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Interior fabrics know how to perform

Advanced Textiles, Feature | August 1, 2011 | By:

From antimicrobial properties to ultra durability, textiles for interiors show they have more than good looks.

Uses for fabrics in interior applications are seemingly endless, from soft signage to wall treatments to window coverings. Although commonalities exist among fabrics, not all textiles are created equal. Furthermore, what’s needed in a clinic is not always necessary in an office setting or residence. The fabric choices available for interior use offer an array of capabilities, carefully manufactured for specific end uses—and tuned in to expected growth areas in this market.

Hardworking and versatile

A fabric’s characteristics depend on the setting and end use. Dazian Creative Fabric Environments, South Hackensack, N.J., creates fabrics and end products most often used in “architainment,” where entertainment merges with architectural interiors in places such as restaurants, lounges and nightclubs. Common applications include movable space dividers and ceiling treatments. “Everybody today is interested in some type of theater in different hospitality venues,” says Jon Weingarten, president of Dazian.

In these settings, multiple fabric characteristics are at play. “A lot of venues have moved away from hard-walled space dividers because they are so energy inefficient, replacing them instead with freestanding fabric structures, which maintain interior air flow and provide excellent sound control,” Weingarten notes, adding that fabrics are used to filter light or block it out altogether. “UV protection also has become very important. The color doesn’t change, particularly on stretch fabrics.”

UV tolerance also plays a big role in interior sun control products, with credible end product manufacturers (EPMs) offering a multiyear warranty for UV stability. Customers are seeking other characteristics, too, such as an assortment of colors, widths and light-filtering ranges in translucent, transparent and blackout fabrics, says Chris Duerk, director of sales and marketing for Mermet Corp. in Cowpens, S.C.

Meanwhile, certain industries—most notably health care—require antimicrobial and antifungal properties. Drapilux of Emsdetten, Germany, manufactures fabrics for end uses where clean air and hygiene are top priorities.

“Our products absorb unpleasant smells and reduce bacteria and infection pathogens,” explains Dr. Norbert Rehle, director of sales at Drapilux. “In hospitals and [care centers], the antimicrobial function obviously helps to save lives, but also hotel guests have become increasingly interested in hygiene matters, especially for curtains and bed covers.”

For its Bella-Dura® product line, Wearbest Sil-Tex Mills, Garfield, N.J., not only integrated antimicrobial properties, but also other factors such as light fastness, easy cleanability and durability. The manufacturer’s B-D Healthcare™ collection combines the high abrasion of a nylon warp construction with postconsumer polyester weft to create a fabric that is 100 percent bleach cleanable and offers five times the UV resistance of standard or indoor fabrics. The fabric is often used in public areas, such as facilities with large atrium windows and direct sunlight.

Mindful of the environment

In addition, sustainability continues to be a driving force in fabric development. Bella-Dura starts its life as a byproduct of petroleum waste and ends it as a 100 percent recyclable fabric that can be used in products such as the black plastic used by landscapers. What’s more, the manufacturing process requires less energy, uses a small amount of water and produces no harmful waste. “Back in 2002, we were inspired to bring to market a performance fabric that was an earth-friendly product—not just marketing hype but in reality,” says Irwin Gasner of Wearbest. The company attained the silver level of Cradle to Cradle® Certification by MBDC, an independent testing and rating agency.

Camira Fabrics Ltd. in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, U.K., has put sustainability at the top of its priority list with a brand called Second Nature™, which addresses the categories of compostable and rapidly renewable, recycled and climate neutral. The fabrics comprise recycled textiles such as polyester and leather, as well as renewable fibers such as pure new wool and bast fibers from plants, such as nettles and hemp. Because these fibers are plant-based, they will fully decompose at the end of their life cycle. In addition, Camira analyzes the carbon footprint of a fiber, including all processes and transportation. “We are currently looking at the possibility of recycling single fiber-type fabrics into the same fabric in order to fully close the loop,” says Camira’s Ian Burn. “Multiple fiber-type fabrics tend to be ‘downcycled’ into things like insulation materials and carpet underlays.”

Meeting FR standards

The most common characteristic shared among interior fabrics is flame resistance (FR). Any fabric that is used in a public venue—retail establishment, movie theater, museum, church—needs to be FR. Although flame retardant codes vary, several standards exist to help fabric suppliers and EPMs understand some overall guidelines. One common standard is NFPA 701, which addresses flame propagation of textiles and films. Another is ASTM E84, related to surface burning characteristics of building materials.

A third one that is frequently followed is the California State Fire Marshal (CSFM) code, as the state is a leader in establishing flammability requirements. (Title 19, which is the California Fire Marshal’s flammability requirement for textiles, is in the process of undergoing updates. IFAI information manager Juli Case serves on the CSFM Flame Retardant Advisory Committee and says that new standards may be ready for public comment by the end of this year.)

A cooperative effort

Multiple parties are responsible for the development of interior fabrics with high performance capabilities. “Preferences are strongly driven by the end-use customers, but responsible manufacturers have significantly contributed to creating awareness among the end users and [educating them] that there are efficient textile solutions to fill their needs,” Rehle says.

Case in point: When Drapilux launched its air cleansing and antibacterial fabrics a few years ago, “We presumed that interior decorators focused on hospitals and [care centers] would be excited about this possibility to fulfill the basic needs of their customers,” Rehle says. “But this didn’t happen. They kept differentiating by price and selling patterns, colors and so on, instead of the added value.”

In response, Drapilux added sales consultants who were fully focused on the health care market and thus could directly educate designers and end users on the fabric’s advantages.

In the interior shading market, Duerk says that commercial specifications are driven from a variety of sources “such as architects and specifiers, dealers loyal to one brand, fabricator preference, unique fabric characteristics, fabric brand strength and longevity in the market.”

In some instances, interior designers influence a fabric’s characteristics. “Designers are the direct link to manufacturers, where oftentimes we ask for certain [fabric] styles to be made with specific performance characteristics,” says Claire Tamburro, director of design for HMSHost in Bethesda, Md., which develops dining and shopping locations at airports and on motorways. “Designers often partner with our vendors to work within the parameters of performance, lead times and budget constraints.”

Future improvements

Manufacturers continue to expand the capabilities of fabrics. Weingarten reports improvements in coatings to enhance fabric performance, as well as advancements in creating dimensional surface textures through die cutting and laser cutting, which create decorative effects on fabric. “It defines pattern and open space, which allows light and air to pass through,” he explains. “If used with a solid fabric behind, it can produce visual effects such as dimension, shadow and color when supplemented by architectural or theatrical lighting. The development of wide-width computerized fabric laser cutting has created new product opportunities for wide-width seamless panels, large logos and long pattern repeats.”

Another big change is the proliferation of sustainable fibers such as bamboo and hemp. “They were never utilized on such a large commercial scale,” Weingarten says, “but improved harvesting and manufacturing techniques have resulted in these types of fibers becoming more important to the market.”

Camira has taken note of the interest in natural fabrics, offering Stingplus fabric, made from 75 percent pure new wool and 25 percent fiber from nettles. In 2012, the company will unveil a new fabric that is 60 percent pure new wool and 40 percent hemp available in 30 colorways.

For fabrics used in public settings such as hospitals and hotels, manufacturers in the market note the advances of performance-enhancing capabilities such as antimicrobial and antifungal properties, along with high abrasion and stain resistance. Many project that these factors will become the standard. Additionally, “New coloring ingredients and dying technologies have significantly increased light resistance of fabrics and brightness of colors,” says Rehle.

According to Scott Fisher, president of Fisher Textiles Inc., Indian Trail, N.C., the fabric graphics market continues to advance because consumers in both commercial and residential settings seek a distinctive, often personalized, look. “With the digital print market emerging, new applications are bringing out things that were not done before.”

While these changes in interior fabrics and coatings have affected how some manufacturers and EPMs do business, the economy continues to be a driving force. “Customers are working with much lower budgets,” Weingarten explains. “Everyone in the supply chain has really been pushed to integrate their operations in adding value to their products or to move closer to the end user. Ten to 15 years ago, fabric companies could be satisfied just making fabric. Today, they have been forced to transition their businesses into the manufacturing of a finished product.” For example, he cites fabric manufacturing companies that laminate their fabrics to different substrates for automobile headliners, upholstery and wall coverings.

As a designer responsible for selecting the right interior fabrics for her clients, Tamburro keeps a close eye on changes in the industry. Her take on what the future holds: “Performance characteristics will continue to improve, and fabrics will continue to be more sustainable as more recycling plants open. Fibers will also improve as manufacturers perfect their milling processes. It’s a very exciting time to be in design because there is so much innovation going on.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Pine City, Minn.

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