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Defining performance: Fabric sources seek standardization, clarification of terms and qualities

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revolution fabric 3-2019

HIGH POINT — As the popularity of performance fabrics in the textile industry has grown, the rise of one-off uses of the term has also expanded. And some in the industry worry that, without some regulation, confusion and misunderstanding about performance fabrics may damage consumers’ understanding of the category.

“There is zero understanding of what makes a fabric a performance fabric,” said Nolan Mitchell, Richloom Fabrics Group’s vice president of upholstery sales and merchandising. “Somebody may say that it’s durable if it does 50,000 double rubs, and that makes it performance. Other people may say it has to be cleanable, others that it has to be liquid repellent.

“From a fabric supplier to a furniture manufacturer to a retailer, everyone has a different take on what their definition of performance is.”

From the array of definitions of “performance,” a handful of qualities rise to the top: durability, cleanability, water repellency and fade resistance.

“There isn’t an enforced set of features in the industry that a fabric has to have to be called a performance fabric, but a few usually show up,” said Mitchell.

Along with those debated features, issues with quality also complicate matters. Traditionally, “dated” standards and minimums that were not created to reflect the specific goals of performance fabrics are all that exist to regulate the category, according to Milliken Specialty Interiors’ development manager, Ron Swindle.

“Companies can get outside certifications, such as a Greenguard certification, and do testing for portions of their performance fabrics’ features, but there is nothing definitive for the industry,” said Michael Saivetz, Richloom Fabrics Group’s chief operating officer and vice president.

Testing and certification specific to performance fabric would only work for the industry, according to Saivetz, if defining performance standards started at the retail level. When it doesn’t, fabric companies must rely on their own set of definitions for qualities, making it difficult to get the industry to agree on one definition of what a performance fabric has to be.

“If you get everyone and their competitors together, of course they’ll make the argument for their own features, so you need to start with looking at what features consumers want and then move on to fixing the testing of those features,” said Saivetz.

Another problem for creating a standard definition is enforcing minimum quality testing standards, as much of the testing takes place in house and allows companies the room to test as they see fit.

Along with that, Saivetz points out variables in the tests themselves can be another hurdle for standardization. For example, Saivetz says if a company tests its fabric’s cleanability with a salsa stain and lets the stain sit for two hours while another company lets it sit for just a few minutes, then the results are skewed.

Creating more rigid guidelines specific to performance fabrics features could help alleviate that.

“The only thing that could fix the certification gap for performance fabrics would be someone creating updated, standardized testing with more strict guidelines and minimums,” said LeAnne Flack, Milliken Specialty Interiors’ marketing manager.

A better job of telling the story

For now, many fabric suppliers are relying on their own performance stories to help differentiate themselves and their product from the mass collective of performance fabric brands.

“If everyone is claiming the same performance story, then it’s up to us to show our customers what makes us different and teach them about what a real performance fabric looks like,” said Anderson Gibbons, Revolution Fabrics’ vice president of marketing.

At Covington Fabric & Design, Vice President of Design Chari Voehl said the company is focusing on its design aesthetic, its line coordination and its merchandising to set the brand apart. This, she said, helps the company create “comprehensive stories” in looks that give consumers options beyond what may be found in other product.

“Whether it’s polyester or cotton, if you like the pattern, you like the pattern. You have to give the consumer designs they want to pick up,” Voehl said.

Similarly, Revolution Fabrics is leaning on social media to tell a story about its eco-friendly product to win over customers and build a “recognizable brand name” that people trust and seek out.

“Revolution Fabrics uses polypropylene, which is a byproduct of oil refining and natural gas processing,” said Sean Gibbons, CEO, “and before it was reinvented in the 1960s as a material to make things like fabric, it was being burned off and discarded. So by using it in our product, we’re starting with a green product because we’re upcycling something that would otherwise have been thrown away.”

Polypropylene fabric, which are sometimes called olefin fabric, according to Sean Gibbons, also require less energy and water to make because it is not grown somewhere and then shipped like a natural fiber, and it produces little waste. In addition, the fabrics do not require chemical washes to achieve cleanability and durability, so Revolution Fabrics do not come in contact with PFC chemicals, which, according to Sean Gibbons, have been linked to harmful health effects.

To communicate all of that information, Anderson has focused on bolstering Revolution Fabrics’ online presence through video, blog and social media content creation.

“Our goal is to create and use transparent online content that helps the consumer with a problem they have and that helps them understand our product and its story,” said Anderson Gibbons. “We want to become a household name and product that people like and understand.”

Richloom Fabrics is working with creating its own eco-friendly story, too, citing its “clean chemistry” as a large part of what it uses to differentiate itself from other performance fabrics. Richloom Fabrics’ chemistry, according to Mitchell, creates no harmful emissions for the environment and is safe for use in the home.

“Our product, its design and its quality, defines us, but our safe chemistry is what we really use to set us apart from other brands.”

Long-term dedication to performance

At Sunbrella, Glen Raven’s performance fabric brand, the company is leveraging its long-term track record to help differentiate itself from other brands.

“You have to look at our brand and its integrity and history through the decade,” said Harrison Hood, an indoor sales manager at Glen Raven. “The closest competitor we have has only been around a handful of years as opposed to our almost 60, so a consumer purchasing a sofa with Sunbrella on it has likely had a positive experience with our fabric elsewhere.”

Sunbrella’s brand recognition has afforded the company many opportunities, Hood said, but ultimately it is Sunbrella’s solution-dyed acrylic yarn that has the biggest impact on the performance fabric’s brand definition.

“Our added finish is just as good if not better than any other finish you’ll find in the marketplace, but all of those finishes wear off, and when they do — for most of those brands — you just have a regular old fabric underneath. When our finish wears off, you have the cornerstone of our brand, the solution-dyed acrylic fibers.”

Crypton cites that same dedication to performance fabrics as the company’s biggest defining feature. Senior Vice President Jack Eger said for Crypton performance fabric is not just the “bandwagon we’re jumping on,” giving the company a head start on scientific development, innovation and quality control.

“Performance is all we do, and it has been for 25 years. It is quite literally what defines us,” said Eger. “We’re also differentiated by our ability to innovate and set scientific benchmarks that raise the bar for others.

“Most of our competitors don’t have the expertise in fabric science that we have built at Crypton, so our fabrics are a lot more resilient than typical fabrics,” he continued. “We’re able to set our quality standards higher than industry criteria suggest, to ensure that every yard of fabric meets an incredibly high brand-wide standard. Nobody that started making performance last month or last year is going to have those distinct advantages.”

Education key to addressing misinformation

Bella-Dura, which utilizes a modified polypropylene yarn to create its fabrics, separates itself from its competition by producing contract-grade solutions for the home, contract, hospitality and healthcare markets.

“We use an improved technical fiber that meets and beats industry standards, so we try to market those enhanced features first,” said Susan Lobel, Bella-Dura’s vice president of marketing and brand development.

Bella-Dura also puts an emphasis on producing educational content, Lobel said, in the form of sales training, video content and brochures as a way to help everyone — from furniture retailers to consumers — understand the features of performance fabrics.

Recently, the company launched a “Think you know performance fabrics?” advertising campaign to highlight the misinformation that can exist in the industry.

Milliken Specialty Interiors has addressed its own educational efforts through things like webinars and other content, looking to teach people about its “minimal chemistry” story and approach with Breathe, the company’s performance fabric brand that uses natural or recycled fiber and a plant-based water repellent.

“Without any kind of standardization or certification, the burden of education really falls on companies,” said Flack.

Creating easy to understand branding and language has been key for Culp’s LiveSsmart performance fabrics according to Tammy Buckner, Culp’s senior vice president of design and marketing.

“We try for a simple story. Everyone needs to be able to understand what it does in the simplest terms. The more complicated it gets, the more confused they are.”

With that, Buckner said, Culp tries to educate users on its fabrics’ features and its defining points, such as its status as a mid-price performance fabric, using more approachable language and explanations.

“I think more and more the whole industry, and the consumers too, are expecting fabrics to perform,” Buckner said. “At some point, that’s just going to become the norm.

“So it’s important to build our performance brand and our customers’ understandings of our fabric now, because performance is here to stay.”