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Matching thread with performance

Feature, Markets | March 1, 2013 | By:

Thread manufacturers keep pace with fabric improvements for consistently reliable performance in end products.

You come home with the stylish new jacket you’ve had your eye on—perfect color, perfect fit and a fabric that’ll outlive you—only to find that, all too soon, the seams are starting to give way. Disappointing in a jacket. But what if that happened to an awning, canopy or bimini top that you had sewn for a customer?

The lesson is clear: the end product is only as good as each of its components. In recent years, fabric performance has greatly improved, extending the life of the end products. Constantly on the alert to satisfy the need for improved durability, safety and versatility, thread manufacturers continue to ensure that their products live up to the capabilities of the fabrics they bind.

Reliable workhorse

Most manufacturers boast a “workhorse” thread—the one its customers are familiar with and whose performance they can predict and trust. It may be a polyester or maybe a PTFE-based thread. But, says John Shaw, sales leader for the fibers group of W.L. Gore & Assoc. Inc., Elkton, Md., “While polyester thread sews well, it has the drawback of degrading. UV coatings will break down over time. They won’t hold up to the elements as well as PTFE.”

Enter Tenara®, a PTFE product unaffected by water or UV rays. “A very magical material,” says Shaw. “Typically, full-density PTFE is not that strong and it creeps.” However, Gore’s expanded PTFE product improves on these properties. Tenara sewing thread is impervious to the elements. “It will not break down under UV or moisture and will not dry rot—a fantastic set of properties,” he says.

Tenara was developed via a marriage of customer prompts and corporate horizon-gazing. So today, says Shaw, “We have a good position in the outdoor and marine markets and continue to look for adjacent opportunities, like marine upholstery.”

Tried and true

A&E (American & Efird LLC) of Mount Holly, N.C., sees value in the tried and true, says Mark Hatton, director of marketing and sales administration. “Our threads used in the outdoor market—awnings, marine, architecture—have not strayed much from proven constructions. They’re valued by artisans who take pride in and attach their reputations to their products; they’re comfortable with what they know works. They may explore new products, but in the end they go for the tried and true: they know it will perform. They’re also very good at what they do, know their equipment and don’t change the variables. That’s why bonded poly is our mainstay product. Of course, we’re always looking for ways to maximize the longevity and strength of poly’s UV resistance and color.”

And that’s why A&E’s new SunStop®, developed to resist rays and fading, has been successful. Featuring external poly, “It out-performs cotton-wrapped poly, which some people use, believing it would swell and prevent leaks when the needle hole in the fabric was bigger than the thread,” Hatton says.

A time-saver

Fil-Tec Inc.’s vice president of sales, Gary Graves, agrees that the basic thread constructions—both twisted and monocord—used in the furniture and automotive industries his company serves haven’t changed much in the past 20 years. But today’s higher speed sewing places more demands on the thread, which has led the Hagerstown, Md.-based company to improve bond chemistry and utilize advanced lubricants to optimize loop formation, increase abrasion resistance and create consistent frictional properties of its industrial sewing threads.

In working with customers who manufacture tents, awnings and boat covers, Fil-Tec developed Aqua-Seal™, a time-saver thread. Formerly, a seam needed to be taped to forestall leaks; by utilizing the company’s patented water-swellable fiber technology, its engineers developed a thread that prevents liquids from penetrating the needle holes at the sewn seam. “The features of this thread and the cost savings to the customer are truly remarkable,” Graves says. Fil-Tec also demonstrated Aqua-Seal’s value to the auto industry in sewing seams for dash panels and headrests, which are subsequently injected with foam—“a huge time-saver for the auto plants, since they no longer have to tape the seams to prevent leakage,” he explains.

PTFE ‘flagship’

PTFE also rules as the heavyweight, scoring sewing-thread goals at Charlotte, N. C.-based Coats North America, says vice president of new products development Tim Ladd. It’s the muscle behind its flagship Helios-P—“basically, our PTFE sewing thread developed to be compliant with current outdoor and marine product lines.”

The key to PTFE, he explains, is its resistance to most chemicals. That means Helios-P demonstrates durability in extreme outdoor conditions. It’s inert to sunlight, strong and abrasion resistant. It was developed to address customer requests for anti-fungus and anti-mold armor in outdoor products such as tents and boats, as well as for use in medical, mattress and apparel applications.

Director of marketing services Susan J. Challenger adds that Coats Protect represents the company’s new range of antimicrobial threads, which create a “zone of inhibition” around seams to help prevent growth of odor- and stain-causing bacteria and pathogens.

More performance

Alan Sheinberg, senior vice president of the largest Coats distributor company, Komar Alliance LLC, Elk Grove Village, Ill., underscores that this is a consumer-driven industry. “That’s the basis for new products,” he says.

“Green products are more and more popular. So are Coats’ antimicrobial threads, which are innovative products. And fire-resistant threads, such as Coats Protos, are incredibly popular, particularly in the mattress industry.”

As a distributor for Coats, among others, he underscores that Helios-P PTFE is “market-driven, a flagship. It’s much more costly than many conventional thread products out there, but others don’t hold up as well in outdoor environments.”

Antimicrobial protection is hot, agrees Bob Flacks, president of The Quality Thread & Notions Co., Solon, Ohio. “Our Guardian with Microban® is the first thread with antimicrobial protection, designed for the health care, hospitality and outdoor industries to fight bacteria, mold and mildew, especially in sewing crevices and seams that trap bacteria. It came about when we saw a growth in antimicrobial chemistry used in fabrics that in thread didn’t exist. We saw the need to provide that enhancement,” Flacks says.

The company also forecasts a need in the marine and outdoor market for embroidery thread that minimizes fading for use on seating and awnings, for example. Flacks points to Vision, offering fabricators who haven’t included embroidery a way to enhance their product, to open new avenues for their designers and outpace the competition.

“In the outdoor market, SolarFix®, our PTFE fiber thread, represents a significant growth item for us because of characteristics that make it a consistent and dependable product.” A spinoff benefit is the company’s—and the client’s—ability to extend its warrantees for the life span of the thread, a key issue.

The right combination

Texas Thread Manufacturing Co. of Harlingen, Texas, has been selling to small fabricators for 22 years, says president Kavanaugh Francis. With these mom-and-pop operations, he says, “new” is not a big selling point. “We stick with nylon and polyesters that have been around some time; thread is not a high-tech product, but maintaining quality is a continuous process. A little art goes into it, to maintain quality.”

And that’s what his clients want. “They’re looking for good quality and good sewability—thread that can withstand the elements. UV resistance is a big factor, especially here in Texas, with severe sun conditions. Because they’re synthetic, there’s no degradation from moisture,” Francis says.

“A product needs three factors: quality, service (our pride) and price. They’re all important, but it takes a combination of all three to attract new, and keep present, customers.”

Unspooling the future

“We are always exploring adding new colors to the line, which is not trivial—so when we add a color, it is important,” says Gore’s Shaw. “We integrate color into our fiber, making it colorfast because it is not dyed—a tremendous plus. Because we’re working with a very inert material, non-staining is inherent because nothing bonds to it—another big plus.”

Down the road, Gore’s Tenara will be tweaked “because there’s a bit of a plastic feel—not lovely, but not a showstopper. We’re constantly looking to improve products with subtle things like this that customers might not notice. We’re not a ‘new and improved-blast culture.’ But if the product offers vastly improved performance, we call it new.”

Graves says that bonded nylon and poly have been basically stable since the ’90s and will continue to be. “But how we source new material is becoming more cost-effective in the worldwide market.”

Today’s clients are demanding longer life span, Flacks says, so Quality Thread is adding chemistry to fibers to add 10-20 percent to the life span of their Sunguard thread.

“Customers are constantly looking for technical and chemistry characteristics of the fiber to be carried into the seam to provide longer use and quality over time,” says Coats’ Ladd, “so we’re increasingly manufacturing products that perform well in the field.” Cost, however, is relative to potential liability. “It’s imperative to try to match cost requirements with quality of the product they produce. We can offer a variety of products based on good/better/best.”

Komar’s Sheinberg agrees. “Users always are concerned about cost; it’s the single most important driving factor. We recommend threads that offer the highest performance with the least amount of downtime, so clients can gain savings in increased efficiencies and skill, even if it does cost more. But making change is hard in a plant’s culture,” he says. “You’ve got to explain the advantages, such as, go for the pre-wound bobbin because it’s inefficient to wind your own; you won’t get maximum yield.”

“We find customers are getting more knowledgeable and better understand the benefits of different threads,” says Flacks. “They have more ways to build the product and distinguish themselves from the competition, so education is our growing focus—primarily through direct sales calls to explain the benefits, costs and options. Customers want education.”

The bottom line, says Hatton, is a thread that will survive the lifetime of the product. “Plus, aesthetics—color and color consistency and performance, something that won’t bleed or fade. We have produced PTFE thread, but today the demand is very small. Sewability is difficult and many customers don’t see the cost/value relationship. Instead, our efforts are to produce what our clients tell us serves them best. And that’s Anefil Poly® for general and outdoor applications and Anefil Nylon® for upholstery, luggage, sporting goods and military applications—as strong as poly but abrasion resistant.

“The trend was to minimize the sight of thread in auto, umbrella, mattress and furniture applications,” Hatton says. “Now they want the stitching to be dramatic: heavier, a thick, chunky look, so it’s function plus aesthetics. It helps them differentiate themselves from the competition, call out the craftsman aspect, that it’s not mass-made.

“Development is constant,” he says, because fabric construction is changing. For instance, stretch fabrics need thread that stretch with it. “In 2012, we introduced AneFlex™ with that sole purpose, which opened up new opportunities that could cross over into different industrial markets,” he says.

A changing marketplace

The market’s changed, overall, says Graves. “First, many went out of the U.S.; but the last five years have been stable, and even improved, in the automotive market. We’re seeing industrial sewing plants beginning to move production back to North America to shorten the supply chain and gain better control over quality. However, certain raw nylon and polyester filament sizes are no longer available for purchase in the U.S., due to the global shift in fiber production. This has created a greater emphasis on global sourcing of raw materials.”

“Tenara is used in very sunny areas, and a number of those areas are in the euro zone affected by the euro crisis, so that has caused the market to plateau,” Shaw says. “Plus, there’s growing competition from welding.”

“Specific markets are returning from offshore,” agrees Coats’ Ladd, noting Coats’ innovation in coating fibers and the development of prewound bobbins. “We show a high percent of income generated by new products,” he says.

“There are fewer markets for us today because of imports—less business across the board,” says Sheinberg. “But some is coming back from overseas.”

Flacks forecasts that the market for outdoor shelters and awnings will continue, and people will keep on using textiles in ever-broader ways. “Our antimicrobial product, Guardian, is in its infancy, so the future looks bright.”

“We are licensed by DuPont to produce aramid threads for heat and flame resistant, high-temp applications for aerospace, firefighters, welding and insulation,” says Hatton. “We continue to see growth here, as customers look to achieve higher performance requirements. In outdoor products, we’re always working on longevity of color and longevity of strength.”

Over the years, business has been “pretty steady,” reports Francis. “We have small fabricator customers and they have not gone out of business—but they have cut way back. Yet, last year was better than 2010,” he’s happy to report.

Carla Waldemar is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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