trends, changes and challenges for nonwovens in the home furnishings sector
A good look at just about any home interior reveals an infinite array of end uses for nonwovens. Applications include internal construction in upholstered furniture, bedding, wall coverings, carpeting and window treatments. In upholstered furniture, nonwoven end uses include arm/back, spring insulator, dust cover, pull strip, cushion/pillow ticking and skirt liners/insert applications. While primarily wovens and knits serve as outer ticking and decking applications, stitchbonded, needlepunched and spunbonded nonwovens have limited use as outer tickings for low-end mattresses and foundations. In bedding, nonwovens are used as spring insulators, spring wrap, flanging, dust covers and quilt backings.
Due to the advantages of low cost and reliability, nonwovens have made significant inroads in replacing traditional upholstery and bedding materials. Manufacturers recognize the usefulness of nonwovens in the home sector, especially in interior construction, much of which has been converted from wovens to nonwovens, particularly spunbonded and needlepunched fabrics.
In terms of new growth areas, potential lies in a range of home applications such as table covers and window coverings, small wall hangings and countertops that use nonwovens for smooth lamination and counter stability. While there is no doubt that nonwovens are pervasive in the interior construction of the home, manufacturers are now seeking new markets for these fabrics. The challenge for nonwovens in the home sector is to step into the forefront of home fashion. According to many in this industry sector, the marketplace is beckoning nonwovens to unveil themselves and move out from behind the curtains and traditional “hidden” interior end uses to increasingly aesthetic applications.
Through a combination of technology and vision, nonwovens are not only holding their own in home applications, they are becoming a more visible and cost-effective alternative to traditional textiles.
Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed?
The largest market for nonwovens in the home sector is bedding, which includes basic bedding and top-of-the-bed. The former includes sheets, pillowcases, bed pillows and mattress pads; the latter consists of comforters, bedspreads and accessories and blankets and throws. The consumption of basic bedding rose 10.6% in 1997, according to an ATI (America’s Textiles International) October 1998 special report. In 1997, top-of-the-bed sales reached $2.5 million, an increase of 1.5% from the previous year. In 1997, total bedding sales rose 6.3% from the previous year to $5.6 billion.
One crucial function for nonwovens in bedding is warding off dust mites. Halting the effects of these tiny unwelcome bedroom lodgers is a great benefit to allergy sufferers. According to Mark Painley, senior marketing manager for roll goods manufacturer Precision Fabrics Group, Greensboro, NC, the anti-allergy area has become very popular. “Special pillow covers, mattress covers, comforters and sheets for the bedroom have been developed to reduce dust mites,” said Mr. Painley, adding that similar changes are reflected in other parts of the house such as filter media and duct work.
Regarding the effort to reduce allergens, Van May, new business development manager for the Aptra Division of worldwide chemical manufacturer BP Amoco, London, U.K—which owns nonwoven roll goods manufacturer Amoco Fabrics & Fibers—concurred. “A nonwoven composite laminated to microporous film prevents dust mite feces in pillows from penetrating.” Mr. May pointed to the popularity of the zippered pillow cover and the mattress cover for this purpose.
Another trend in bedding is the replacement of cotton and other flammable materials with nonwoven products that are flame retardant by nature. Roll goods manufacturer Western Nonwovens (WNI), Carson, CA, is a national manufacturer of furniture fabrics for wood frame furniture, back cushion fill, batting for comforters and bedspreads and needlepunched fabrics. According to Mark Bidner, chief executive officer, “There is an increasing presence of densified polyester batting as a replacement for foam because the batting does not release carcinogenic fumes when it is burned.” Mr. Bidner added that this trend is occurring in the bedding market where cotton is being replaced by needlepunched polyester nonwovens, which reduce flammability and offer superior performance.
Another indicator of progress is the development of technically advanced raw material fibers or conjugated fibers. Here, resiliency and longevity of life in bedspreads, comforters, mattresses and sofa back cushions has become possible due to extensive testing, research and development. Manufacturers are now able to process siliconized fibers and replicate the characteristics of natural products such as down at a dramatically lower cost. Advancement is also taking place at the end product level, where a needlepunched and thermal bonded “bedding lumbar support product” was recently launched by WNI.
A Window View
Another market where nonwovens have found an opening is in window treatments. J. Rick Burdock, market manager of BBA Nonwovens Industrial, Walpole, MA, pointed to growth in this area, especially in window treatments “where the nonwoven, in and by itself, becomes the treatment, versus a constituent for stabilizing the finished product.” Mr. Burdock added, “Historically, nonwovens were used in vertical window applications as stitchbonded substrates or layers in vertical blind applications. Now cellular treatments use one of several specialty engineered nonwovens to produce the treatment itself.”
Towards this end, DuPont, Wilmington, DE, has developed cellular spunlaced shades featuring a double-cell construction and increased insulation properties. “Shades, draperies and window tops make up a more than $5.6 billion business,” said Pat Nichols, apparel and home furnishing segment manager at DuPont. She explained that a smaller piece of DuPont’s business is the miscellaneous ancillary components such as hooks, rails and accessories used for hanging pieces.
To Market, To Market
In terms of competition, nonwovens manufacturers are ever aware of the need to gain ground in order to win the race. Nonwovens usually get more attention for what they can do than for what they look like. By far, the most significant technological advance for nonwovens in the home furnishings sector is the ability to make products look more and more like woven or stitched fabric. The development of new processes, such as PGI’s Miratec (see this month’s cover and sidebar) bode well for the possibility of nonwovens directly competing with wovens.
According to DuPont’s Ms. Nichols, the trend is to make nonwovens look and feel more like traditional wovens. “Today, nonwovens has 7-8% of the home furnishings market,” noted Ms. Nichols. “Appearance, hand, softness and drape are all very important and so is durability.” Ms. Nichols emphasized that the goal is to compete with standard textile manufacturers and also stay ahead of other nonwoven manufacturers.
The perfect candidate for a makeover, nonwovens are updating their look with advancements in finishing processes as well as improvements in printability, dyeability and pleatability.
In a constantly changing marketplace, heightened competition challenges manufacturers on two levels. Nonwovens manufacturers must compete against other nonwovens manufacturers for traditional hidden applications; simultaneously, manufacturers recognize the need to outpace standard textile manufacturers in areas that were only recently accepted as markets for nonwovens. Today, nonwovens—able to meet aesthetically strict standards—can compete in standard textile markets such as coverstock—the fabrics used in covering sofas or bedspreads, which have traditionally been off-limits.
Key for both levels of competition is keeping costs at bay. According to WNI’s Mr. Bidner, “With the increasing presence of off-shore products entering domestic markets, U.S. producers are increasingly concerned with cost,” he said.
Despite the strong level of competition, there are significant opportunities in the home furnishings sector in the U.S., said Mr. Bidner. “The market has been exceptionally strong,” he said. “This is tied into the large number of housing starts and the robust home resale market. The strongest areas of growth for construction fabrics have clearly been in mattresses and furniture.”
One manufacturer citing a slow-down rather than growth was roll goods producer Carlee Corporation, Rockleigh, NJ. Vice president Randy Dietrich, said that the company’s largest market, quilts and bedspreads, has experienced some decline. “Imports are more popular,” he said, adding that to compete with the low cost of overseas producers is difficult for domestic nonwovens manufacturers.
Mr. Painley of Precision Fabrics noted that the competition is basically trying to get to the mass merchants. “The Walmart and Target volumes entice manufacturers,” he said. “Companies are willing to go in and take less in margin because of high volumes. There is a much stronger competition among nonwovens companies themselves,” he said. “They’ll tell you up front ‘we’re working on a product to replace something at Walmart or K-Mart.’”
He observed that window treatments and bedding products are very strong and that the rest of 1999 looks to be equally so. However, he said, “within the upholstery industry, business has been slow.” Optimistic that business will pick up in the second half of the year, he attributed the current circumstances to the seasonal trends.
The manufacturers tend to agree—the opportunities are in the U.S. According to DuPont’s Ms. Nichols, “My focus is to help grow business globally, but we do see a lot of growth coming in North America. We see more uptake and interest here.”
Mr. Painley agreed, “Europeans have not caught on to the cellular types of shades currently popular in U.S. markets.” He said although business in window treatments has been slow in Europe, there may be changing attitudes in time.
Speaking from a European perspective was roll goods manufacturer Fibertex, Aalborg, Denmark, which produces carpet backings, furniture and mattresses for the home furnishings segment. “The European market for home furnishings has been in a recession during the last six months,” said Knud Waede Hansen, managing director. “Sales of nonwovens to this sector have decreased somewhat during this period of time.” Mr. Hanson added, “It is difficult to foresee when market conditions will improve.”