Home Is Where The Nonwoven Is

August 17, 2005

whether for a bedroom or living room, nonwovens send customers home happy

You may not always be able to see them. You may not even realize that the chair on which you are sitting might contain them, but nonwovens are found in many household furnishing applications. Nonwovens lie in the midst of the not-so-obvious areas around the home, such as carpet underpaddings, drapery liners, ironing board pads, lamp shades, slipcovers, scrims, tickings and upholstery backings as well as in more obvious places including bed sheets, bed spreads, futons, draperies, mattress covers and pads, pillows, quilts and tablecloths.

Featuring high performance levels and lower costs, nonwovens are ideal for both in-home and commercial furnishing applications. It is easy to see why nonwovens are showing up in virtually every room in a household—their low costs, high uniformity and durability, strong affinity to coating materials and their ability to be engineered are just some of the key reasons why nonwovens are favored among manufacturers and consumers. Although sales and market volumes in this market may have temporarily reached a plateau, one thing is for sure—the many features of nonwovens often send consumers home happy.

The Test of Time
Nonwovens manufacturers are well aware that household furnishings are no strangers to wear and tear, stains, spills and dirt—that’s why they are engineering them to ensure a longer lifespan. Whether it is stain repellency, backings or linings, nonwovens are able to stand up to the test of time and maintain their appearance while still offering comfort in the home.

“Dimensional stability and non-fraying properties are important advantages of nonwovens over woven materials,” said Jozka Slovácek, business manager of flooring for Colbond Nonwovens, Arnhem, The Netherlands. Colbond’s “Colback” nonwoven is used as a primary backing in applications such as tiles and broadloom carpeting, where geometric patterns and cross-over tufting constructions call for very stable tufted backings. Colback is a thermal bonded spunlaid polyester nonwoven made from bicomponent filaments with a polyester core and a polyamide skin. “Colback’s high level of stability and isotropic performance also prevent the carpets from bowing and skewing during processing and make installation, especially pattern repeat, easier,” said Mr. Slovácek. Additionally, Colback’s ability to be dyed and printed makes it useful for wallpaper applications.

Consumers want to keep up with market trends while making their homes as comfortable as possible, and this has created a push toward “richer” or more luxurious products. “Consumers want a warm and comfortable domestic environment,” he said. “The hard flooring era is past its prime; instead, the use of patterned broadloom carpeting is increasing. This also applies to the option of combining carpeting with other materials when concentrating on various materials in one room.”

To allow for more comfort, carpet backings are also in high demand, according to Henrik Kjeldsen, sales director for Fibertex, Aalborg, Denmark. “Carpeting is using more backings and underpaddings for more comfort. Better materials are being used, which means a higher quality in products,” he explained.

Fibertex currently produces nonwovens for the furniture, bed coverings, spring insulation, quilting and cushioning markets and has witnessed the recent growth of nonwovens in the home. To keep up with this growth, the company added spunbond production machinery targeting the hygiene market as well as the home furnishings market in 1998. “Traditionally, we relied on needlepunch technology to make nonwovens for this market, but we put in a lot of investment to become a major spunbond player,” said Mr. Kjeldsen.

Western Nonwovens, Carson, CA, also relies on highloft needlepunch and spunbond technologies to produce its indoor and outdoor bedding products, quilts, comforter tops and pads. “Highloft products provide bulk and resilience for bedding and outdoor furniture products,” said Tom Backus, vice president of highloft products and Dick Kenney, vice president of new business development. “Needlepunch can provide strength and stability comparable to many wovens and usually at an economic advantage. Spunbond nylon provides strength and cover at extremely lightweights. These attributes are driving our growth in home furnishings.”

The home furnishings market is one in which companies must constantly play a game of catch-up—and not just with consumers but with designers and finishers as well. Designers are the people who set the trends. And, with the ability of nonwovens to be tailored to whatever a consumer wants, trends can really come and go with this market.

Fruedenberg’s North American sales director Linda Mooschian also noted that nonwovens’ ability to be engineered is a big advantage. “A major benefit of a nonwoven is the ease of engineering physical property requirements into the fabric that may be necessary for specific conversion operations or performance issues. Both staple and continuous filament fiber arrangements can provide looks ranging from lightweight to opaque. Also, because nonwovens are typically made from synthetics, they are more durable to wear, resistant to UV exposure and easier to clean. Depending on the converted construction, nonwovens can enhance insulation properties, from hot and cold temperatures to absorption of sound,” she explained. Roll goods manufacturers are at an advantage because of the flexible nature of nonwovens. Flame resistance, UV protection and stain repellency are some of the more common treatments applied onto nonwoven material, and this, in turn, creates more business for companies involved in finishings. A downfall to this, however, is that, at times, finishings are often shaped by the current trends of the market. For example, several years ago, antimicrobial finishings were an extremely popular demand placed upon manufacturers, but today many note that this has subsided a great deal.

Keeping It In Stride
With newer materials and applications constantly being researched, the home furnishing market sees almost as many fads as the fashion industry. Colors, prints, designs and the thickness and softness are always changing in this market so it is not uncommon to see a trend get really big and then fizzle out. This is often the case with antimicrobial and antibacterial treatments and UV protection. When asked, many manufacturers simply stated that these finishings were no longer a big deal. “I believe this has subsided,” said Serkan Gogus, commercial director for Mogul Nonwovens, Gaziantep, Turkey. “I am not noticing such demands.”

However, one company which has recently introduced several new antimicrobial systems onto their nonwovens is Western Nonwovens. “There is a range of new products out on the market,” said Mr. Backus. “WNI is currently introducing a system that has been shown in hospital trials to be very efficient in controlling asthma attacks. A major mattress company is introducing this latter product in an entire sleep system.” Still, other manufacturers believe antimicrobials are a diminishing trend.

“Fashion and trend susceptibility play an important role in home furnishings,” said Colbond’s Mr. Solvácek. “Today the trend of antimicrobials and antibacterials is less in demand than it was in the past. This is due to the result of research, product development, targeted information and a wider choice of materials available.”

Flame resistance, however is another story. Although companies are not hearing big requests for this now, many executives feel proposed harsher legal requirements underway, will increase this trend in the next several years (please see Capitol Comments, February 2002). “Right now, the demand for flame resistance just isn’t there,” said Rick Pearce, vice president of new business development at PGI Nonwovens, N. Charleston, SC. “Five years from now, it will be really important, especially with the regulations for fire resistance getting tougher. In the future flame resistance will have an incredibly strong position.”

As awareness of flame resistance continues to climb in the U.S., the demand for products with this application will also continue to escalate. New specifications dictate to manufacturers what they should produce.

“From upholstered furniture to mattresses to soft goods, the awareness of flame resistance is on the rise in the U.S. with new legislation currently under debate,” said Fruedenberg’s Ms. Mooschian. “Countries from the U.K. to Japan have historically had stricter standards for flame resistance in both residential and commercial environments. Nonwovens have proven successful in meeting protection requirements over the years.”

Carlee Corporation, Rockleigh, NJ is already including flame resistance benefits in its products. Jim Iaqunito, sales and marketing manager at Carlee said, “There has been a massive shift in our products to the use of low melt binders in the highloft material for home applications. These products are inherently resistant to flame spread.”

Salisbury, NC-based KoSa, a commodity and specialty fiber producer, also offers flame resistant polyester fibers designed to meet flammability test standards and offer superior performance in bedding and furniture products. “In addition, our research and development team continue to work on other fiber blends that will improve flame resistance performance and meet new FR standards when enacted,” said Paul Latten, director of nonwovens and industrial staple.

If a company is able to offer flame resistance, especially when laws and demand are in full swing, it will serve as an added benefit. The more choices a company can offer to consumers, the better. Offering a diverse range of products is key to being successful in the nonwovens industry altogether. And, those companies who are involved in home furnishings along with other markets are in luck.

A Growing Potential
Michael Brennan, vice president of sales and marketing at Eagle Nonwovens, St. Louis, MO said that different degrees of production difficulty can be a big benefit for companies.

“Nonwovens that go into the home furnishing market are relatively easy for manufacturers to produce as opposed to more technical applications,” Mr. Brennan explained. “This is good because companies need a blend of products, and customers like to see this. Companies need to be able to produce things that aren’t difficult, along with products that are more technical.”

Mogul’s Mr. Gogus agreed that companies need to offer variety. “The home furnishings market is seeing considerable growth, but if you don’t offer a special product, it will become a commodity.”

And, with all these growing trends, offering special products with the capability for engineering or finishings does not seem to be a problem. “We have introduced our Evolon product to various worldwide markets,” said Fruedenberg’s Ms. Mooshian. “The patented technology offers a range of densities as a result of a continuous filament, microdenier arrangement. This nonwoven has extensive finishing potential, from color-ability to drape enhancement, sewability and resistance to abrasion and fraying. Currently, our nonwovens are engineered for conversion into cellular, pleated and roman shade backing applications. In these cases, the nonwoven must enhance the aesthetic value of the window shading.”

Executives at Colbond are already witnessing growth in sales from Colback, which can be used for more decorative purposes such as wallpaper, separation panels, drapings and hangings. “Higher qualitative and aesthetical requirements in both the commercial and domestic area, as well as the noted rediscovery of domesticity, will further stimulate developments in this field,” said Mr. Solvácek. “In addition, fashion and trends are the best guarantee for innovative product development.”

Although the home furnishings market is steady, some recent developments have manufacturers a little uneasy, yet they have their heads full of ideas to keep sales on the rise. Eagle Nonwovens’ Mr. Brennan particularly expressed concern over the recent layoffs and store closings at discount retailer, Kmart, Troy, MI and the stagnant sales in the housing market. Without consumers purchasing homes, nonwovens for home applications would also be affected.

“Overall, the home furnishing market is mature,” Mr. Brennan said. “This is due in part to flat primary demand. Sales of homes last year were flat. Kmart’s store closings affects this market heavily, since this is where much of the furnishing products containing nonwoven materials are sold. Nonwovens have gained in more of the price-sensitive, high volume home furnishing markets.”

BBA Nonwovens’ Industrial Division, Old Hickory, TN, is also witness to the current leveled home furnishing market. “Furniture sales have been relatively flat, and bedding is growing at a modest rate of 1-2%,” said John Matheny, director of industrial products. “Economic conditions have had a significant impact nationwide last year as evidenced by the closing and consolidation of stores.” BBA Nonwovens is involved in the furniture, bedding, wall coverings, window treatments and floor covering markets, but Mr. Matheny sees the market as a whole as more of a commodity.

Besides being commodity-oriented, the furniture market is considered mature in developed areas. Part of this can be attributed to the increase in outsourcing from areas such as the Far East. “Outside sourcing is big, especially for lower end materials such as mattress pads and comforters,” said PGI’s Mr. Pearce.

Despite a high level of outsourcing and its status as a steady or mature market, the outlook for the home furnishings market is bright. This market is still considered quite substantial.

“Growth should continue for nonwovens, especially in window shadings,” said Ms. Mooshian. “Of particular interest will be their acceptance as face fabrics for top treatments, wall coverings, bedding and upholstery fabrics.”

With so many areas of the home containing nonwoven material, manufacturers have a lot of room for experimentation. PGI, for instance, just began using its Apex technology on mattress pads during the past six months. “This is the first commercial area where Apex has been applied,” said Mr. Pearce. He predicts that newer uses for nonwovens and newer technology will take away from the use of wovens and textiles.

“The potential of products in this market is not yet exploited to the full extent and will exhibit increasing and unexpected application possibilities for the years to come,” said Colbond’s Mr. Solvácek.

Manufacturers at Western Nonwovens also have their hands full with new ideas as as well new and existing products in the home furnishings market. “In conjunction with Cargill Dow, Minneapolis, MN, we are currently developing products for mattresses and other home furnishing end uses from its Natureworks fiber,” said Mr. Kenney. “This fiber is made from polylactic acid, produced by annually renewable resources such as corn.

Products from the fiber are compostable so the fiber and the products will have a significant positive environmental impact. Another product we have recently introduced is Polarguard Home. This product is a variant of our polyester continuous filament Polarguard, used in outdoor sleeping and apparel products. This fiber affords significant performance styling versus natural and synthetic competitors.”

While most manufacturers are seeking to diversify their offerings to the home furniture market, most of the executives interviewed by Nonwovens Industry refused to get into specifics. “We are working on two new products for the home furnishing market, but we can’t elaborate” said Mr. Brennan. “Designers in the home furnishing market are tight-lipped.”

The nonwovens industry will have to wait in suspense and see what new products will become available onto this ever-changing market.

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