Fabric solutions turn the outdoors into practical and pleasureable spaces with all the beauty and comfort of a room indoors.
This was the winter that earned bragging rights for much of the U.S. and Canada. So at the first drip of a melting icicle, folks started thumbing through seed catalogs and searching for the perfect barbeque recipe, plotting their return, at last, to the great outdoors.
While people are keen on outdoor living, we like our outdoors fringed with 21st-century comforts. Give us shades, canopies and awnings that shield us from potent UV rays, windy gusts and downpours. Give us screens to block the bugs and acorns, and furniture upholstery that’s long-lasting, low-maintenance, element-resistant—and stylish. To go along with that, we’ll need a matching pool cover, grill cover, cabana and shade sail for the play area.
Bolstered by the stagnant economy and the stress of life’s demands, families are choosing to spend more time together and spending a chunk of disposable income on the outdoor amenities that foster that goal. Northerners opt to make their homes their castles, gathering by the pool or on the deck as soon as winter finally disappears. Those in southern regions yearn to enjoy a breeze, just out of reach of the sun’s rays.
End product manufacturers are saying “can-do” to all of the above, and textile manufacturers are ready with plenty of choices.
Fabrics for all preferences
Natalie Scott, vice president, sales and marketing for the casual furniture division of fabric manufacturer Sattler Corp., of Hudson, N.C., confirms that fabric sales for outdoor residential use, such as Outdura®, are big and only getting bigger. “Business is up, and the outdoor room is one of the fastest-growing categories—a trend that’s here to stay,” she says. “It’s the highest focal point of home-improvement dollars spent today and equally important in new construction. Abetted by heat lanterns and fire pits, people enjoy them for multiple seasons, and with that, they want to be comfortable. Today the outside is just like the inside, with deep seating, decorative pillows, trim and outdoor rugs merchandized together to provide the same aesthetics as an indoor room. The East Coast is leading the way, by sheer population. However, business is equally important on the West Coast.”
Who’s buying? “You’d be surprised,” says Hugo Benitez, national marketing manager, designed fabrics, of Phifer Inc., based in Tuscaloosa, Ala. “The Northeast has a shorter period of use, but they’re buying—they value their outdoor time even more.”
Distributor J. Ennis Fabrics, based in Plainfield, Ind., underscores these convictions. Says marketing manager Craig Moriyama, “Outdoor fabrics have come a long way—no longer the scratchy webbing on the aluminum chair. People treat the outdoor space as extensions of their living rooms—more elegant, more fancy. People want both style and comfort—a whole look, plus high-performance fabric, same as you’d want in your interior. And all indoor/outdoor fabrics we distribute are made in North America.”
These days high performance is a given. The 100-percent solution-dyed acrylic widely used is water- and stain-resistant, easy to clean, fights off UV rays, and resists rot, mildew and fading. Beyond those basics, says Moriyama, “People are craving bright colors and large patterns—just like inside. Furniture is becoming more lounge-y, another extension of indoors. And there are more and more advances in selections: more color, stripes, better awning fabrics, plus more ways people can customize through cushions without spending money for a whole new sofa set.”
Scott also notes a shift to bold, clear colors: “Emerald, indigo, and amber and teal in combination. People also tend to make safe choices they can live with for years. Neutrals are still the best sellers, with gray making a strong statement. Textures are very popular: raw silk and linenlike looks. Stripes are hot, too.”
Jacquards, as accents to a “safe” color, are used as accessory pieces that catch the eye. Geometrics, watercolor patterns
or animal skins are used “maybe not on a sofa, but a side chair or pillow. We’re constantly researching the next great generation of novelty yarn like our boucle—soft, like chenille. People redo their look every five to seven years. They’re ready to change even before the fabric needs to retire! Merchandizing fabric together to create a whole-room look is more popular than ever,” Scott reports.
“We’re seeing a lot of blues,” says Benitez. “We show our fabrics in ‘stories’—how they coordinate with each other, making it easier for customers to choose fabrics. Stripes do very, very well; we add several each year. They’re especially popular in the Florida market, and great to accent a solid.”
This year, adds Phifer’s vice president of design, Carol Harkey, “Color is becoming more sophisticated—intermittent with neutrals—like our biscotti, suede, chestnut, emerald, fig and azalea. We’ve also added nine new heather colors, adding texture to the mix.” There’s a retro redux too: “Crisp and transitional patterns, organic and graphic, a blast from the past!” Phifer also pays homage to coastal chic in “classic maritime patterns like seashells, pelicans, coral reefs and starfish in the graphic style.”
The company’s selection of Fiberglas® screening, suitable for exterior windows and doors as well as patio and pool enclosures, is woven with protective vinyl to ensure top quality, color and flexibility. A new generation of insect screens, including UltraVue® and BetterVue® from Phifer, provide enhanced visibility. Its solar screen lines block glare and heat, with the value-added bonus of saving on energy bills in hot spots such as Phoenix.
Seizing the opportunities
Business is booming, reports Jo-Anne Conroy, who owns House of Canvas in Ottawa, Ont., Canada. “People want the feel of a vacation at home, to escape the stresses of the day. They crave more outdoor living, especially after a brutal winter like this one.” And they want it bigger and better: “Not plastic chairs, but luxury models. And barbecues, not those teeny hibachis. Outdoor kitchens are big.” Conroy is prepared to protect those big investments with custom-made canopies, shade sails, curtains, screens and awnings, using woven acrylic canvas (Sunbrella®) or high-tenacity meshes, many of which can be powered by a remote device.
“Today’s improved fabrics are longer-lasting and are available in different types of meshes—open-weave to tighter—if your preference is airiness overhead. A host of water-repellent fabrics can protect furnishings as well as allow for use in rain or shine. Lots of really lovely patterns too—the calm, natural look of sea and sand, plus fun colors: plain, stripes, textures. People can opt for a beautiful umbrella for an auxiliary, smaller deck as a complement to the canopy of a large deck, each with its own flair and mood, whether for privacy or entertaining.” Conroy sells to businesses too, such as a patio canopy for a day care facility “to protect tender skin or for use on a rainy day” and for restaurants to maximize use during a drizzle.
What’s on her customers’ wish list? “Typically, that initial list includes motorized, automated gadgets for temporary shade but often flips to solid structures after consultation.
Of course, in custom manufacturing, the sky’s the limit.”
Rainier Industries of Tukwila, Wash., sells retractable awnings, both directly in the Pacific Northwest and nationally through other dealers, says marketing manager Scott Powell. All are custom made to a client’s specs, using Sunbrella, “The best product, we feel, with the best warranty. Customers can choose any color or pattern in their extensive book of swatches.”
Rainier’s customers are in an upper-income bracket and have owned their homes for a while. “They tie the color and style to their existing scheme and keep it five to ten years before replacing. Year to year, we’ve seen great growth. People have more disposable income and are staying home more, improving their space.”
Bob Trotte calls himself “the little guy” of the industry; he’s been making awnings for 36 years at F & S Awning and Blind Co. Inc. of Edison, N.J. (F & S stands for father and son.) “We use lots of different fabrics—Sunbrella, Ferrari, SunFabric—but all are vinyl-laminated acrylic.” Word of mouth drives his business, which has evolved from 80/20 residential/commercial to a 60/40 mix, which includes storefront awnings, entry canopies and pool covers for condo developments. Retractable awnings, both manual and motorized, represent 20 percent of sales. “Canopies,” he says, “are a lot more popular to cover patios or decks. You get a lot more use out of the area. I also provide put-up and take-down service for 90 percent of my residential and condo customers. They want them removed in winter. It’s good, steady business. So are repairs.”
Retractable awnings are front-and-center at Los Angeles, Calif.-based Alpha Productions Inc. In fact, the company introduced European-style retractable awnings to the U.S. when it launched in 1977, says president Vatche Azirian. (European-style, after aluminum extrusion technology evolved in the late 1950s, positions a spring inside an aluminum casing.) Alpha’s lateral arm awnings are fabricated with 100-percent solution-dyed acrylic, while various meshes are used for vertical solutions.
Azirian applauds the current trend of banishing boring burgundy, forest green and beige in favor of “more fun, more color. Stripes are coming back!” Yet, as he points out, “One great thing about our business is, we don’t have to reinvent it every year with new bells and whistles, like an iPhone®. It provides the same great ‘wow’ factor every year, regardless. Once you sell to someone, they’ll end up buying more.” Alpha’s market, he reports, is the homeowner of seven to ten years, who’s already remodeled the bath and kitchen and is now ready to create his outdoor dream. They change the fabric every seven to ten years, although technically, it can last longer.
There’s more to the process, though. “Over 50 percent of the battle is not just selling, but installing an awning,” Azirian says. “It’s got to be done right, no matter how great the product, how pretty, how strong. That’s why suppliers teaching their dealers proper installation is vital to the growth of our industry.”