Following the changes in materials, methods and markets in the specialty fabrics industry.
The introduction of new technologies transforms a society. From the beginning of recorded history, when a new technology supplants an earlier one (for example, metal replacing stone in tools, or the development of the crossbow), a disruption of existing social and economic conditions occurs, and the society eventually adapts. It can take a number of years before widespread use of a new technology can be seen, however, from invention to popular acceptance.The same holds true for the specialty fabrics industry; as what is now IFAI formed in 1912, cotton-based canvas material was universally used. But even at that time industrial materials were beginning to change, with the development of stainless steel (1913–14) and the introduction of the zipper (1914).
Canvas remained the universal material for more than 20 years before alternative textiles—largely synthetic plastics developed in the late 1920s into the 1930s—begin to appear. Canvas remained so important that when the magazine’s name changed in 1936 from The National Tent and Awning Manufacturers Review to The National Canvas Goods Manufactures Review, it remained so until well into the 1960s, even after the introduction of many synthetic fibers such as nylon, PVC and acrylics in the 1950s. Nylon’s acceptance took even longer; it was patented in 1935 by DuPont and made commercially available in 1938–39. During WWII, the industry was called on to make canvas tents, covers and military gear, and nylon was used to replace silk in parachutes, finding use also in tires, ropes and other military items. Not until after the war did the use of nylon become widespread, sparked by the growth of the camping industry in the early 1950s.
From gradual to game-changer
A quick scan of article topics gives a snapshot of what grabbed attention of the Review’s editors in these formative years. In the 1930s, the focus was on new coatings for improved performance. In the 1940s, metalized, spray-on coatings involving copper, zinc, lead, aluminum, brass, tin, bronze and nickel were used as a means to simulate different materials. Cotton ducks and other base fabrics were metalized reportedly to “look similar to a surface produced by a paint spray gun.” Fabric mills experimented with other applications, such as a patented process called “Lanatized” that produced a “radio-active, mildew-resistant finish” for cotton canvas awnings, advertised in the early 1940s.
Not until the 1950s and early 1960s did truly game-changing new materials begin to have an impact, when the introduction of DuPont’s new acrylic fiber Orlon™ and PVC (commercially available at about the same time) began to appear in advertisements within the Review, indicating growing acceptance. Glen Raven Inc., a regular advertiser by the late 1940s, announced the use of Orlon in one of its fabrics in a two-page spread in Sept. 1950. It would be another 10 years before Glen Raven debuted its renowned solution-dyed acrylic fabric branded Sunbrella®. The first advertisement announcing this new trademarked material ran on page 13 of the March 1960 issue (For a look at that ad, turn to page 65 in this issue.) Other companies quickly followed suit with new durable fabrics: Cooley premiered Décool fabric and John Boyle its Premacrylic in the same April 1960 issue.
That decade also saw a number of new chemically engineered fibers and coatings for fabrics such as Kevlar® (1965), Tedlar® (1965), Tyvek® (generically, a PTFE nonwoven, 1966), and Nomex® (1967). “The game-changer for the industry,” says Cheryl Gomes, CEO of Innovative Textile Solutions LLC, “was the introduction in the 1960s of the aramids like Kevlar and Nomex, and PBI (polybenzimidazole high-performance fibers that have no melting point and do not drip when exposed to flame). For the first time, these highly resistant, durable and strong fibers could be woven into innovative protective fabrics that could be used in space suits, bullet-resistant vests and fire-resistant ‘escape suits’ such as those used by race car drivers, opening up entire new product markets.”
Also developed in the 1960s were high-performance architectural fabrics, such as vinyl-coated polyesters and nylon, as well as higher modulus weaves such as the modified Oxford weave (developed and patented by Norman Seaman) that achieved a better balance of properties of stretch resistance and tensile strength. Much of the experimentation and research during this time was devoted to exploring the importance of fabric weave patterns and their impact in meeting higher tensile and tear requirements, while also making engineering and design patterning of these fabrics for fabric structures much easier and more predictable to use.
Extending the architectural innovations into the 1970s, the industry anticipated a growing market for air structures, leading to newer, lighter weight coated fabrics specifically designed for air-inflated structures.
How smart are they?
According to Gomes, another significant game-changing technology jolted the textile industry in the late 1990s with the introduction of electronic textiles and smart materials, and more recently, materials that interact with users and the environment. “For the first time the fibers and fabrics can power things up,” says Gomes. “The possibilities were out there, but people at that time (and this remains true even today) were not able to tap the full potential of these innovative textiles or to commercialize them to the fullest extent.” Gomes says this new technology introduced fabrics that could provide unprecedented heat, power and communications capabilities, and the potentials are continuing to be developed today as the electronics industry works with the textile industry to develop connectors and systems that can take better advantage of these capabilities.
The 1990s also saw a proliferation of new manufacturing methods, especially in nonwovens, introducing bonded, spun bonded and stitch bonded fabrics, as well as needle punch and micro-perforation, to lend new characteristics to synthetic fabrics or mimic natural fabrics of old. Nonwovens have moved far beyond their beginnings in disposable products, and are now competing with woven materials in a variety of markets.
What will the future bring? According to Gomes, we will see more effort put into applied research and transitioning the industry to do a better job of manufacturing all these new fibers and fabrics currently in the laboratories. “The real challenge is getting manufacturers to ‘Manufacturing Readiness’ levels sooner,” says Gomes. “There’s a big difference between getting a product ready for market in six months (as is common now) and ready for market in 30 days (as is the goal in most cases). The industry is on the verge of another transition, and these issues [of market readiness] are important.”