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Back to the future

November 1st, 2015 / By: / Feature

As the middle class grew, there was a corresponding increase in home construction and more interest in showing status through ownership of awning-bedecked cottages and bungalows as well as upper-class manses on the outskirts of town. Vivatone awning fabric was introduced to the market in 1926 and was used extensively during the 1930's. “The Outdoors Has Come Into Its Own” declared a feature in the May 1931 issue, in which awning manufacturers were encouraged to consider new markets for their sewing skills, such as umbrella sets, folding chairs, hammocks and “gliders” that needed canvas covers. In fact, outdoor furniture in general was promoted as a complement to regular business as a means to keep employees (and cash flow) busy during the winter months.
As the middle class grew, there was a corresponding increase in home construction and more interest in showing status through ownership of awning-bedecked cottages and bungalows as well as upper-class manses on the outskirts of town. Vivatone awning fabric was introduced to the market in 1926 and was used extensively during the 1930’s. “The Outdoors Has Come Into Its Own” declared a feature in the May 1931 issue, in which awning manufacturers were encouraged to consider new markets for their sewing skills, such as umbrella sets, folding chairs, hammocks and “gliders” that needed canvas covers. In fact, outdoor furniture in general was promoted as a complement to regular business as a means to keep employees (and cash flow) busy during the winter months.

From 1915 to 2015—and beyond—we’ve gone from horsepower to hovercraft, yet business basics still surround technology.

If the only constant in life is change, that’s also certainly true for the specialty fabrics industry and Specialty Fabrics Review, whether from a perspective inside the industry or the view from outside. Beginning as a narrowly focused journal about tents and awnings (the association’s mission in its early years), the Review interpreted the changing markets, business practices, technologies and trends for readers, framed in the language of the times.

The June 1925 issue introduced a regular column on window displays (with photos of displays submitted by member firms) to promote improved recognition and standing of these businesses within their communities. In 1927, the Review announced a collaboration with The Architect’s Small House Service Bureau (ASHSB, based conveniently in St. Paul, Minn., across town from the association offices), and a report in the same issue by Robert T. Jones, ASHSB technical director, described the importance of context in the use of awnings and in promoting them to the public. The next few years saw an increase in “spot” color ads in the magazine using professional illustrations of enticingly stylish homes, along with a flourish of new colors and patterns in the awning stripes offered by many canvas manufacturers. As the middle class grew, there was a corresponding increase in home construction and more interest in showing status through ownership of awning-bedecked cottages and bungalows as well as upper-class manses on the outskirts of town.

Lifestyle, home style

The onset of the 1930s brought more consumer interest in lifestyle choices that included entertaining inside and outside at the homestead. “The Outdoors Has Come Into Its Own” declared a feature in the May 1931 issue, in which awning manufacturers were encouraged to consider new markets for their sewing skills, such as umbrella sets, folding chairs, hammocks and gliders that needed canvas covers. In fact, outdoor furniture in general was promoted as a complement to regular business as a means to keep employees (and cash flow) busy during the winter months. (Outdoor living has returned to the sales office in a big way over the last 5-10 years, largely driven by new fabrics that are both durable and comparable to indoor fabrics in style and versatility, plus the convenience of lighting, climate control and motorized accessories for patios both private and commercial.)

Competition drives innovation. A major threat to the industry in the 1930s (in addition to the Great Depression) was the advent of air-conditioning in new buildings, and the Review challenged the awning industry to find arguments and develop research to highlight the benefits of shade to building owners. An article appeared in the Aug. 1932 issue that put a positive spin on the trend. “The Next Big Business Building Asset for America: Air Conditioning and Summer Cooling” blared the headline, pointing out how the new technology goes hand-in-hand with awnings to work at peak performance and lowest cost for homeowners. (More than 60 years later, IFAI’s Professional Awning Manufacturers Association publicized major research projects in conjunction with the University of Minnesota to study awning-related cooling and energy savings.) Later articles also discussed pairing awnings with other shade products such as venetian blinds, an early emphasis on selling shade (and shade packages) rather than selling awnings, touting the advantages of style, comfort and energy efficiency that characterize most sales efforts today as well.

Modified markets

At the same time an assault came from another front: the large plate-glass storefront that promised to modernize outmoded street facades on main streets across the country. There was an aggressive push in 1937 by no less than the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. (PPG), which rather ingeniously created a traveling road show of 12 model designs (“designed by a first-class architect”) that clearly left no place for awnings to be incorporated into the façades. The “Pittco Store Front Caravan” advocated replacing old storefronts with bright clear glass and painted metal systems, designed as a modular package to fit most storefront measurements.

Business in the 1940s was primarily aimed at continuing recovery from the Great Depression, followed by a continuing recovery from the effects of WWII. A national campaign, launched in 1952 by the Canvas Awning Institute (based in Memphis, Tenn.) in collaboration with the National Cotton Council, was shared with Review readers. The extensive advertising campaign engaged on two fronts: publications in the architecture community (with a series of ads using “Modern Design and Canvas” as the headline); and on the consumer front, to convince homeowners in the growing middle class about the benefits of canvas awnings, ads ran in magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, American Home and the Saturday Evening Post.)

Stretching canvas

In 1957, the association changed its name from the National Canvas Goods Manufacturer’s Association to the Canvas Products Association International (CPAI), recognizing an increasing international business scope. In 1960, Glen Raven introduced Sunbrella®. By 1966, the magazine name changed to Industrial Fabric Products Review to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse industry. In 1981, the CPAI changed its name to the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI). In March 2008, the publication was renamed Specialty Fabrics Review.

The 1970s continued the rapid growth of international membership in IFAI, reflecting a growing awareness in the industry that issues such as safety and building standards, pricing, trade agreements and competition (not only with new fabrics but other nonfabric materials) would require a global perspective. New fabrics and fabric composites, automated equipment, printing on fabric substrates and user-friendly software in management, design and operations dominated the pages of the Review into the 1980s, and resulted in a number of new IFAI publications as well.

Demand and supply

By the mid 1980s, with rapid increases in international trade, more imports and more outsourcing, rising energy costs and the beginnings of the sustainability movement (growing from its beginnings in “reduce, re-use, recycle”) there were growing concerns about industrial supply chains. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1992 by the governments of Canada, Mexico and the United States and is still in place. More trade agreements have proliferated, and arguments about protectionism and calls for a “level playing field”are still vociferous.

Over the last decade, we’ve seen the canvas awning and tent industry reap the benefits of “performance on demand” fabrics that can comfort us, augment us, protect us, keep us clean and reasonably fragrant, generate electricity as well as conserve it, and report us to our doctors if we misbehave. Technologies developed by the military and aerospace industries are finding commercial applications (and vice-versa) and photovoltaic panels developed for backpacks and charging phones are finding uses in agricultural shade stations and pumping water for livestock, as well as parking stations for electric vehicles. Computerized equipment brings the benefits of precise, economical automation even to the production of custom products.

Manufacturers can communicate with customers (and each other) instantly; physical goods must still be shipped from country to country, but there’s no reason one company cannot have a sales office in Australia, fabric production in Vietnam, coating facilities in Brussels and distribution facilities around the globe—if that has been determined to be where the efficiencies lie. Supply chains are fluid, but those small manufacturers creating unique custom fabric products are still going strong, and the “buy local” movement continues to gain strength, as does the concept of urban renewal and more humanized streetscapes. Technology is key, but the ways in which it is applied seem to have no limits.

“Worldwide, if we step back from the impact of 9/11,” says Allen Gant Jr., chairman and CEO of Glen Raven Inc. (see profile on page 68), “and the subsequent global recession of 2008–09, it has been about primary research in fibers, materials and in new finishes, and (in our company at least) in turning raw materials into high-level, improved performance products.”

Face forward

We are an unusual industry. As we’ve looked back over marketing, employment and trade issues and technology as covered in the Review over the last 100 years, many of the issues we faced in 1915 are still with us, even if now on a global and amazingly electronic playing field. Multinational corporations and small, local shops co-exist with many of the same technological advances available to them. Businesses may employ sophisticated fleet management software and state-of-the-art devices that send exact measurements back to the office, but somebody still has to be out on the boat building the bimini.

Many of the experts interviewed for this article were optimistic about future opportunities for the specialty fabrics industry. Some also admonished us to do better at recognizing technological change and overlooked opportunities. “One of the things we (the industry) have got to do,” says Gant, “is use more big data to inform (business) decisions. To be able to aggregate or mine the data will make the difference between the companies that succeed and those that will ultimately shrink or fade away. Those companies that do this have a better chance of succeeding in the next 100 years.”

Here’s to the next 100 years!

Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is a Minneapolis-based writer, editor and educator.

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