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In this article, Duke DeJong talks about various stage fabrics and soft goods available to stage designers. What’s the right material for the job and how do you make sure you use them safely?
Let’s start off by saying this: fabric we use in stage design isn’t a curtain, drapery or even giant bed sheets. We aren’t seamstresses. We are lighting and stage designers. And we can use fabric or soft goods to great engaging environments. But the question remains: where does one start with fabric?
Using Fire Retardant Fabric
First of all, fabric must be rated fire retardant and you should always ask for and keep the Certificate of Flame Resistance on hand for your Fire Marshal. If you do not have this documentation, your Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) can and likely will make you take it down. Theatrical fabric is typically listed as NFR (Not Fire Retardant), IFR (Inherently Fire Retardant) or FR (Fire Retardant). IFR is naturally retardant so it’s also washable. FR material is treated and needs to be retreated after washing or after so much time (based on retardant specification). Non-treated NFR fabric should not be used in stage design in public spaces.
Next, let’s look at the types of fabric and soft goods you can use for stage design.
If you are looking for a curtain-like backdrop to mask off the back wall or side entrances, most often we’ll use a black velour fabric—either synthetic or cotton. The advantage of a synthetic velour fabric is they tend to be (IFR). My general preference for masking curtain material is Da Vinci Velvet Plus, which is available in a variety of colors and is in fact available in a lighter weight too. Keep in mind, the heavier the fabric, the more light it blocks and acoustical absorption benefits you get from it.
General Cyc Fabric
The standard fabric of choice for general backdrop or cyclorama lighting has been Muslin. Muslin comes in all sizes, color and variations. But with it’s woven cotton texture, it’s the fabric of choice for general theatrical uses. And not only does Muslin work for general-purpose fabric, it’s also paintable for fabric backdrops as well.
Scrim has more of an open weave texture to it, making it more transparent than typical fabric. This is ideal for a bleed-through effect. Some theaters will actually place scenes behind a scrim, as when you light the front of a scrim you don’t see through it. But turn that light off and then light what is behind the scrim and you can see through it. Scrim is available in a variety of styles and colors.
If you’re looking to create shapes, or perhaps even a projection surface, tension fabrics are ideal. While most of us think specifically of Spandex, there are many types of fabric that stretch and can meet these needs. Trapeze Plus and Poly Stretch are excellent alternatives to Spandex—Trapeze Plus providing an IFR option and Poly Stretch being much more cost effective. As with all things, not all fabric is created equal. While Poly Stretch is more cost effective, it will not bounce back to its original shape as well as Spandex will. Once you stretch it for a while, it will retain some of that stretch for the life of the fabric.
Sometimes you need something that still looks like fabric but has more sheen or reflectivity to it, which is where a fabric like Poly Sheen can work great. Need something with more of a metallic feel? Fabrics like Metal Sheen, Metal Boucle II or Tissue Lahm could do the trick. If a more translucent look is what you’re after, Voile will do the trick.
Whatever look or texture you’re after, there is a fabric for you. Most theatrical supply houses are willing to send out fabric swatches, so plan ahead and get samples in your hands to see before you order. And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to call theatrical fabric companies and explain what you’re after. Odds are, they’ve done it before and can help guide you in the right direction.
Duke is passionate about equipping the next generation of ministry leaders, especially those serving churches with technology. He serves as Church Relations Director for CCI Solutions, a design build technology solutions provider. Follow Duke on Twitter: @dukedejong