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The balancing act of textile treatments

When it comes to textile treatments, manufacturers strive to comply with ever-changing governmental regulations while offering the performance capabilities in high demand.

Feature | June 1, 2021 | By: Pamela Mills-Senn

The pandemic changed consumer lifestyles, with people working, exercising and eating at home. Those new habits translate into higher demand for stain resistance and other performance features in home textiles. Photo: © Alexey Rumyantsev, Dreamstime.com

Fueled by consumer demand, textile treatments are evolving to provide an ever-growing array of performance benefits. This development has also driven the need to pay close attention to regulations and environmental considerations. COVID-19 has, not surprisingly, escalated interest in antimicrobial treatments, but it has also increased interest in other performance attributes. 

Tammy Buckner, senior vice president, marketing and design for residential fabrics for Culp Upholstery Fabrics (CUF) division of Culp Inc., says the increase in demand for stain-resistant fabrics has been substantial. 

“With everyone spending so much more time at home now, there is renewed interest in updating their homes,” Buckner says. “When everything seems so out of control, their home surroundings are something they can control.”

Headquartered in High Point, N.C., Culp manufactures and markets mattress fabrics for bedding and upholstery fabrics for residential and commercial furniture, offering several lines of performance fabrics under the LiveSmart® brand. As Buckner explains, in addition to comfort, consumers are demanding furnishings that are easy to maintain and clean because of COVID-19. 

Two recently released LiveSmart products build on these qualities. LiveSmart Ultra™ blocks water- and oil-based stains from penetrating the fabric into cushions. Additionally, the fabrics contain permanently bonded silver ion-based antimicrobial technology. LiveSmart Barrier Plus™ fabrics are encapsulated in a water-repellant, stain-resistant finish that surrounds each fiber, with an integrated moisture barrier that seals the fabric, making it waterproof and offering additional antimicrobial protection.

Culp had already incorporated antimicrobial technology, which protects against mold, mildew and odor-causing bacteria, but not viruses or other germs, in their contract and hospitality lines. Adding it to the company’s residential fabrics was seamless, Buckner says. 

Culp’s LiveSmart® performance upholstery fabrics offer features such as moisture repellency and resistance to common household stains. Other performance qualities, such as UV resistance and antimicrobial technology, vary by fabric option. Shown here is a mix of the LiveSmart fabrics and some of the company’s heavy-duty fabrics used in residential and commercial applications. Photo: Culp Inc.

Reducing environmental impact

Also notable is what LiveSmart fabrics don’t have. Absent are fluorocarbons, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), more commonly known as C8; the 900 banned chemicals on the California Proposition 65 list; REACH-listed restricted chemicals (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals adopted by the European Union); and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-regulated Section 313 chemicals and others. Adhering to these restrictions mitigates the environmental impact of the fabrics. 

“I think the industry as a whole needs to continually consider new and better ways to become more sustainable,” says Buckner. “This has been one of our top priorities at Culp and something we continue to evaluate and try to do better each day.”

Precision Textiles LLC, based in Totowa, N.J., is a supplier of coated fabrics, nonwovens and laminations for the bedding, automotive and health-care industries. Since 2006, the company has offered chemical-free, flame-retardant (FR) solutions that meet the current California law pertaining to FR chemicals. 

This mattress fabric from Culp’s Damask Hybrid Collection has antimicrobial agents to resist odor-causing bacteria and deterioration due to mold and mildew. The fibers have also been treated with a permanent nonleaching nanocoating designed to deactivate microorganisms.

Comprised of inherently FR rayon that has a silica additive, Precision’s Celluloft fiber batting/needlepunch is used primarily in mattresses, although it does have other potential applications, such as for upholstery, says Keith Martin, vice president. Celluloft meets CFR 1633, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s flammability standard for mattresses and mattress pads, and is used as an insulation and barrier layer to prevent fire from reaching the foam core, keeping it on the outside of the mattress.

Precision offers several bedding products containing Celluloft, including the FireFlex Felt Series (FR solution for laminated borders) and Endure IFR Stitchbond Series (FR solution for filler cloth). The company also offers an inherently FR polyester that is used in vehicle interiors.

“We convert [these] fibers in a needlepunched fabric, which is used for car seat and steering wheel heaters,” says Shaile Dusaj, director of industrial sales for Precision. “The main reason to use inherent FR polyester is to avoid fogging.” 

Precision also offers chemical FR products for engine compartments used as facings to cover heat and sound barriers, for example hood liners and dash insulators, Dusaj adds, and it provides other coated-textile treatments, such as an antimicrobial used on bedding, which Martin says has been generating “heightened interest” since the pandemic.

LiveSmart Evolve® performance fabric is made with 30 percent or more REPREVE® yarn, a high-quality polyester yarn from Unifi made from recycled postconsumer plastic bottles. Combining the recycled fibers with LiveSmart’s cleanability, the Evolve fabrics offer stain resistance and water repellency. Photos: Culp Inc.

Adding to performance

Jeff Veach, vice president of Culp Inc., Culp Home Fashions (CHF) division, says that antimicrobial treatments—prohibiting odor-causing bacteria and preventing fabric deterioration caused by mold and mildew—are in high demand because of the pandemic. CHF is Culp’s mattress cover division.

CHF also offers Microbe Shield® and Culp Ultra, a treatment providing a permanent, non-leaching nanocoating onto the fibers, deactivating the microorganisms by penetrating the cell wall. Another product is a phase change material (PCM) finish on polyester-based fabric for mattress fabric pillow toppers and bed-in-a-box. Designed to reduce overheating and chill and to evenly distribute warmth, PCM textiles significantly increase comfort, Veach says, adding that essential oils can also be incorporated into the PCM blend for added value. 

As for finished mattresses, their total fuel load must pass an industry FR test, Veach explains, noting that CHF’s FR treatments are antimony-free. (Antimony is a naturally occurring metal often used as a component in flame-retardant applications. Antimony trioxide has been classified as a carcinogen by the state of California.) Sometimes, fabric is a part of that solution to the FR test, and sometimes the FR solution is placed between the fabric and the inside of the mattress. 

“When we make fabrics that are a part of the FR solution, we accomplish this in several ways, including laminating the actual FR material to the back of the fabric,” he says. “This is often done with the FR substrate and a glue with FR capabilities. At the moment, there are no topical solutions that can stand alone as the total FR solution for the entire fuel load of a mattress.”

Used primarily as an insulation/barrier in mattresses, Celluloft from Precision Textiles (top) is a chemical-free FR textile comprised of inherently FR rayon that has a silica additive. It is designed to keep fire from reaching the inner foam core, keeping it on the outside of the mattress. The company offers other bedding products containing the Celluloft barrier component, including the FireFlex Felt Series (middle), an FR textile for laminated borders, and the Endure IFR Stitchbond Series (bottom), an FR textile for fill.

Demand for topical FR solutions is low, Veach says. He doesn’t anticipate additional FR treatment restrictions, although he does expect more states to regulate FR yarn components. Consequently, CHF is working to supply customers with an FR yarn that complies with a new Massachusetts anti-FR law. The law prohibits the sale or import of covered products that contain 11 flame-retardant chemicals, including antimony trioxide used in mattresses. The law will apply to inventory manufactured after Dec. 31, 2021.  

Precision Textiles’ Martin believes additional regulations are pending, with bills being considered in Georgia and Delaware, particularly as the focus on “cleaner and greener” intensifies.

Even as they begin to venture out from their pandemic cocoons, consumers will continue to demand stain resistance and other high-performance attributes from their residential fabric products. Balancing those desires with sustainability goals and health and wellness regulations will require ongoing industry innovation and advancement. 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Seal Beach, Calif. 


SIDEBAR: Understanding new FR chemical regulations

How is AB-2998—California’s ban on flame retardants in certain consumer products—likely to affect textile suppliers, textile treatment developers and end product manufacturers? Specialty Fabrics Review looked to an expert to provide some answers to this question. 

Neal Cohen is the founding partner of Neal Cohen Law LLC, a firm specializing in consumer product safety law, based in metro Washington, D.C. With an extensive background in both consumer product safety and the textile industry, Cohen provides legal counsel to upholstered furniture manufacturers on flammability and other health and safety concerns often related to flame-retardant chemicals (FRs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde. Cohen is an advisor to Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI). 

Q: Flame retardance seems like a good goal. What has changed?

A: In the 1970s when they rolled out, flame-retardant chemicals were widely viewed as a miracle cure for reducing or preventing fires. At the time, fire marshals and the chemical manufacturers combined forces to get these chemicals into a tremendous number of applications. Even after the health risks have become apparent for many of these chemicals, it has proven nearly impossible to “un-ring the bell.”

Really, it has only happened once with the explosive investigative journalism of the Chicago Tribune’s award-winning “Playing with Fire” exposé published in 2012, which laid bare the collusion between the chemical industry and the cigarette industry on this issue.

After that piece, then-Governor Jerry Brown [of California] provided the only notable exception in removing fire retardants from upholstered furniture by updating Standard TB-117 to remove the use of flame retardants. Since then, momentum has built at the state, and increasingly at the federal, level to remove flame retardants from many consumer products, most notably children’s products, mattresses and upholstered furniture.

Q: What are some of the most significant changes coming from the California FR regulations, authored in 2018 and effective in January 2020? 

A: This new law (AB-2998), which applies to upholstered furniture, certain juvenile products and mattresses, is remarkable for its very broad definition of flame retardants banned under it. While previous laws banned specific FR chemical compounds, this new law banned entire classes of FR chemistries, an approach increasingly favored by nongovernmental organizations seeking to remove FRs from products due to their potential disruptive health effects (such as cancer, learning disabilities, reproductive harm and hormone disruption) on young children, pregnant women and others.

Previously, chemical manufacturers could slightly adjust the chemistry of a banned substance and still sell their FR products. This became akin to a regulatory game of “whack-a-mole” and health studies could not keep up with the chemical manufacturers. This law bans the following “classes” of FR chemicals: halogenated, organophosphorus, organonitrogen and nanoscale chemicals used to resist or inhibit the spread of fire, or as a synergist to chemicals that resist or inhibit the spread of fire. Other states, such as Maryland, have followed suit, with more expected to follow. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has also granted a petition to study regulating or banning FR chemicals by class.

Q: Do you foresee additional FR regulations ahead?

A: The trend is toward laws and regulations banning or regulating more FR chemistries. Increasingly, the trend, as in AB-2998 in California and elsewhere, is adding requirements to ban FRs in industries like upholstered furniture, mattresses and children’s products, as mentioned. The chemical industry continues to lobby against these state-level efforts, but the critical change has been the massive effect of firefighters and fire marshals now firmly on the side of nongovernmental organizations seeking to remove FR chemicals. 

Firefighters and fire marshals—who once thought these chemicals to be helpful—now blame them for elevated levels of cancer among firefighters. They have [gathered] support amongst their unions to lobby aggressively for new laws banning or regulating flame retardants.

Q: Are there other regulations with potential legal consequences textile manufacturers should be aware of?

A: Any claims made by manufacturers must be supported by scientific and competent evidence or risk being labeled “misleading.” The FTC [Federal Trade Commission] and states are increasing their focus on labeling and evidence. We’ve seen an uptick in requirements for claims for “compostability,” “biodegradability” and related claims in California, Maryland and Washington. 

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