the dye sublimation market or expand their current operation,” suggests R A Smart.

Epson: SC-F6300 Dye Sublimation Printer

“The choice of printer is critical to ensure consistent print quality, the widest colour gamut and the most vibrant colours [for soft signage printing]. Dye sublimation is the obvious ink technology, and we have a range of solutions,” says Epson. The brand’s entry-level unit, the 44” Surecolor SC-F6300 printer, has an optional take-up system for longer run work. For bigger jobs, the Surecolor SC-F9300 handles up to 64” width rolls, and is said to print at over 100 sqm/ hr. For both machines, all components – printer chassis, print head, ink, paper, firmware and software – are designed and manufactured by the brand.

The Surecolor SC-F6300 dye sublimation printer from Epson

Roland DG: Texart RT-640M Dye Sublimation Printer

Dye sublimation is, without a doubt, the most viable solution for producing soft signage, says Rob Goleniowski, head of sales for UK and Ireland at Roland DG.

The Texart RT-640M is a dual-function dye sublimation printer, which lets users print onto transfer paper or directly to fabric.

“Aside from Roland’s legendary build quality and reliability, being able to use both methods of sublimation printing gives print service providers the flexibility to branch into promotional items, for example,” adds Rob.

The Texart RT-640M dye sublimation printer from Roland DG

Hybrid Services: Mimaki TS55-1800

Hybrid Services advises that garment decorators making use of wide format, roll-to-roll printing technology will most likely be using either a dye sublimation solution or a solvent printer/cutter.

“Both printing solutions offer easy diversification into soft signage, but along distinctly different avenues,” the company points out.

“For example, dye sublimation is a perfect option for printing polyester-based textile light boxes and exhibition graphics.”

Mimaki’s TS55- 1800 printer from Hybrid Services

As Mimaki’s exclusive distributor for the UK and Ireland, Hybrid offers its TS30 dye sub printer, which can print onto transfer paper up to 1.3m wide, as well as the TS55-1800 that prints up to 1.8m. “Solvent inks are ideal for printing onto products such as canvas, mesh and wall coverings, which can deliver beautiful results on interesting substrates that share some of the creative benefits of textile signage,” Hybrid explains. Mimaki’s solvent inks are said to be ideal for display work, offering a “great lightfastness and colour gamut” with an outdoor life that makes them a great option for cafe barriers and event signage. “These two distinct areas both deliver excellent ROI, adding profitability and easy diversification into any print business,” Hybrid concludes.