Nonwovens 101

By Ellen Wuagneux, Associate Editor | July 18, 2006

VCU students fuse fashion and function to create innovative disposable clothing designs


All photos courtesy of Jay Paul Photos

This spring, fashion design and merchandising students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA were asked to meet a unique challenge—creating functional, limited-use clothing made of nonwovens. The possibilities and limitations of disposable nonwoven clothing intrigued Kimberly Guthrie, an assistant professor at VCU’s department of fashion, so she offered a class in which students would explore the topic. “It’s just nice for them to have the opportunity to work with something nontraditional and for them to experience touching something other than muslin,” Ms. Guthrie said.

A woven fabric, muslin has no stretch. In this class, the fabrics were man-made laminate and elastic films typically used to make diapers and personal care products. The stretch, width and sheerness were different and presented students with novel construction challenges.

Richmond, VA-based Tredegar Film Products supplied elastic laminate materials for the students and provided an overview of their function and properties. “Ms. Guthrie approached Tredegar about using our elastic laminates for her class and exposing the students to nonwoven materials,” explained LaShara Smith, product development engineer for Tredegar.

Tredegar supplied three elastic laminates—two from its FabriFlex product group and a proprietary elastic laminate. The students were constrained to only use the white elastic laminate material in its original form (no dyeing or printing), but could use other sewing notions (hooks, eyes, D-rings, piping, colored thread, etc.) as accent pieces. Spunbond nonwovens were used in the laminates, adding the aesthetic appeal of a fabric.

Personal care products and clothing obviously present different challenges in terms of performance, fit and appearance. Compared to personal care products, which are designed and created around controlling and containing body fluids, the main function of most apparel is to cover. “One of the primary performance criteria for an elastic laminate is fit,” said Ms. Smith. “Fit for clothing and diapers is similar in that it needs to maintain the same level of performance for one hour, up to 24 hours. The laminates supplied were designed for use as side tabs and/or side panels in diapers. The fit or amount of stretch a product has depends on the application and the end product it will go into. Our products are roll goods that will be converted and are designed to endure conversion processes as well as meet the end consumer’s needs. When a bolt of fabric is supplied, the fabric is in final form for the apparel maker,” she said.

Key attributes for clothing are aesthetics such as visual appearance, cloth-like feel, cloth-like drapeablity and comfort (softness, breathability), according to Ms. Smith. “The challenge in designing clothing applications is incorporating all these attributes. Clothing requires more material (standard width 60 inches) than typically needed for personal care applications (say a 5 inch side tab). The benefit is that garment construction is the conversion process, which is not as demanding on the material as a high-speed converting line,” she pointed out.

In comparing her interactions with students in Ms. Guthrie’s class to typical discussions with sales and technical staff at manufacturing or converting companies, Ms. Smith likened the experience to talking with an operator who handles the material and runs the equipment. “You are getting the day-to-day feedback, immediately and unfiltered,” she said. “Working with students was a unique experience because I was able to witness the creative evolution of each finished piece. The students shared their inspirations for the pieces and a few interviewed their peers to see what attributes were important to them. This was a refreshing experience because it is outside our current market scope.”

This project was actually the second collaboration between Tredegar and VCU’s Ms. Guthrie. The first joint effort was the SmartChoices single-use panty, which targets the postpartum segment. “Tredegar contacted the VCU fashion department for someone to help design a postpartum panty prototype that was stylish and exhibited good fit using one of our elastic laminates,” recalled Ms. Smith. “The need for the postpartum panty was identified through a global consumer research initiative designed to help Tredegar better understand the needs of the end consumer in feminine hygiene. Tredegar conducted the research to better serve and innovate for our customers. The panty is designed to provide minimal protection and for use with disposable absorbent products.”

The postpartum panty is one of four products currently offered in the SmartChoices product line. SmartChoices was officially launched last June and is currently focusing on meeting the needs of today’s new moms. Products are sold online (www.smartchoiceswomen.com) and across the country in small independent pharmacies and maternity/baby boutiques. “Demand for the panty products needs to be monitored and maintained and hopefully sales will increase as more consumers realize the benefits and other uses (travel, during periods),” offered Ms. Guthrie of VCU.

Going forward, Ms. Smith foresees the long-term potential for mainstream acceptance of disposable nonwoven clothing as dependent on society’s perception of the value of such items. “Disposable clothing using film laminates is already a reality in items that can be found primarily in the medical market (e.g. gowns, coats, face mask, smocks, etc.) and even the spa industry as protective apparel,” she pointed out. “Opportunities for growth in the protective apparel arena will materialize more quickly as function is incorporated in the garment. The key challenge is psychological because acceptance requires society to find higher value in semi-durable clothing This is a paradigm shift in thought and behaviors on how we view and purchase clothes,” she said.

“The impact of fashion on acceptance is based on quality, look and feel. Does it look cheap and industrial or does it have fashion appeal (stylish, tailor-made)? This is why we partnered with VCU to explore the possibilities of blending fashion and function, thus blurring the line between film and fabric.”

Nonwovens Industry recently sat down with assistant pr ofessor Kimberly Guthrie, who taught the “Innovations In Nonwoven Fashion” course, to find out more about her project and the students’ designs.

NWI: What was the inspiration behind your “Innovations In Nonwoven Fashion” course?

KG: The development of the post partum panty was very successful and I was curious as to what other types of apparel products could be developed with this unique fabrication. I approached Tredegar about sponsoring a course in which their fabrics would be used to design and create apparel that focused on the concept of function. A fashion design studio course is an ideal environment to experiment with the possibilities of nonwoven and film laminate fabrics as applied to apparel design.

NWI: What types of clothing did your students create?

KG: The design concepts for the clothing included activewear for running and trail biking, a flight attendant outfit, a post-partum outfit, flight ramp crew apparel, a house cleaning outfit, children’s art and play clothes, artist’s apparel, an outfit for dramatic weight loss, men’s all condition/climate gear (ACG), martial arts fight gear, waitress uniforms, apparel for storing and using hands-free audio and communication devices, and women’s apparel that is both fashionable yet convertible.

NWI: Specifically, what materials did your students use to create the clothing?

KG: Tredegar donated two bolts of Fabriflex, medium stretch, 60-inch-wide and two bolts of Flexaire, high stretch, 15-inch wide. The Flexaire bolts were narrow because they were produced to make the disposable panties but can be produced in wider widths. The students piece the narrow width to make blocks large enough to house their pattern pieces. Both fabrics were white. The weight and thickness of the Fabriflex makes it more opaque compared to the Flexaire, which is thin and somewhat sheer.

NWI: What are the performance requirements, challenges and benefits of film and nonwovens in clothing applications?

KG: Based on feedback from the students, the fabrics have good elasticity, maintain their shape and are easy to cut and sew. Washability is a big benefit as well. On the other hand, students reported that the fabrics have a plastic-like smell, and that the medium stretch fabric is itchy and not as soft and breathable as the high stretch. Students found the high stretch to be very soft, easy to wear and fit to the body. They also noted that the fabrics (especially the medium) can become staticy, attracting dust and dirt. In terms of cost, the designs need to be simple to keep labor costs down so the garments will be considered inexpensive enough to throw away. There is also a need to select findings and trims that are inexpensive to keep overall production costs down.

NWI: Specifically, what role did film/nonwovens play in the final clothing pieces?

KG: I instructed the students to approach Fabriflex as a woven that happens to have one-way stretch. This meant that they assigned this fabric as if it were a bottom weight for apparel to be used to create pants and skirts. It was also appropriate for jackets and shirts. The Flexaire was assigned to garments that you would traditionally use a lightweight cotton knit, such as t-shirts.

NWI: How would you compare having students work with woven versus nonwoven material? What are the key differences? Similarities?

KG: Fashion design students begin their studies of garment design by working with traditional muslin. Grain and understanding grainlines is extremely important. Muslin has no stretch on the straight and cross grains, thus requiring fitting devices such as darts and seams to create a specific fit or silhouette. All of this would apply to nonwovens that have no stretch.

The biggest differences occur during construction, specifically seam finishing and pressing. Traditional wovens ravel and have to either be serged or flat fell seamed (ie. jeans) to control the raw, cut edge. With nonwovens, construction is simplified because seam and hem edges can be left cut/unfinished. The actual sewing of the nonwovens didn’t present any problems. Cut edges didn’t stretch out, which can happen with cottons and silks. It was difficult to insert straight pins into the medium stretch nonwoven. Proper pressing procedures ensure that a garment maintains its shape and appearance. Since this fabric cannot be pressed/ironed, the patterned shape becomes very important.

NWI: Would you teach this course again?

KG: Absolutely. The theme for this class was function. Each garment had to have a function and/or be used for a specific activity and that was really the creative element for the students. They had to consider what the garment “did,” its functionality and wearability. I really feel the class was a success and appreciate that the students were so open to working with these non-traditional fabrics.

NWI: What surprised you most in the process of designing and manufacturing nonwoven clothing?

KG: What surprised me most was that in the end, the finished garments looked like “normal” apparel constructed as if you could buy it off the rack. Not until you got closer and touched it did you realize the unique fabrication. Students from other classes would continually visit this class to check on the project’s progress. The more familiar the students in the class and outside of the class became with the fabrics, the more they appreciated the concept.

NWI: Were the garments intended for single or multiple use? Did you and your students discuss the issues of recyclability and waste? How about washability? Where did those discussions lead?

KG: The garments were intended for both types of use but probably focused more on multiple use. Keep in mind that these students are potential consumers of this type of product, so recyclabilty and waste were definite concerns. That the garments can be washed and re-used is big positive. We talked briefly about reducing water consumption as a positive result and hope that maybe there is a way that these fabrics can be re-processed and re-used in some way to determine if this is a sustainable product.

Also, the textile industry is not innocent in its contributions to water and air pollution. As you probably know, within the last 10 years, the EPA has been requiring textile and fiber manufacturers to list their pollutants. If producing nonwovens can be a more environmentally friendly option compared to traditional textile manufacturing, then striking a balance between environmentally conscious and cost efficient production with environmentally conscious consumption would be a major goal.

NWI: In terms of the long-term potential of nonwoven/film disposable clothing applications, what are the key challenges that lie ahead?

KG: We currently live in a world where travel and convenience are very important, so the potential for limited use and disposable clothing is huge. One challenge for the future will be educating the consumer about this type of apparel and clearly defining when it is beneficial to make use of these types of products.

NWI: How about the pricing factor? Do you believe nonwoven-based disposable clothing could compete cost-effectively in this market?

KG: To use a specific garment example (and this is a very generalized example), I went to Target’s website and found a two-pack sports bra that retails for $13.99. According to a designer contact of mine that works in that market, the fabric and labor costs to produce a single sports bra (at this price point) is less than $3, of which approximately $2 is spent on total fabric costs. How cost-effective a sports bra produced in a nonwoven fabric is will be determined by what price the nonwoven is sold to the garment manufactures. The panties sold under the SmartChoices brand sell for $5 for three pairs, averaging $1.66 per panty. That amount is considerably less than most cups of coffee. It becomes an issue of value and whether you are getting your money’s worth.

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