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Fiber World

Stretch Active Versus Easy

Stretch fabrics offer creative investment opportunities when developed to consumers' tastes.

By John E. Luke, Technical EditorS t r e t c h:Active vs. Easy Stretch fabrics offer creative investment opportunities when developed to consumers tastes.On numerous occasions, observers of the textile scene and Textile World have taken serious issue with the industry for not investing in new technologies to provide an insulative separation from the murderous increase in imports, particularly from the Far East. Although the concept of stretch is not a new subject, particularly for our knitter compatriots, it still is a series of technologies that offer niche opportunities for the creative, investing manufacturer. In a curiously interesting way, while a current discussion of stretch fabrics and fibers provides another opportunity to carp on product development investment, it more importantly offers a chance to examine the marketplace and suggest directions for stretch products for several coming years.Stretch HistoryHistorically, with the notable exceptions of knit fabrics and several stretch woven fabrics denim particularly stretch has meant the inclusion of spandex in fabric construction to add the third dimension of extensibility and recovery. Historically, this added dimension also contained the concept of power, body control and body performance enhancement. At the height of the Baby Boom exercise fury of the 1990s, TW looked at stretch fibers and fabrics and concluded that substantial growth awaited fabric manufacturers capable of incorporating stretch, primarily spandex, in traditional sportswear and formalwear fabrics (See Silent Spring, ATI, June 1998). The Baby Boomer, primarily into running and walking, tennis, swimming and biking, was pushed by his/her ego and children to preserve the physical beauty and muscle tone gained through the pain of exercise but squandered behind a desk in an endless pursuit of sufficient wealth to afford the time and the accoutrements of planned exercise. In stretch history of the late 1990s, TW concluded that spandex growth was barely more difficult than building a production facility and hanging out a shingle. Alas, such was not to be the case, and TW admitted in a follow-up article that it too had been mesmerized by the attractiveness of spandex-containing garments and had overstated market growth potential (See Spandex Revisited, TI, May 2001). The recession was coming, and TW had discounted consumer purchases of more expensive garments. What was missed, however, was the consumer resistance to substantially higher prices for spandex-containing articles, compounded by continuing workplace dress code changes to even more casual apparel. Mid-1990s signs of a return to more formal office dress codes evaporated, and premium stretch took a back seat to practical, but non-stretch, function The best example of this is the continuing sales decline of womens hosiery and pantyhose. The Baby Boomer wife/professional appears satisfied that she can present an attractive well-toned body without the assistance of power garments, including hosiery and pantyhose. Against these substantial consumer projections, TW published a table of spandex usage, which is presented again here (See Table 1).

It is obvious from some current preliminary research that sales fell short of the year 2000 outlook and continue to this day to underperform the estimated 2005 level. Little was it realized that the consumer was plotting against the industry and her scheme would finally be exposed in recent data from the Mount Prospect, Ill.-based National Sporting Goods Association, which regularly tracks participation in sports activities. Table 2 presents data for the top 10 activities in 2002.Combining these statistics with one more set opens a new picture of the future for stretch. Several recent domestic and international studies have outlined the age demographics of sports participants (See Table 3).Aye, and there lies the rub. Just as the worldwide fiber industry is completing its spandex fiber-building binge, raising capacity well beyond even the optimistic estimates of several years ago, the Baby Boomer the fuel for the exercise revolution is changing sports and doing less. What is to become of the myriad of sports-specific garments prepared for the exercise-addicted Boomer It appears that a new direction is needed.
Comfort StretchThe new direction is comfort stretch, not active stretch. The Baby Boomer generation, currently ranging in age from 38 to 56, dominates the 45-to-54 age category, is leaving the 35-to-44 year-old category, and is slowly sneaking into the 55-to-64 category. The absolute numbers of the Baby Boomer generation soon will start to decline, and sports participation by the remaining members will slide from 74 to 80 percent, to under 70 percent. Sports-specific apparel is less in demand.As people age, they tend to add weight. This, despite the obvious cardiac implications, is good news for stretch. In addition to the new business brought to exercise salons, diet programs and doctors, heavier Baby Boomers will need to re-wardrobe, and that new clothing will contain elements of stretch. Unfortunately, as people gain weight, so also do they change their seated appearance, stretching and sagging more widely. Since woven fabrics generally are cut longitudinally for slacks, filling stretch is used to compensate for the horizontal extension of their avoirdupois, keeping them comfortable as they strain against the constraints of garment leg construction. Less movement, less exercise, less posturing in active-sport-specific clothing all point to comfort, not power and action.In their constant attempts to reduce the cost of active fabrics, US textile manufacturers have searched for ways to reduce the price of spandex or have searched for substitute materials less expensive than spandex. Until recently, Wilmington, Del.-based INVISTA Inc., then DuPont, was able to keep a floor under price movements in domestic spandex through a combination of consumer brand loyalty and active, pointed product development for Lycra® in activewear applications. Three forces, however, have conspired to weaken the companys position. First, domestic competitors ramped up production, weak producers were absorbed by stronger organizations, and excess production flowed into the market. Simultaneously, foreign producers, largely from Korea but increasingly producing in many parts of the world, flooded US shores with relatively good-quality, cheap spandex, attacking DuPonts traditional price levels and offering manufacturers opportunities to try spandex constructions with marginal cost additions. Mills experimented with low levels of spandex in many applications without seriously increasing greige fabric costs (finishing costs were another matter, beyond the scope of this analysis). Knitters added small percentages of spandex to lightweight blouse fabrics, and weavers added even smaller amounts to the filling in light to heavyweight twills for slacks and outerwear garments. The basic spandex structure provided basic stretch and power characteristics to the fabric. So far, so good, but now it was the consumers turn. She, now slightly older, changed her buying and exercise habits and searched less for power and exercise garments and more for comfort garments. Several ancient technologies stepped forward, including textured polyester and textured nylon, each finding its own niche, generally chosen by fabric economics rather than aesthetics. DuPont changed the rules around the Lycra brand, allowing it to be used on DuPont-approved constructions containing spandex, nylon or polyester from DuPont. The logic was simple use a DuPont product, meet certain performance standards and label it Lycra, probably the strongest brand in the companys stable. It is not certain how the market accepted change, but corruption of a historically strong marketing brand is a move to be questioned.Spandex manufacturers tried to lower prices to compete, never really meeting the self-flagellating price levels to which polyester or nylon textured fibers would sink. Meanwhile, Dow Chemical, Midland, Mich., is trying an alternative route with DOW XLA, a polyolefin-based melt-spun monofilament fiber that has been granted its own subclass, lastol. Dow makes no pretense of competing with Lycra or other spandex materials but, rather, claims the fiber will provide soft stretch performance and require little or no heat-setting to stabilize heavy recovery. This probably is the best definition of comfort stretch that has been offered.
The Future Of StretchComfort stretch is here to stay. As a matter of fact, comfort stretch will/should become a regular offering from US knitters and weavers. The consumer is downsizing her tastes and lifestyle to more easygoing levels, and, while exercise still is important, it slowly is decreasing in consumer attractiveness. As the population ages, the consumer looks to garments that enhance her figure in different venues in smaller, more subtle ways.Comfort stretch is a natural for the textile industry. Spandex insertion in knitted fabrics is relatively easy, without specific machines needed. Contrarily, weavers need extra-wide looms to accommodate the spandex and produce the 60- to 70-inch finished widths needed for cutting slacks. Comfort stretch, without the need for narrow greige widths to develop power and recovery that must be stretched out and controlled by heat-setting, can be made commercially using existing equipment. An industry struggling to survive certainly doesnt have access to or want to spend the capital to install new looms in the hope that spandex wins the comfort stretch race. Rather, existing mill equipment both knit and woven can be adapted with little effort to produce, as Dow says, soft stretch performance. Recent political campaigns have urged the voter to follow the money. Textiles need to follow the consumer to comfort stretch. Active stretch will never go away, but comfort stretch will replace substantial portions of the market as the consumer replaces active with easy.

December 2003



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