An insider's look at creating soccer art and atmosphere

A member of the Chicago Fire's Section 8 explains how preparing tifo is a labor of love -- with a lot of emphasis on the labor -- but getting involved is just a matter of showing up.

If you've ever been to a Chicago Fire home game, chances are you've seen one of the overhead banners appearing either right before kickoff (you did get inside before kickoff, right?) or after we've scored a goal.  You might have wondered: where do they come from?  Who makes these?  How are they made?  It might surprise you that with the exception of the huge megabanderas you might have seen  unveiled in 2006, 2012, and most recently, on June 7th of this year, all of these are a DIY projects done by the supporters themselves.  It might look like it would be a daunting task to make, but in fact, it's not hard at all to make an overhead banner once you break it down into small steps.

Today, I'm going to take you through those steps of how these overhead banners are made.

What does it take to make an overhead banner? It takes:

  • An idea
  • Fabric
  • Pencils, pens/markers
  • A projector
  • Paint
  • Paint brushes and/or rollers
  • Tarps or plastic sheeting
  • A space to do the work
  • Time
  • Bodies to help

Choosing an image

When coming up with an idea, the door is wide open as far what you ultimately want to make.  Usually, an overhead draws on imagery tied to the Club, the City and its municipal history.  Here is a one example:

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If you are good with graphic design software, you can make whatever images you imagination comes up with.

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For this article, I'll show you how I made the "Strazacy" fire truck image that is also see on one of the big flags flown in the section.  Since this was my first DIY overhead and I don't have any good graphics software, I ended up taking a photo of the sticker and using that for my tracing image.

Size and budget

Once you have your design, the next step is to figure out how big of an overhead to make and how much it will cost.

For my purposes, I wanted to make an over head that could fit in one section of Toyota Park and be big enough to be seen at a distance.  I also had to consider that I don't have access to an open space that can accommodate making the larger overhead banners.  I would end up making this roughly 26'x26'.

Now that we have the size in mind, the next step is deciding on which material to use.  For this banner, we'll use a fabric called broadcloth, which is a thin, lightweight material (similar to a bed sheet.)

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We can use a heavier material than broadcloth to produce an overhead with extra durability; however, that would translate to more cost, weight, and overall storage bulk.  The particular broadcloth we want to use is a 65% polyester/35% cotton blend.  The rule of thumb is that cotton absorbs paint and polyester will hold paint (on the surface.)  By using this particular blend, you have the advantage of only needing to paint over a spot once, and the paint will be less likely to crack and flake off over time.

The next step is where math skills will be put to use.  We are going to calculate how much material we need to buy.

Since I am not the most mathematically gifted person, one thing I consider regarding the overall dimensions of the overhead is if the dimensions will make calculating easier.  For example:  this overhead, we are going to need 7 lengths of material, each 8.75 yards long.  (8.75 yards = 315" = 26.25')  Since the material is 45" wide, 45"+45"+45"+45"+45"+45"+45"=315" high.  This works out to 7 lengths of material, each 8.75 yards long, for a total of 61.25 yards (but we'll round it up to 62 yards to keep it simple and be on the safe side.)

Did I lose you?  Hope not.

Purchasing:  You can buy the fabric anywhere you can find it, either online or locally at Joanne Fabrics.  Joanne usually has good stock, plus they have 40% and 50% off virtually all the time.  They are usually my go-to.

Measuring and cutting

Once you've bought the material, the next step is to measure and cut.  For this, you'll need a tape measure, some tape, (you can use a pencil, marker, etc, but tape leaves no permanent marks,) an open space, and your material.  I measured out 26.25' on the floor using removable painters tape, unraveled the fabric and marked out 26.25' lengths, then cut.  I repeated this process until I had the seven lengths needed.

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If you don't have the room, you can always measure out the material by hand, especially if you are in a pinch.  It's slower and the accuracy of measurement gets compromised, but if you're really pinched for time/space, you can do it.

The next step is sewing.

Sewing

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For sewing, take two pieces, pull them all the way out, then take the seam of each piece, put them together, and line them up the full length.  Sew the two sections together along this seam.  Repeat.  The next step is to sew together these two-piece sections together into a four-piece section.  Repeat, scaling up the size of pieces being sewn together until the full banner is completed.

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After sewing comes the slow, deliberate process of tracing.

Tracing

(Unfortunately, this is the best tracing photo we had! At least you get the idea.)

For the tracing, you will need an overhead projector, tape, marking utensils, and help.  In this instance, I used a projector that you can hook up to a computer, so as to display the image on a wall, where the material is hung and the image can be traced directly on to the fabric.  I ended up doing tracing in 6-foot horizontal sections at a time.  It took another person to help line up and tape the banner to the wall for each step, but they also helped trace, which made the process go much faster.  When tracing, you can use a pencil so the markings don't show up in case you make a mistake, but if you're comfortable, you can use a pen or sharpie.

Painting

Before we proceed, there is a rule that I want to make you aware of that can make life a little easier, and that is the "100ft rule."  The 100ft-rule is that if no one would be able to see something from 100ft away, don't worry about it. Example:  you're painting and you drip a drop of blue paint where there should be only the white of the fabric; a line in a letter that is not perfectly straight; the curve of whatever element is not perfectly round.  Most of the stadium (and the players on the field) are more than 100 feet away when they see the overhead, (plus it'll likely have hands underneath it moving around,) therefore, if you if you don't/can't fix it, you can let it slide and no one will be the wiser.  If you are a perfectionist or just demand excellence in everything, disregard the rule.

When you get down to the painting (which is my favorite part of making tifo), it is worth it to buy the best tools you can afford, especially if you are going to be using them for multiple projects.  This means brushes, rollers, roller/brush cleaners.  The better the brush you use, the smoother the paint distribution when you apply the paint, and the better control you will have at making smooth lines, both straight and rounded.  For rollers, I've found that foam rollers are much less likely to "spit" specks of paint during application and they are also easier to clean than the rollers you'd normally use to paint your walls (that have a nap on them.)  The paint itself doesn't have to be fancy at all.  You can use the cheap paint sold at a big-box retailer, so long as it is an outdoor latex, because that is formulated to better stand up to elements of moisture, heat and cold than indoor latex, even though it costs just a little more.

I prefer using the rollers to paint large solid sections that aren't high in detail, which are in this case, the rays and large sections of blue and red in the fire truck and text banner, and paint brushes for the narrow and detailed spots. Rollers make the work go quicker.

Before we get down to the actual painting, we need to either lay down tarps or film before laying the fabric down, because the paint WILL soak through and if you do not have anything underneath, you'll end up painting whatever surface your overhead is on.  Trust me on this.

When you finish with your painting for the day, let it sit until it is dry to the touch.  Humidity, air flow, and temperature will affect the time that it takes.  If you have fans, by all means use them.  Once the paint is dry, separate from the underlying material and either move on to the next step of painting or fold up your completed banner.  Tip: if you paint outside, don't let the overhead sit overnight.  Condensation will accumulate, causing the paint to bleed along the edges and make the drying take even longer.  Trust me on this one, too.

Laying down material:

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We start with the outline:

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Then fill it in:

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Add the text section:

Proceed into small-detail touch-ups and the rays:

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And finish with the final product:

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Trimming

Trim edges as needed to make them uniform (which I did not capture on photo.)

Deploy!

Finally, deploy:

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If you have ideas or want to get some hands-on experience, you can hit up/follow @S8COperations, which will announce when and where events will be happening and can get you in touch with the people that can help make your idea come to life.

On to the next one...

(All photos and words by Brian Cost - huge thank-you to Brian for not only making excellent tifo, but sharing his thoughts on how others could do so!)

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