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Sewing and Welding Technology

Soft signage is one area of business that is growing. Harry Mottram takes a look at what keeps this sector together, namely the sewing and welding

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Sewing is the key skill behind many soft signage applications

It’s a stitch up

Walking around the halls at Sign and Digital UK this year at the NEC, it is hard not to note the increasing number of stands promoting soft signage. It is clearly a growth market as when visiting a retail shopping centre, trade show, or major sporting event, it is hard not to notice the vast array of flags, banners, and textiles in promotions and information graphics.

Walking around the halls at Sign and Digital UK this year at the NEC, it is hard not to note the increasing number of stands promoting soft signage

Printing the graphics on a wide-format printer has become a standard piece of the sign-makers’ skills with the advent of so many models available that can print on a wide range of substrates. However, the real skill still lies in how the soft signage graphics are finished. The sewing, welding, fixing, and installing call upon a skilled workforce who can only complete a job by hand.

Sewing is vital in finishing every job, whether it is a banner, flag, or other application

Sewing involves the fastening of various fabrics and man-made materials with the ancient technology of the humble but highly useful needle and thread. Today, banners are fixed to buildings, trade stands, and even football stadiums. But the same essential skills that were used in classical times for battle standards as well as maritime flags and sails to mark the armies of ancient Rome and Egypt thousands of years ago are the same as those used by seamstresses today—albeit with sewing machines.

Welding is confined in the main to fusing the seams and edges of the various types of PVC or polyurethanes and other forms of plastic based textiles, replacing in many cases glue and tape solutions, which do not have the longevity of welding. Sealing and fusing material can be achieved through hot air welding using a heat gun and a hot wedge welder, which uses a heated steel wedge positioned at the seam point providing heat for melting the fabric. High-frequency welding uses an electromagnetic field and pressure to fuse the material while impulse welding employs a method of heating layers to form a welded seam by using pressure against a heated element.

Maritime market

Sewing of course has a much longer history, but despite its apparent simplicity in fact requires a high degree of skill and high-tech machinery. Ian and Melanie Jenkins of Solent Sewing and Welding based in Portsmouth have been manufacturing sewing machines for the signage industry although their initial business was sail making for the maritime market.

Ian says: “Our machines are designed for people who are in the digital print and signage industries, they print banners and signs on a variety of media, usually textiles and PVCs and PE fabrics. And then once they’ve printed them they need a way to hang them. That’s where we come in. So they need to hem them and put eyelets in PVC banners, which you may see hanging in the car parks outside your local supermarket like Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

Or with digital textile printing they usually go into light frames and they will sew an extrusion, which they call a silicon edge onto the print so it can then be clipped into a frame. Our machines do both sewing and welding for banners, so once it is printed it needs a way to hang it so we always come up with a really good solution.”

Ian and Melanie Jenkins are behind the Portsmouth company specialising in industrial sewing machines

Melanie adds: “It is a growth market for us—especially in the digital fabrics. We’ve seen a big rise in that in the last few years. At Sign and Digital this year there’s been a lot of interest in soft signage for banners and flags—and PVC banners have always been very popular and continue to be so. With this new process we are able to hang digital printed fabric banners in light boxes and frames which really brings the graphics to life.

“We manufacture long arm and special sewing machines under the brand name Solent at our factory in Portsmouth, where we specialise in sail making machinery when we started, but now produce long arm machines for the signage industry as well. We are the UK distributor for Miller Weldmaster’s excellent range of heat sealing machines. These are used for signs, banners, inflatables, structures, filters, pools, geo-membranes, life rafts, escape chutes, and many other industries where thermoplastics are used. We are also a UK distributor for Durkopp Adler and Seiko Industrial sewing machines, and European distributor for Sailrite portable sewing machines.”

Ian comments: “We manufacture the machines in Portsmouth where a long time ago we began in the marine industry, when we made special sewing machines for making sails for yachts. But the expertise we obtained led to us moving into other areas like the sign industry. We began working with a company in the United States of America called Miller Weldmaster producing welding machines.

“For banner production we recommend as the fastest banner welding system available is the T300. It’s very versatile and will weld a banner very quickly at around 30m a minute. And for sewing the Texsew Pro is a high speed pucker free machine for sewing digital printed banners and graphics. There’s a three metre conveyor for that machine which makes handling very easy. You don’t need to be specially trained to use these machines, anyone who uses a sewing machine can handle them. We export these machines all over the world—Australia, the United States of America, and Europe. Last week I was in Thailand installing a machine, so we will go anywhere although we use agents for shipping and rigging.”

Flagging it up

Not too many miles away from the Jenkins’ business is the Hampshire Flag Company, which is a trade supplier for all things soft signage. The company explained that it has invested in a number of industrial textile printers, in-house washing plant, Zund cutter, and Brother sewing machines.

An embroidery machine is very much part of the technology of sewing for soft signage

Hampshire Flag Company says it has “focused on removing bottlenecks from its finishing department”. One of the investments was to employ more seamstresses, as the firm believes their skills are invaluable. The seamstresses need to be able to adapt to new types of sewing and change work practices for different projects and products.

They also have a focus on ensuring finishing bottlenecks don’t hold back production as there is no automated system to finish items such as flags. Everything is finished by hand, with the use of industrial sewing machines set up for different applications, such as single stich, walking foot, twin needles, straight stich, and zigzag stitch.

In Wrexham in Wales there is a manufacturer of industrial sewing machines at the premises of a family business called AE Sewing Machines. Rhys Gerrard of the company says: “We cover the whole of the UK and we export worldwide. We produce all of the conveyors and systems involved. For the sewing heads we use high quality Japanese sewing heads which we combine into our own sewing system, which is manufactured in our factory in Wales. We work with any business that uses textiles—garments, lingerie, wide-format printing displays, and printed graphics for flags and banners.”

AE Sewing Machines are based in Wrexham and are a family business

Gerrard comments that sign-makers like the ASA-310TPL machine as it is multi-functional. He continues: “One of the problems today is there is a shortage of experienced sewing machinists because over the generations the experience has been lost to some extent. It’s a growth market as the sign-industry is changing with more applications. Some of the work you see today you might be surprised at, you might not believe some of quality that is possible now.”

Big results

Another company that specialises in soft signage and the technology of sewing and welding is Dominion of Bradford. The company produces everything from feather flags, to free flowing back drops on display fabrics, to exhibition stands, roll out branding on fence scrim, and even tailor-made promotional table cloths.

When it comes to large-format graphics, they mean large. For instance, they have wrapped buildings that are many floors high with what they describe as super-wide—something it manufactures itself and then surveys, fits, and installs the banner. The company says a big growth area is fabrics which are tensioned using an aluminium channel frame as this requires careful sewing of beading around the outside so when it comes under tension, it lays completely flat. Once the textile is laser cut to size, Dominion says there is no alternative to manual hand finishing meaning of course the real skills are with the seamstresses.

Mark Shaneyfelt and Christian Smith of the Aurora Specialty Textiles Group says: “The trend toward textile-based printing is gaining momentum. Based on projected market data, demand for soft signage and other fabric-based printing applications is one of the strongest growth segments in the printing industry. We are currently seeing 30 percent annual year-after-year growth with textile printers.”

O Factoid: The same essential skills that were used to make battle standards and maritime flags and sails in ancient Rome and Egypt thousands of years ago are the same as those used today. O

With technical developments to the substrates, as well as welding and sewing kit, new markets are emerging from school open days to in-store displays. There has been a move away from traditional flat graphics printed mounted onto boards. Textiles are softer and more attractive to the touch and have a natural appeal, while PVC banners are increasingly of a higher quality due to the improved production techniques involved in welding and finishing.

Dominion have worked on a large scale with their graphics using soft signage

As Shaneyfelt comments: “One of the appeals of soft signage is the natural drape of the fabric, which has been used for centuries in design and interiors. Fabric has an overall softer look and feel, and it can be effortlessly draped around curves. Heavier weight materials do not offer this flexibility, and they can also be difficult to handle and ship. Digitally printed soft signage is very lightweight and costs less to ship, plus can be folded or rolled without being damaged. For example, if you are a retailer with 30 store locations, you can easily pack soft signage in a tube or fold it up and place it in a flat box to ship quickly and inexpensively.”

Pegged as a growth market by those at the forefront, expect to see much more development to come in the sewing and welding sector, making all sorts of things possible in soft signage that were not before.


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