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Connection points

Advanced Textiles, Feature | July 1, 2014 | By:

The right hardware makes every job a snap. With the right outlook— it’s a riveting subject.

In this global economy, when business people can order supplies from around the globe at the click of a mouse, it’s easy to assume that we can get whatever we want, whenever we want. But in fact, long-term trends in the manufacture of hardware and finishing supplies, combined with trends in the design of end products, have caused a subtle shift in the types and numbers of materials that are available.

The selection of hardware is becoming smaller overall, says Charles Duvall, principal at Duvall Design, Portland, Maine. It’s not just that there are fewer manufacturers and distributors, he suggests, but that the remaining suppliers have streamlined their operations.

“I think they’ve probably reduced the selection so they wouldn’t have to produce so many SKUs because the economy’s been bad,” he says. “For example, there used to be 50 or 100 different shackles you could get. And now [hardware suppliers] don’t stock a lot of those, so you can only get 25 different choices. I see it in marine, but think that’s probably true in every part of the specialty fabrics industry.”

Nicholas Goldsmith, senior principal and owner at FTL Design Engineering Studio, New York City, N.Y., says he’s seen the same trend in the availability of supplies for fabric structures.

“When I started out years ago, the steel manual used to be about four inches thick,” he says. “There were just so many different steel profiles you could use. Now the manual is probably two-and-a-half inches thick, and a lot of those steel profiles are just no longer available. In that sense, there’s a diminished inventory of possible solutions. However, on the hardware side of it, I think there are still quite a few options. In each area, there’s more than one supplier.”

Kim Buckminster, owner of Buckminster Upholstery in Falls City, Neb., says many of the decorative nails and gimp that were once produced for his industry have vanished because of an overall reduction in demand for upholstery supplies, and the industry’s move toward double welt. “Double welt has taken the place of fancy gimps and brass nails and handiwork,” he says. “You sew it up, you glue it on with a hot-glue gun or shoot a staple in a stubborn spot. I don’t care for it, but to each his own.”

Similarly, traditional awning fittings have taken a hit thanks to the advent of staple-in systems and TEK® screws (self-tapping fasteners). Awning makers in tradition-minded markets, or who work with historic buildings, may find they have a smaller selection of fitting sizes and shapes from which to choose.

The solution? Some fabricators who work on historic projects have created their own custom hardware. Buckminster has painted and fly-specked nails to emulate the Spanish nails of the 1930s. He has also refinished metal hinges to make them wood-toned. Fabricators working on modern-look projects have generally found they can purchase what they need, albeit from a smaller number of suppliers.

Style and performance

At the same time, advances in technology have caused a sudden proliferation in some finishing supplies. Rope, for example, is much more exciting than it used to be.

“We use a lot of high-tech, colorful nautical ropes,” says Duvall. “They’ve advanced the technology, making them more high-strength, thin and flexible, with different textures. That world is really interesting.”

The improvement in rope technology has actually allowed Duvall to design a more compact and powerful rigging block that uses very slippery, thin rope to do its work (see “Getting creative,” below).

The prominence of performance fabrics in the design and upholstery business has inspired suppliers such as Rowley Co. LLC, Gastonia., N.C., to develop innovative grommets and batons that allow fabricators to more
easily traverse grommeted drapery panels across the rod. The company’s Grom-A-Link™ grommet, for example,
is an innovative patented attachment that allows batons to be attached to a traversing grommeted panel. It serves as a pleat control system when combined with Rowley’s bead chain, prevents binding and allows attachment of trim or scarf swag with drapery pins. Also on tap for upcoming seasons are bypass brackets and C-rings with silicone inserts that will allow fabricators to slide drapery treatments across the rod without getting hung up on
the brackets.

At the same time, the interior design industry is
highly influenced by fashion, so Rowley brand and
marketing strategist Mikala Moller says the company is paying attention to consumer lifestyle trends and how those translate to drapery—and then to the hardware that goes with the drapery.

“Drapery styles continue to be a lot more casual and relaxed than they have been in the past, and that is reflected in our top-selling finial styles,” she says. “We
have seen an uptick in our Brushed Brass finish over the past year, with brass and copper finishes now trending.
For wood drapery hardware, the rustic trend is having
a big impact. We are seeing more of a demand for finishes that have an aged and distressed look; they are a little less formal, yet still refined.”

In most cases, however, end-product customers don’t understand their options well enough to know what to
specify. It’s designers who must read their customers
and translate an overall look and feel into specific
hardware choices.

“They’re not cognizant at all of that type of thing,
and they don’t really need to be,” says Goldsmith.
“The question is to understand what the client’s expectations are. They don’t say, ‘Oh, it should be stainless steel, or it should be sheathed turnbuckles.’ They say, ‘It needs to look elegant.’ I remember once designing a project in Saudi Arabia where we had to have gold plating on the stainless steel pieces. That’s the highest-end I’ve ever been involved with. The opposite end is going to the hardware store and getting U-bolts and steel cables.”

To choose the right hardware for the job, he says, the fabricator should work with the customer to establish the cost of the project, then find details that will be reflective of those costs. A high-end project might call for nautical stainless fittings, where an industrial or commercial job might require galvanized.

“Pricing drives most buys,” agrees Nora Norby, MFC, president of Banner Creations Inc. in Minneapolis, Minn. “Some customers request luxury fittings, but most custom requests come from designers.”

Design for application

When it comes to choosing hardware, safety is foremost. But among secondary considerations, the way the fabric structure will be used is just as important as its appearance.

“There is a big difference between permanent structures and seasonal structures and deployable structures,” says Goldsmith. “Each one really has its own set of hardware that goes with it. For a permanent structure, there are usually [custom] welded plate systems. If you’re putting it up once, it doesn’t matter if the detail weighs 150 pounds; it’s all being lifted by cranes and things like that, so it’s not an issue. If you’re designing a seasonal structure where every year it goes up and down, then the weight becomes really more of an issue, and you try to optimize that and take out as much weight as possible. And, of course, if it’s deployable, it becomes critical.
Its success is really in how easy it is to set up and
take down.”

That’s why, in certain limited applications, Duvall finds quick-release shackles (offered by sailing hardware suppliers) to be a productivity booster and a big help to the end user. They feature a pull-ring that releases the shackle under load.

“It’s an interesting piece of linkage that’s available and is pretty high strength,” he says. “I use it occasionally, only in certain situations where you might want to be able to take something down really fast, like in ten seconds. It’s a safe way to release the load: it doesn’t damage anything. Think of it in a temporary application. If a thunderstorm is predicted, you might want to take it down. Rather than having to go to the trouble of undoing the turnbuckle, which might take ten minutes, this is instant. It’s a nice safety feature, although obviously you don’t want it accessible to a pedestrian who could pull on it.”

Temporary or seasonal structures also present the classic “Christmas lights” conundrum: When customers go to put them up the second, third or fourth time, how do they know what goes where? Duvall says he helps his clients by color-coding the hardware he supplies with the project.

“I take electrical tape—they have all these nice colors now—and then, to make it easy in the future, I’ll go through each point and put matching tape on everything that belongs together,” he explains. “I’ll put yellow along one turnbuckle and anchor, green on another.”

It’s one thing to choose the right hardware for a project in the first place, he says. But it’s another to make sure that hardware is used correctly and consistently in the future, keeping the structure safe and beautiful for the long term.

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer based near Athens, Ga.

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