High-performance fabrics and finishes stretch the capabilities of athletes and recreational sports enthusiasts.
Once upon a time, recreational sports were pretty tame: croquet, badminton, golf, rowing. But as humans eyed what new technology afforded them in the way of action, they began pushing the physical limits. When ESPN launched the X Games in 1995,
it only fueled the fire.
“Consider a sport like freestyle motocross, where 10 years ago only the most skilled riders were doing multiple, complex jumps,” says Josh Hume, product marketing manager of D3O. “Now everyone is performing incredibly difficult maneuvers. Look at the NFL, where players are getting stronger and faster, with a consequence that the hits they take are ever harder and the impact energies higher. What this all means is that the expectations and requirements for impact protection are always changing.”
That’s where D3O is expending its own energies. Last year, the U.K.-based company launched its Smart Skin protective layer for head-to-toe sports applications—from football helmet liners to footwear insoles. The engineered polymer blend is heat-bonded to garments to provide shock absorption. The D3O material flows freely, but on shock locks together to absorb and disperse energy—before instantly returning to its flexible state. The stronger the impact, the more the molecules react.
“The biggest demand is for impact protection that is ever thinner and ever lighter,” Hume says. “The global athletic footwear market is worth in excess of $40 million each year; and with greater demand for good athletic shoes comes a concomitant demand for athletic insoles that cushion, support and provide impact protection.”
Another 2013 introduction for the sports market came from Singapore-based Huntsman Textile Effects in the form of a coating that can be applied by textile producers and, in certain applications, by end-product manufacturers.
“EverGlide™ was developed specifically to target minimizing the risk of friction between the garment and the skin without having any detrimental effect on other fabric aesthetics such as breathability, wicking and hand,” says Lee Howarth, global marketing manager. “We think the biggest value for this effect can be realized on articles that are worn next to the skin for extended periods, such as long-distance running, cycling, hiking, mountaineering, horseback riding, and even to support more sedate activities such as yoga.”
Athletes in the 2014 Winter Olympics wore garments made with fabrics from the Schoeller Textiles AG textile mill in Switzerland. Toga fabrics that sufficed in ancient Greece where the games began would never meet today’s physical demands on the global competition stage. To participate as a supplier to Olympic athletes, companies must themselves be working on the cutting edge.
“We are a very modern mill,” says Tom Weinbender, president of Schoeller USA Inc. in Seattle, Wash. “There’s never been a time I have gone to [Schoeller’s manufacturing center in] Switzerland and there hasn’t been new machinery or something added to the mill.”
Schoeller’s portfolio includes energear™, a mineral chemistry that returns far-infrared rays to the body, increasing oxygen levels in the bloodstream, lowering lactic acid and providing more energy; 3XDRY®, which is hydrophobic on the outside and hydrophilic on the inside; coldblack®, which reflects up to 80 percent of sunlight rays to keep the user cool even when wearing black; NanoSphere®, a finish with high repellency of water, oil, dirt and stains with no effect on the hand or breathability of the fabric; ecorepel®, a carbon-free, durable, water-repellent finish; c_change™, a hydrophilic membrane with an elastomeric function; and ceraspace™, a ceramic finish with high abrasion resistance. The company licenses many of these technologies and trains others on how to apply them to textiles.
Going all out
While the sports and recreation market comprises the majority of Schoeller’s business, it accounts for only 10 percent of the customer base for Eeonyx Corp. of Pinole, Calif. But that 10 percent represents the latest direction for active-wear: garments that incorporate sensors. In the case of Eeonyx, it means measuring what feet do. Its conductive-coated fabrics are being used in laminates under the rubber in bike pedals and treadmills, and in socks and insoles.
“We work in a field of intrinsic, conductive polymers,” says Jimmy Holliman, president and CEO. “The network is created through chemistry to allow an electronic flow.”
“When it comes to the wearable-technology space, most of the emerging software has been for biological monitoring of things like heart rate and body temperature,” says Charles Magowan, vice president. “What is newer is the portability of that.”
Top Value Fabrics, headquartered in Carmel, Ind., offers a range of stock and custom-coated fabrics. Approximately 70 percent of business in its active-wear division is in the sports and recreation market. The balance comprises fabrics for law enforcement, corporate and medical fields, as well as a small percentage of contemporary lifestyle clothing.
“Polyester microfibers in circular knits continue to be in high demand,” says Ken Siecinski, active/outerwear manager. “Microfibers are cool and airy, and we apply a wicking finish on all of them. Our finishes and coatings are applied during the dyeing or finishing process before the fabric moves through the final heat-setting process. The advantages our coatings and laminates provide are a soft and pliable fabric with superior waterproof, breathable performance.”
In the late 1990s, Higher Dimension Materials Inc. (HDM) of Oakdale, Minn., introduced a patented resin technology that embeds guard plates in substrates, with a focus on industrial applications. But the armor protection SuperFabric® affords within a flexible, breathable, customizable textile has increased sales in the extreme-sports market every year.
“Within the last year, we have seen our fabric used in snowboarding boots, ski gloves, ski pants and jackets, mountain climbing and scuba diving gear, hiking and running footwear and more,” says Jeremiah Mostrom, vice president of sales and marketing. “It also was fun to see SuperFabric on ski gloves used in the 2014 Winter Olympics.”
SuperFabric resists abrasion, cuts and stains; is breathable, quick drying and durable; and can be used with lightweight, medium-weight and heavy-duty base materials. By varying the thickness, size and patterns of the guard plates, it can be customized for aesthetics, contour and performance needs. In addition to 45 stock patterns, guard-plate spacing and arrangement can be customized and even incorporate company logos. If customers need other performance features, HDM can add coatings after the product is made.
Adventure diver John McCain always wears an inflatable buoyancy compensator made with SuperFabric, “so I don’t have to worry about it getting punctured” by cave and wreck ceilings. The sales manager for Dive Rite in Lake City, Fla., says SuperFabric is a $50 upgrade for its line of BC wings. “We sell more of those than we do our [standard] line, which is 1680 ballistic nylon,” he notes.
“Significant advancements have been achieved in improving affordable, lighter-weight fabrics that offer greater resistance to wear and tear, pilling and abrasion,” Siecinski says. “Today’s fabrics are lighter, more comfortable and stronger than ever; but we’ll continue improving to take this to the next level.”
“A lot of focus is going into providing garments that are more comfortable to wear, reflecting changing lifestyles, but also the need to be more durable and longer lasting through more demanding and vigorous use,” Howarth says. “In addition to more conventional treatments such as repellency, stain management and freshness, we are witnessing an emergence of more smart fabrics, such as enhanced thermal control, wellness attributes, adaptive finishes that respond to the wearer’s environment, changing function as required.
“Technological advancements in sports and active-wear over the next decade,” he adds, “will be driven by an increase in the usage of recycled fibers, increased focus on reduced carbon platforms, and technologies to eliminate or save water and energy.”
“An ultimate goal would be an increase in fabrics that have a positive impact on our environment,” Siecinski says. “Cost is an obstacle, but as technology improves, costs are reduced.”
According to Weinbender, the challenge Schoeller faces is marketplace pricing because the company’s mill is in Switzerland, where standards and costs are higher than in other areas of the world; and because “innovation doesn’t come cheap.”
For Eeonyx, the challenge goes beyond manufacturing and cost.
“What is going to protect the user [of wearable technology] from having their privacy invaded?” Magowan posits. “These technologies need to be invulnerable to hostile action and snooping.”
It’s a legitimate concern that when garments become proactively smart, people will use textiles to do what they now do with their smart phones.
“We foresee a time when you pull a dress out of your closet and it says, ‘Oh no, honey, I am not going out with those red shoes.’”
Magowan is only slightly joking. He does think that what are now passively smart fabrics will one day sense and react to environments and even communicate with the user’s other garments.
“The predicted compound annual growth rate in sports and active-wear for the next five years is three times the rate of conventional apparel growth, so this remains a clear focus for our business,” Howarth says. “If you liken the sportswear arena for textiles to Formula 1® for the auto industry, all the latest technologies cut their teeth in this field, and eventually some of those will transition over to more conventional end uses, such as casual wear and home textiles.”
Like any business, fabric and coating suppliers need to concern themselves with economies of scale. But that doesn’t necessarily relegate smaller-than-adidas® garment makers to the domain of benchwarmers when it comes to individualized needs.
“Customization is not just for large companies. We have worked to provide customizable performance solutions for smaller and midsized companies too,” says Ken Siecinski of Top Value Fabrics. “We offer a very large stock program of knit and woven fabrics with finishes and coatings that we determine are popular for our customers and for their customers. Our stock program is continuously evolving, and customer demand based on the market drives that. Additionally, we regularly run many styles with custom yarn combinations in quantities of 2,000 yards or less. We also run an extensive collection of prints in orders of 1,000 yards or less.”
D3O similarly looks to innovators across the board.
“We work with customers of all sizes. Typically, we work with established brands, but not exclusively; and, of course, the routes to market differ in each sector,” Josh Hume says. “There have been situations where it has been helpful learning for us to develop a material with a customer, taking on their immediate feedback and improving as we go.”
Charles Magowan acknowledges that Eeonyx can’t serve clientele that would order $50 worth of product, but thinks that the company’s minimum-order threshold of $1,000 “is still very accessible.”
“Typically our minimum orders are 220 yards per color. We produce everything to order,” says Schoeller’s Tom Weinbender. But, he adds, “The door is open.”
“We work with small, medium and large companies around the world, says Matthew Tanner, director of Higher Dimension Materials’ research and development department. “And we support the concept that the person working out of their garage can develop a unique product that can disrupt the market.”