Nonwovens Make Themselves At Home

August 17, 2005

nonwovens strengthen their hold in homes around the world

nonwovens are beginning to strengthen their hold in homes around the world

onwovens can be found in almost every area of a home. In the living room they are found within upholstered furniture, window treatments, wall coverings and rugs and carpets. In the bedroom nonwovens are found in mattresses, bed coverings and pillows. On the dining room table nonwovens are used in table coverings, placemats and napkins. The projected annual growth rate for home textiles is 4.6% in terms of volume for the 1995-2005 period, according to David Rigby Associates, Manchester, U.K., with most of the growth in the home textiles sector expected to focus on nonwovens, particularly spunbonds. In 1995 nonwoven materials accounted for 332,000 tons of the total textile volume of the home fabric segment; this number is projected to grow to 610,000 tons by 2005.

Throughout the nonwovens industry, many roll goods producers involved in the home furnishings segment have reported recent sales growth and see this trend continuing as nonwovens begin to take marketshare from other textiles. One such company is Western Nonwovens, Carson, CA. “The home furnishings market is a very large, diverse market with many product areas where nonwovens have begun to penetrate, but by no means do we have a total marketshare,” explained Mark Bidner, chairman and CEO. “I think there will be continuing opportunities to take share from the traditional woven fabric market and other competing materials as new nonwoven products are developed,” he said.

Mike Long, vice president and general manager of the technical textiles group for Synthetic Industries, Chattanooga, TN, agreed, “Nonwovens are becoming accepted more and more as an alternative to wovens—both for furniture construction and exterior applications.”

Cushioning Market Demand
While customers are demanding new and innovative products, it’s the job of nonwoven producers to meet these demands. To do this, both manufacturers and the overall industry need to be open to new ideas rather than stay within the confines of standard nonwovens. Harold Harvey, president of Johnston Industries, Columbus, GA, stressed the importance of innovation and flexibility. “If you can offer innovation and creativity, then you are staying ahead of the field because you’re responding to a completely different set of needs. The market changes quite dramatically and you’ve got to be able to respond to that change.” At the same time, Mr. Harvey mentioned that staying price-competitive is also a customer demand, particularly due to an increase in imported goods to the U.S. market over the past few years.

On the European front, Fibertex A/S, Aalborg, Denmark, also reported an increased push to bring down costs from large retail chains. “There has been pressure to bring down product price against the weight of the product,” explained Henrik Kjeldsen, general manager of the Industrial Textiles Division. At Vigona a.s., Svitavy, Czech Republic, a similar situation was reported. “Customers have been demanding improved services, quality, delivery conditions and ecological materials,” said Josef Lacek, marketing representative.

For Charles Lang, director of highloft eastern region for Mid America Fiber, St. Louis, MO, the demand for lower cost products is also the result of consolidation among customers. “As the people we sell our products to have become larger and fewer in number, we have found they are using that muscle to tighten up the demands,” he said. In addition to competitive prices, Mr. Lang indicated that customers are seeking shorter lead times and are tightening quality standards. “Consolidation and capacity has forced us to become better manufacturers because we are going to be working on margins that will be slimmer than they have been historically. That’s just something we’re going to have get used to and get good at,” he added.

Other companies in the nonwovens industry are reporting more aesthetically-related customer demands, as the actual feel and look of nonwovens are becoming increasingly important. Carey Hobbs, president of Hobbs Bonded Fibers, Waco, TX, stated that customers are becoming concerned about the drapability of nonwovens, especially those used in comforters and bedspreads that take the place of traditional down. “There was a time when comforters and bedspreads would be stiff because customers didn’t care about drapability,” he added. “In the last few years drapability has become more of a factor.” According to David Lunceford, president of HDK Industries, Rogersville, TN, customers want nonwovens that appear more like woven fabric and are less paper-like. “All of our customers are interested in what is available with cotton or cotton blends, since in woven fabrics there are a lot of 100% cotton and cotton blends,” he explained. Customers are also demanding special additives and treatments, such as antisoiling, antimicrobial and antibacterial agents.

Don’t Let The Bed Bugs Bite
The use of antimicrobial- and antibacterial-treated fibers in the production of nonwovens has become a significant trend in the home furnishings market over the past few years, but roll goods producers are divided as to whether this trend is really as big a sensation as it seems. According to Robert Fryburg, president of Superior Fabrics, Pompano Beach, FL, there has been an increase in demand for and use of antimicrobial finishes as an increasing number of consumers are affected by allergies and the general public has become more aware of health-related issues. This increase, he said, has been seen mostly within the bedding sector of the home furnishings market. Serkan Gogus, commercial director of Mogul Nonwovens, Gaziantep, Turkey, agreed, “Antimicrobials and anti-allergy products have become more popular as user consciousness rises.” Mr. Gogus explained that in the bedding and furniture segments there are too many components involved, so having only one antimicrobial material within a structure would not be strong enough to result in the desired effect. All in all, Mr. Gogus foresees these applications developing into a niche market.

At Carlee Corporation, Rockleigh, NJ, customers are also demanding value-added nonwovens as awareness of antimicrobials and antibacterials has elevated. According to product manager Jim Iaquinto, the company believes that more specific directions are needed concerning what customers are requiring these treatments to do. “Hypoallergenic and similar types of industry criteria need to be more detailed from a specification standpoint as to what is really being required by the industry,” he added.

Due to increased demand for antimicrobial products, some roll goods producers have added new materials to their product lines that include germ- and fungus-fighting features. One such company is Malik Industries, Kennett Square, PA, which has recently launched a natural fiber batting containing 100% virgin wool and silk fibers to combat allergies to synthetic fibers. The Spunlace Nonwoven Division of Hangzhou Xinhua Group, Hangzhou, China, has developed a new print decorated spunlaced nonwoven for use as a wall-tracery fabric, which has superiority in enviro-guarding and human health protection over traditional paper or plastic wall coverings. According to sales/production manager Wang Yu Ming, the product will also include antibacterial and anti-allergy finishings in the future.

Other roll goods producers have taken a more passive approach to the antimicrobial trend. According to professional engineer and consultant Joe Baigas of Kem-Wove, Charlotte, NC, there has been a lot of noise about antimicrobials, but they are used by manufacturers when they are requested by customers. “Antimicrobials are effective, but whether or not they are really needed I don’t know. I think they have seen moderate growth, similar to the use of antimicrobials in the filtration market,” he added.

Other nonwoven manufacturers have seen the trend almost entirely disappear. “The trend has been dropped like a hot potato,” stated Gary Cohen, president of Acme Pad Corporation, Baltimore, MD. “There hasn’t been the penetration of antimicrobials and antibacterials in the market that everyone expected. They were more hype than real benefit, a marketing ploy like the organic cotton push, which has also died down.” According to Miray Pereira, “Sontara” business segment manager for apparel and home furnishings at DuPont, Wilmington, DE, the regulatory hurdles placed on the specific claims a customer can make on antimicrobial features has somewhat dampened the enthusiasm for antimicrobials in the marketplace.

Seeing Nonwovens In A New Light
Antimicrobials and anti-allergens are not the only treatments customers are demanding. Another growing additive trend is polymer treatments for ultraviolet protection. “UV stabilization technology has advanced significantly over the last 10 years and we do a lot for window coverings and upholstery, both indoor and outdoor,” stated W. Michael Mebane, vice president and general manager of nonwovens newcomer Unifi Nonwovens, Greensboro, NC. Mr. Mebane explained that as consumers are starting to prefer window treatments made from polypropylene-containing nonwovens, UV treatments are necessary due to the material’s poor natural resistance to UV rays.

Additionally, some companies are beginning to experiment with fire retardant nonwovens for home furnishings applications. J.H. Zeigler, Achern, Germany, is one roll goods company currently developing this area in an attempt to meet demand for materials with added functionalities, which compete with standard fiberfill.

Freudenberg Nonwovens, Durham, NC, has also added specialized fire blocking fabrics in addition to anti-allergenic bedding components. “Freudenberg has access to all major nonwoven technologies, including finishing technologies, and we take advantage of these unique assets to service the home furnishings industry,” said James Frasch, general manager business growth and new development of the Technical Nonwovens Division.

Other recent customer requirement s are products with a consumer recognizable features. For example, Mid America Fiber is currently manufacturing silk and cashmere-blend nonwovens for use in mattress pad applications. “When a consumer sees the hang tag on the outside of the mattress that says it is quilted to a cashmere fiber, there is carry-over in the consumer’s mind that would make them think that everything in that particular unit is probably upper level,” explained Mid America’s Mr. Lang. “We find ourselves doing more of the upper-end products as the American consumer is able to afford them more than they have in the past.” A similar situation is happening with cotton, which, according to Acme Pad’s Mr. Cohen, will help the mattress pad business expand due to the comfort and acceptability associated with cotton products. “Being able to use the cotton logo is important because customers recognize it,” he said.

On The Doorstep Of Innovation
Supporting the drive toward antimicrobials, anti-allergens and UV treatments are new innovations in both products and technology. Evidence of this trend is increased product development at companies such as Precision Fabrics, Greensboro, NC, which reported that customers are looking for new ideas to give their products certain “bells and whistles” to distinguish them from existing offerings. According to Mark Painley, senior market manager, home furnishings, “It is out of these challenges that new products are born and I’m sure over the course of the next years there will be new nonwovens introduced as a result,” he added.

Johnston Industries’ Mr. Harvey stated that such innovation will enable the nonwovens industry to one day become the world market leader over wovens. “It is our turn to kick back aggressively to develop our roles as market leaders and we’ve got both the technology and ability to be able to do that,” he stated. “We have to be responsive to change, innovation and creativity.”

According to Western Nonwovens’ Mr. Bidner, the introduction of better performing products is being made possible by a switch within the industry from strictly aesthetic concerns to product design and performance. “Within the past few years the industry has focused attention on some of the engineering aspects of production and the ultimate performance of the products, which represents a significant change,” he stated. “I think that’s been good for the nonwovens industry as it has allowed us to continue to introduce new products that are better performing.”

Product development was also on the mind of Superior Fabrics’ Mr. Fryburg. “New types of coatings have increased functionality so that nonwovens are now included in greater ranges of products, such as decking fabrics and casual furniture, while improved methods of embossing and printing will place nonwovens in more fashion-forward applications,” he added.

A Warm Welcome For Nonwovens Around The Globe
Now that new and innovative nonwovens are making their way into the home furnishings scene, are the global marketplaces ready for them? Most roll goods producers have reported extremely strong market dynamics within North America due to a healthy economy. In South America and Asia, certain companies such as DuPont are predicting great opportunities. “We see high potential in those embryonic markets as they are coming out of their economic doldrums,” explained Ms. Pereira. “Some of the potential we saw there a couple of years ago that was retarded has now begun to bloom.” Mr. Mebane of Unifi agreed, pointing to improvements in the overall textile business in Asia over the past three months—including the home textile segment—due to a tightening of raw material supplies, which is a signal that capacity is being consumed.

In Europe, the market has been marked by a far-reaching change in its structure, according to Dieter Magiera, managing director of Christian Heinrich Sandler GmbH, Schwarzenbach/Saale, Germany. Due to increasing labor costs, production continues to move from Western Europe to lower-wage Eastern European countries, particularly Poland. “We cannot have jumping from country to country as a goal of this industry,” Mr. Magiera stated. As a solution to this problem, Sandler has developed pre-produced polyester nonwoven furniture parts that will help eliminate many steps in the furniture construction process so furniture can be made by machine and not by hand. “This will enable a new kind of automatic production process that will result in future production in high-wage countries,” Mr. Magiera commented. “Currently we are leading intensive discussions, which give us the hope that our innovations will be accepted in the near future.”

A Strong Shelter For The Future
Speaking of the future, roll goods producers have high hopes for the home furnishings market. Mr. Baigas of Kem-Wove predicted a continued increase in the use of nonwovens in home furnishings. Similar sentiments were expressed by HDK’s Mr. Lunceford, who reported more interest by home furnishings manufacturers in associations such as INDA, Association of the Nonwovens Fabrics Industry, Cary, NC. “We’re seeing more of the traditional weavers looking at nonwovens, so I think you’re going to see home furnishings as more of an outlet for nonwovens as we go forward.”

“Home furnishings will play a vital role in the future of products with issues such as flame resistance and increased comfort and durability, which will move manufacturers into higher price point products,” explained Karl Van Becelaere, vice president textiles and fibers for Leggett & Platt, Carthridge, NC. He also mentioned that this would allow nonwoven fiber products to actively compete and hopefully replace such materials as foam, which is 10 times more used in furniture and bedding than fiber.

“Because of some of the properties that are adherent to nonwovens—strength at a low cost, wide widths—they are going to play an integral part in home furnishings,” said Precision Fabric’s Mr. Painley. He also predicted that nonwovens will become more visable in home furnishings, rather than underneath or within a product, as they begin to have the strength and durability to become visual fabrics.

Unifi’s Mr. Mebane agreed, “I would like to see nonwovens transition to the face of home furnishings products within the next five years, as well as in upholstery. I think there are some things coming down the pike that are going to help us participate in some of the growth in that area in more creative ways using nonwoven materials.”

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