Natural fibers have come a long way. During the past several years, these soft, durable and biodegradable fibers have established a positive and highly regarded name for themselves in numerous nonwovens end use markets because of their reputation for being soft, durable, breathable and pure.
These days, traditional natural fibers, including cotton, hemp, flax and jute have been seeing more demand internationally, while other fibers such as hemp and milkweed are starting to emerge into more developed nonwovens areas. Many manufacturers predict that the use of these fibers will grow, as consumers become more aware of their advantages. In the meantime, manufacturers are working on new innovations for all natural fibers.
A Word About Cotton
Just about everyone can recognize cotton as a durable, breathable and soft fiber. Whether it is a cotton ball or hand wipe or favorite cotton T-shirt, cotton is well recognized and widely accepted by consumers. Perhaps no one recognizes the benefits of cotton as well as Cotton Incorporated, a Cary, NC-based non-profit organization dedicated to its advancement. Its report, “Cotton Nonwovens: Innovations & Solutions,” sheds light on how powerful the name cotton has become. In 2000, the U.S. apparel and home fabrics markets purchased the equivalent of 15.1 million bales of cotton, while the global nonwovens market used the equivalent of 14.7 million bales of fibers. From 1996-2000, global consumption of bleached cotton fiber rose 6%, while cotton’s current share of the nonwovens market is 7.8% globally and 2.8% in North America. Most importantly, in major consumer markets of North America, Western Europe and Japan, growth of cotton usage in nonwovens is projected at 3-6% per year for the next few years.
Cotton Incorporated also conducted a survey, included in this special report, to demonstrate the positive association that cotton has with consumers. The study, conducted in six cities across the U.S., tested consumers’ perceptions of fiber content in nonwoven products and how these perceptions affected purchasing preferences. One thousand women ages 18 to 49 took part in a study of four product categories: feminine napkins, tampons, baby wipes and disposable diapers. The women were all shown pictures of well-known brands with and without the Cotton Seal. In each category, the Cotton Seal significantly influenced consumers’ purchasing preference. Moreover, 66% of consumers perceived personal care products with this seal to be of higher quality. Fifty nine percent agreed with the statement, “I expect to pay more for products with the Cotton Seal,” and 57% said they were willing to pay more.
Although cotton in its pure, untouched state is widely used and accepted, cotton can also have special properties applied to it, thereby paving a path for new uses and markets. One of these properties relates to bleaching. Barnhardt Manufacturing Company, Charlotte, NC, produces bleached cotton fibers for carded web products, chemically bonded fabrics and spunlaced and needled fabrics. With approximately 95% of the company’s bleached fibers targeting nonwovens, company executives are well aware of the developing interest of bleached fibers, among nonwoven manufacturers. “With the price of cotton trending down during the past 18 months, we have seen many companies developing an interest in bleached cotton fibers that hadn’t before,” said George Hargrove, vice president of sales and marketing at Barnhardt. “Cotton fibers give nonwoven fabrics unique characteristics that synthetic fibers cannot duplicate. Synthetic fibers are currently being used more in nonwoven fabrics than cotton because of misconceptions regarding the processability of cotton. With improved bleaching techniques and the development of new finished applications, cotton can be processed at speeds similar to synthetics while giving the superior attributes of cotton to the nonwoven. Most consumer data suggests consumers prefer cotton fibers.”
Cotton, when bleached, is also more aesthetic to consumers who appreciate the snow-white quality of bleached cotton. “If a natural fiber is dyed, the colors tend to be softer and pastel colored,” said Rick Rudisill, vice president of staple fiber producer Newco Fiber Company, Charlotte, NC. “If a synthetic fiber is dyed, the color is much shinier and will usually look glare-like.”
Additional advantages of cotton and other natural fibers include superior wet strength as well as a quick dry surface, notably in wipes. Bleached cotton fibers have high levels of absorbency and are soft to the touch, breathable and biodegradable.
Another company grabbing a piece of the bleached cotton fiber market is BBA Nonwovens’ Natural Fibers Group, Simpsonville, SC. All of BBA’s total bleached fiber production output goes into nonwoven products and, of particular notice, is the growth of this company’s bleached cotton fibers into markets around the world. “International and domestic production of bleached cotton have increased during the past year,” said Chuck Allen, technical account manager for BBA’s Natural Fibers Group. “This has also had an effect on price. The international players are making more of a run at the U.S. business than in the past.”
One quickly growing area, especially throughout Europe and Japan, is spunlaced cotton used for cosmetic wipes and other disposable products. “These trends have not moved into the U.S. yet,” said Mr. Allen, who also believes that consumer demands for cotton are well documented, but because nonwovens are not required to list fiber content in products, consumers often don’t know what they are purchasing. “There is an opportunity to increase marketshare by adding the fiber content as being cotton, as consumers prefer to purchase cotton-containing products.”
The medical industry has also been receiving the benefits of cotton’s purity and its ability to be safely disposed of after use. “In these cases, cotton must meet strict specifications set by the U.S. Pharmacopoeia (USP),” Mr. Allen said. “In all other cases where USP specifications are not needed, fiber finishes can be added in any desired level to aid in processing and performance. Some properties added to cotton in the nonwovens industry, include antimicrobial treatments, liquid repellency and improved lubricity. Flame retardancy, improved durability and strength can also be applied to cotton.
Barnhardt has a patented process used for the application of antimicrobial finishes to the cotton fiber. “UltraBlock is a durable, non-leaching application for continued use and can remain durable even throughout the spunlace process,” explained Mr. Hargrove. “Barnhardt’s UltraSorb is another development for applications with an increased wicking rate of moisture superior to typical bleached fibers.”
In other developments, Barnhardt commercialized its Continuous Bleaching Line in April 2001. This process produces bleached cotton fibers for nonwoven webs with a higher standard of finishing applications for enhanced processibility of nonwovens. This new line increased the company’s capacity by approximately 50%, according to Mr. Hargrove.
Although cotton, with all its varying attributes, can tend to dominate the natural fibers market, hemp, jute, flax and milkweed are some other examples of fibers that are used not only in nonwovens, but are also growing in popularity in many different applications. As companies become more familiar with the benefits and uses of these fibers, new innovations for the future are being developed.
Hemp fibers are not as well known as cotton, but they certainly have proven themselves for Hempline, Deleware, Ontario, Canada. Hempline is a large supplier of hemp fiber to the nonwovens industry, primarily supplying hemp as a reinforcing fiber for substrates. Hempline also produces hemp fiber for sound and thermal insulation products and stuffing and molded construction products. With 50% of the company’s sales conducted in the nonwovens industry, Hempline is noticing a rapid increase in demand for its products, especially its reinforcement fibers. “Hemp fiber has found its way into more vehicles in the past year, and, chances are good that many people have a natural nonwoven fiber product in their car and don’t even know it,” said Geofrey Kime, president of Hempline. “Hemp fiber has been found to be very cost-effective, with high strength and can be used as an excellent reinforcement fiber for replacing glass fiber, at a much lower price. The increasing commercial availability of hemp fiber and the demand for low cost, high strength fibers has resulted in new applications for hemp, particularly in automotive and construction products.”
Aside from its high strength, hemp has been recognized for its elasticity, ease of processing and recycling. However, there are a few setbacks, the main one being consumers’ unfamiliarity with hemp fiber. “As with synthetic fibers, it is important to select the correct natural fiber according to end use application, and nonwovens producers are still becoming familiar with how and when to use hemp fiber,” Mr. Kime opined. Key advantages of hemp fiber are its high strength and low cost, and there are many markets still awaiting the use of this fiber as it slowly makes its way into becoming another option for manufacturers. Mr. Kime noted that the level of a hemp fiber’s staple strength can be modified according the needs of the consumer. To better publicize these attributes, Hempline often distributes various samples to consumers with different strength levels so they can decide and then choose which would work best for their product. “We have found that many of the nonwoven automotive producers are looking for higher qualities of natural fiber and are willing to pay slightly higher prices accordingly. Although they are still price-conscious, we have found that most nonwovens producers have realized that using better qualities of natural fibers results in lower price rejects, reduces downtime on their equipment, minimizes loss of fiber during processing and, overall, makes better economic sense,” Mr. Kime said.
Up And Coming Natural Fibers
Another natural fiber increasing its role in the nonwovens industry is milkweed. Milkweed floss is a silky white seed with a resilient hollow tube that looks similar to a straw. It is similar to high quality down and is a hydrophobic, cellulose fiber with a high chemical resistance and the ability to be dyed readily, said Herbert Knudsen, president of Natural Fibers, Ogallala, NE. “Milkweed floss fiber from advanced agricultural production can compete in nonwovens applications, especially with filtration, thermal and sound insulation and absorbent products,” Mr. Knudsen explained.
Natural Fibers just introduced a 75% recycled cotton and 25% milkweed fiber mattress pad through its subsidiary, Ogallala Comfort Company, Ogallala, NE. Some properties milkweed floss can provide nonwovens include superabsorbency, softening, hydrophobicity, paper-strength, bulking, self-bonding and tactile-change.
What lies ahead for the natural fibers market will certainly depend on how much consumers are willing to spend on new innovations. “BBA has many fiber improvements in the pipeline,” said Mr. Allen. “Some have been hung up because of the attitudes of today’s customers; they would love to have an improved, differentiated fiber, but are not willing to pay any extra for it. Therefore, the capability to do new things is there, but the demand isn’t.”
The industry will have to wait for a number of things to happen, including an improved economic climate, which may possibly change people’s willingness to pay for improvements. If anything, this industry is growing internationally, which may force manufacturers and consumers alike to keep up with the competition.
Additionally, the natural fiber, particularly cotton, market is currently expanding globally, as it hits unchartered territory around the globe.
“Cotton is spilling into European markets, as well as in makeup removal pads and wipes in the medical market,” said Mac McLean, assistant director of nonwovens and implementation at Cotton Incorporated. “Asia has also become very pro-cotton.”
Perhaps these attitudes will help shift the fiber market in North American to move onward with new technologies and innovations in the future.