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Looking back at 100 years of textile history

Features | November 1, 2012 | By: Jessica Bies and Sigrid Tornquist

On September 12, 1912, fourteen manufacturers of canvas and awnings met at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver and formed the National Tent and Awning Association.

The manufacturers established the trade association to set standard weights and prices for canvas products, actions that would be considered illegal today. They also sought to form a unified voice to counter the price-setting strategies of their suppliers—the cotton mills.

Since that first gathering, the association has expanded in scope and purpose to become the largest textile trade association in the world. Today, the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) ranks in the top ten percent of all U.S. trade associations in terms of size of membership, operating budget and professional size.

In the following pages, we touch on a few moments in IFAI’s 100-year history—events, efforts and innovations that have helped shape the industry. It’s been quite a ride—and IFAI and its members continue to be on the forefront of advancing the industry, day by day.

Built on core markets

While IFAI and its members lead the way in establishing new revenue streams for the specialty fabrics industry, the industry itself has been built on a few core markets—markets that continue to be the bread and butter of specialty fabrics businesses. 

The tent rental industry has always been a provider of temporary shelter when permanent structures have been destroyed, are being renovated, or are simply not available. Here, a rough tent served as city hall for the founding of a new township in Canada in 1886. Photo from the Archives of Jones Tent & Awning Limited, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 

C.J. Hoigaard, founder of Hoigaard’s custom canvas and a charter member of the National Tent & Awning Association, offset slow months by taking custom orders, like the one for this horse cover. Custom textile manufacturers still supplement their revenue by taking one-off custom orders outside their core markets. 

For the celebration of Iran’s 2,500th anniversary, 50 luxury tents were constructed among the ruins of the ancient capital of Persepolis to house delegates from around the world. 

The Hard Rock Café in New York was modeled after a Memphis truck stop, and the awning over the front door is actually the tail end of a 1957 Cadillac Biarritz.

Tent designer Bill Moss’ freeform “para-wing” became part of the “station-wagon living” movement popular in the 1950s and was featured in Ford Motor Co.’s Ford Times.  

Many current IFAI member companies got their start as sail makers, and later often expanded product lines to include marine canvas and awnings. 

Defense & the textile industry

For all of IFAI’s history, solutions to the United States’ defense needs have provided opportunities for manufacturing and innovation that have driven—and continue to drive—the specialty fabrics industry.

First developed and manufactured in 1939 by DuPont®, nylon was fabricated entirely of petrochemicals—the first truly manufactured fiber. During WWII, nylon was used to replace silk in parachutes, and was also used in tires, tents, ropes and other military items. Now, nylon plays a significant part in the specialty fabrics industry—from tents to awnings and beyond.

In 2010, Q-Net™, from QinetiQ North America, worked in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to develop a lightweight rocket-propelled grenade solution (RPG) based on nets rather than traditional armor. The lightweight net fibrous material can be installed on a wide range of tactical and lightly armored vehicles, and because it is 50 to 60 percent lighter than metallic armor systems, it saves fuel and reduces the likelihood of vehicle roll-over and wear and tear from excessive weight.

After the U.S. Navy tracked a Japanese submarine to the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. in 1942, Col. John F. Ohmer, a pioneer in camouflage and commander of the March Field Camouflage Training Center, was assigned the task of implementing “passive defense measures” for all vital installations along the Pacific coast. “Camouflage California” was a cooperative effort—of set designers from MGM, 20th Century Fox, Disney, Paramount and Universal—to hide more than 34 air bases using fake foliage and structural cover constructed of wire, burlap, canvas and camouflage netting. Though the camouflaging worked well enough to fool pilots, it was never put to the test against the Japanese. 

During WWII, each American field hospital was staffed by 223 assorted personnel. Not only was the staff housed in tents, but the hospital itself operated under canvas.

The great textile get-together

Conventions, trade shows, conferences or expos—no matter what you call them, they’re an opportunity to connect with industry players and get up to speed on the latest innovations. 

“Ride an Iron Horse to Dallas, without the danger of blisters in the wrong place!” This ad for the 43rd annual convention heralded train travel as the ideal way to get to Dallas.

James E. McGregor, the first editor of the Review and the association’s first employee and executive secretary, once described the yearly meeting of tent and awning business owners—now known as IFAI Expo—as the “homecoming of the industry.” Then known as conventions, the events in the 1920s tended to be rowdy, one featuring a live elephant and others, jugs of moonshine. 


In 1912 the association held a second convention that year and invited 35 firms to attend. The event was attended by 60 participants.


The 2012 IFAI Expo features more than 400 exhibitors.

In support of WWII travel restrictions, the annual convention was put on hiatus for 1944 and 1945. The 1943 “war conference” at the Drake Hotel in Chicago focused on how the industry could support the war effort.

At the 31st annual meeting in 1942, two Army generals and a major addressed the conference.

“If you men stay away you are dead and don’t know it. It is no use indulging in ‘I think I’ll go, or perhaps I’ll go.’ The road to hell is paved with good intentions; the road to poor business, prejudices and lack of cooperation is paved with ‘I should have gone, I meant to have gone, whyinell [sic] didn’t I go?’ Gosh all hemlock, we want you!”

 — James E. McGregor, Review editor and director of the association 1912–1952

IFAI goes to washington

Trade associations such as IFAI have always had a powerful impact on legislation, which translates to the bottom line for textile manufacturers and suppliers.

The US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

Shortly after the Supreme Court reversed its hostile attitude toward trade associations (1921–1925), President Hoover supported the creation of trade associations despite the belief that they violated antitrust laws. The GOP, in control of the Federal Trade Commission, refused to enforce antitrust laws and promoted the foundation of more trade associations, based on the belief that businesses within industries could improve efficiency by cooperatively determining prices and costs.

President Hoover

Awnings—widely used to cool homes during the first half of the 20th century—are once again being recognized for their energy-saving properties, in part thanks to IFAI’s Professional Awning Manufacturers Association’s (PAMA) “Awning Energy Study II: The Impact on Energy Use and Peak Demand of Awnings and Roller Shades in Residential Buildings.” The study provides data on how the use of awnings and roller shades affects cooling energy savings and utility costs in 50 cities across the U.S. As a result, the Department of Energy website ( focuses on improving energy efficiency for homes and the use of awnings as part of that solution. 

J.C. Egnew and Outdoor Venture Corp., Stearns, Ky., along with others involved in the United States Industrial Fabrics Institute (USIFI), spends a significant amount of time lobbying Congress on behalf of U.S. fabricators. Paramount among the lobbying efforts are those concerning the Berry Amendment, which requires the U.S. Department of Defense to give preference in procurement to domestically produced, manufactured or home-grown products. 

In another effort under the umbrella of USIFI, Egnew helped form a subcommittee of tent makers to fund a study determining why there was such a shortage of tents when the U.S. entered the war in Iraq. “What we’ve accomplished [through our efforts] is the War Reserve Funding, which basically keeps a level of funding during peacetime,” Egnew says. “And the inventory made during peacetime builds a war reserve inventory of shelters.” 

In February 1985, the newly renamed Industrial Fabrics Association International opened a second office in Washington, D.C. With textile trade deficits at an all-time high and textile and apparel imports at nearly 25 billion, industry growth was down significantly. At the same time, Congress was attempting to pass legislation that would set global quotas for textile and apparel imports. Though a bill that called for quota cuts and freezes on textile imports would make it through both the House and Senate in 1988, President Reagan vetoed it immediately, claiming that it would have “disastrous effects on the U.S. economy.” Attempts to override the veto also failed.

The fabric frontier

One small step for textiles, one giant leap for the textile industry. Textiles that have impacted the space program have also impacted the industry as a whole.

Originally developed to protect NASA astronauts, Fiberglas® fabric coated with Teflon®, known as Beta Cloth, is now regularly used for architectural tensile structures. In 1970, DuPont® and Owens-Corning were putting the final touches on Beta Cloth. Developed for use in spacesuits, it was engineered to withstand temperatures up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, while providing more tensile strength than steel. Shortly after the fabric was developed, the two companies worked with Birdair Inc. to modify the material for architectural use. 

Hook-and-loop fastener aka velcro in closeup

Widely used these days for almost all fabric-related applications, including industrial applications, Velcro, invented in the 1940s, didn’t become well-known until more than a decade later when NASA started using it in the 1960s to anchor equipment for astronauts’ convenience in Apollo mission zero-gravity situations.

Fireproofing of canvas duck was critical to the success of Admiral Richard Byrd’s Antarctic expedition in 1929. Because of the extreme cold at the South Pole, the motors of the airplanes could not be started until they had been warmed to liquefy the congealed oil. Fireproof and waterproof covers were used that had been treated by Price Fire & Waterproofing Co., New York, N.Y., and furnished by Baker, Carver & Morell Inc., also of New York, N.Y.

The industrial fabric industry provided the establishment of the U.S. space program with dramatic new sets of uses for manufactured fibers. When Neil Armstrong took “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” on the moon July 20, 1969, his lunar space suit included multi-layers of nylon and aramid fabrics. The flag he planted was made of nylon. Today, the exhaust nozzles of the two large booster rockets that lift space shuttles into orbit contain 30,000 pounds of carbonized rayon, and carbon fiber composites are used in structural components in commercial aircraft, adding strength and lowering weight and fuel costs. 

“We’re an old-economy type industry, a cut-and-sew industry, but we sell to the very high-tech customers,” says Robert Rosania, IFM, CPP, and CEO of Ehmke Manufacturing Co. Inc. The Philadelphia, Pa.-based company fabricates acoustical and thermal blankets for aircraft, foreign object debris (FOD) covers and other custom projects. In 2011, Ehmke provided custom design and engineering for the interiors of the U.S. Marine Corps HMX-1 squadron (the squadron responsible for the transportation of the president of the United States and other VIPs) and reset the interiors of the helicopter and fixed wing fleet of the U.S. Department of State. 

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