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Nonwovens / Technical Textiles

French Technical Textiles Industry: Evolving & Competitive

A collaborative spirit, a wealth of know-how, flexibility and a close supply chain nourish northern France's technical textiles cluster.

Janet Bealer Rodie, Managing Editor

The Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in northern France is home to one of two technical textiles clusters in France, the other being in southeastern France near Lyon. Centered just south of the Belgian border around the cities of Lille, Roubaix and Tourcoing, the northern cluster comprises some 150 specialized companies that employ 9,000 people and generate annual revenues of approximately 1 billion euros, according to Lille-based investment promotion agency Nord France Invest. There are more than 300 technical textiles companies -- Europe's highest concentration -- within 150 kilometers of Lille. Many of them originally produced traditional textiles -- the region was a major flax and wool producer and a traditional lace-making center. As in the United States, lower-cost competition from emerging economies forced these enterprises to reinvent themselves, and they are now producing niche-oriented textiles that require specialized expertise rather than competitive costing to be successful.

The Centre Européen des Textiles Innovants (CETI) in Roubaix offers facilities to enable small and medium-sized enterprises to develop advanced textile applications.

There is a strong collaborative spirit among business, academic, and research and development (R&D) circles. UP-tex, an association comprising a competitive cluster of 90 technical textiles companies and 23 research laboratories, provides R&D, fundraising, promotional and communication, and export market access assistance; networking opportunities; and other services to its members. Another organization, CLUBTEX, offers similar services to its members, which include 63 companies in northern France and Belgium, five training and educational institutions, three R&D institutes and three textile organizations.

Following are quick snapshots of five northern French companies that made the transition from traditional to technical textiles, two education and research facilities, and, as a contrast, one company that makes beautiful lace and tulle using machinery developed in the 19th century.

Doublet: From Liturgical To Public Ornaments, Banners
Luc Doublet, CEO of Avelin-based digital and screen printer Doublet Group, exudes an enthusiasm that is in keeping with many of his company's creations. The company dubs itself CRéATeUR d'ENtHoUsIASme (creator of enthusiasm), and much of its production is geared to public events - including flags, banners and tents for major sporting events including the Olympics and Tour de France, among others; and costumes and murals for events such as lille3000, an ongoing cultural celebration inaugurated after that city was designated the 2004 European Capital of Culture.

Doublet was established in 1832 as a maker of liturgical vestments and ornaments. Luc Doublet's grandparents bought the company in 1932 and continued making liturgical articles, employing 25 embroiderers, until after World War II, when the company began to make banners for public groups. Their son Bernard, an architect, added metal structures to the company's product line. Luc Doublet joined his father, Bernard, in 1969 and began to add innovative manufacturing technologies including computer-aided design, sublimation printing and laser cutting. He began making polyester flags using sublimation printing techniques and built on his success by acquiring and setting up companies outside of France -- in the United States, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal and Poland. Luc Doublet remains at the helm, but his three children now own the company.

The plant in Avelin houses state-of-the-art printing equipment and a R&D team of well-trained mechanical and textile engineers and designers. However, Doublet produces very special, unique articles as well, such as hand-embroidered silk flags. During a recent tour of the plant, Luc Doublet also pointed out the company's commitment to sustainability: Process chemicals are recycled, and flags have no grommets to reinforce the holes, which are incorporated into the fabric via an innovative patented solution.

Luc Doublet adjusts the sleeve on a costume designed for lille3000 celebrations.

Dickson-Constant: From Linen And Cotton To Acrylic
Dickson Group, based in Wasquehal, dates from 1836, when Scottish spinner David Dickson founded the first linen mill in France in Dunkirk. In 1840, Dickson began weaving sail fabrics and soon developed methods for preventing mold and rot on marine fabrics. By 1909, it was producing tarpaulins and tents for the French National Defense. In 1945, it turned to acrylic fibers for production of outdoor fabrics. In 1969, it merged with cotton and polyester canvas weaver Eugène Constant, which had been founded in 1913 in Lille. Dickson-Constant became known for its awning fabrics and began an international expansion, which accelerated when Sunbrella® marine and outdoor solution-dyed acrylic fabric maker Glen Raven Inc., Glen Raven, N.C., acquired it in 1998.

Beams of solution-dyed acrylic warps have been prepared for weaving at Dickson-Constant's facility in Wasquehal.

That acquisition yielded benefits to both companies, said Patrick Raguet, Dickson's marketing director: "The product lines are very complementary, and the acquisition made it easier for Glen Raven to enter the European market. Dickson also took advantage of the Sunbrella brand. We imported some of those lines and entered the marine and casual furniture markets, and, little by little, we started producing the same quality here. Today, we have both Sunbrella and Dickson® fabric lines, and depending on the market, we will push one brand or the other." He added that solution-dyed acrylic fabrics comprise 90 percent of Dickson's current product portfolio, mainly because of the company's leading position in outdoor markets -- particularly, solar protection markets.

Dickson today has 600 employees in three business units in France -- including a coating plant near Lyon and a coating/lamination plant in that area that produces highly technical textiles for industrial applications -- and 14 foreign sales subsidiaries marketing to 110 countries. Exports account for 75 percent of its turnover. Its Wasquehal plant produces woven fabrics for consumer markets. The 27,500-square-meter (m2) facility houses 110 looms that produce 25 million m2 of fabric annually. Yarn going into the fabrics comes from various European sources as well as from Glen Raven's U.S. spinning plants.

Cousin Biotech: From Ropes To Implants
Cousin Biotech, a manufacturer of medical textiles since 1994, is one of three firms that evolved out of a company that began twisting linen in 1848 and in 1870 started braiding ropes for fishnets and other marine applications. Cousin Group also includes industrial cordage manufacturer Cousin Trestec and Cousin Composites, which manufactures thermoplastic-coated rods, cables and bars made from aramid, glass or carbon fibers.

According to Cousin Biotech President François Cousin, his company entered the medical textiles market by accident. "A customer needed a very small quantity of something different, and we charged a heavy price to be able to develop it," he said. From that start, the company has developed a line comprising 400 braided, knitted, woven and nonwoven implantable products such as hernia meshes, spinal stabilization systems, ligaments, gastric bands and many others including customized products. Materials used include biocompatible and bioresorbable fibers, elastic and shock-absorbent materials, and metal and ceramic materials. Product assembly involves a lot of stitching, including manual stitching for products that may require special shaping.

In 2008, the company moved into a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in the town of Wervicq-Sud. All manufacturing and packaging are performed in two clean room areas totaling 1,600 m2. The manufacturing operation employs around 50 people, and 10 people are involved in product R&D. Products are distributed mainly in Europe, North America, South America and South Africa.

Cousin Biotech’s inguinal hernia implant is made with 90-percent bioresorbable poly-l-lactide acid and 10-percent polypropylene to reinforce the wall of the groin.
Photographed by Maxime Dufour

Peignage Dumortier: From Wool To Nearly Every Fiber
Tourcoing is home to Peignage Dumortier S.A.S., a processor of fiber for downstream spinning. Established in 1896, the company originally was a wool comber, but in 1965, as the wool industry was declining in Europe, it transitioned to processing man-made fibers. Today, it processes a wide range of natural and man-made fibers on a commission basis and supplies sliver to be spun into yarns used mainly in technical textiles and apparel.

"We process raw materials provided by our clients and do what they cannot or do not want to do," said Georges Major, commercial director, Peignage Dumortier. "They may not have the know-how, machinery or capacity; or they may specialize in one or two fibers and don't want to contaminate their machinery with a new fiber."

The company processes nearly every fiber but carbon and glass. Its customers fall into two groups: fiber producers -- such as Lenzing, Trevira, Azota, DuPont, Kermel and others -- that want to sell the yarn; and spinners that want to process blended fibers.

Peignage Dumortier has six workshops: one with three carding lines for carding raw white fiber and two cut converting lines for converting tow; one equipped with 12 combers for combing raw white fiber; one with three carding lines and 12 combers to process spun-dyed or stock-dyed fibers; one for cut converting spun-dyed tow, which also has two high-production cards for carding raw white or spun-dyed fibers; a short-staple workshop with six small cotton cards; and a workshop for proccessing special fibers and blends for what Major described as "exotic products" such as fake fur. Equipment includes Thibeau cards and NSC combers.

Commercial Director Georges Major shows a sample of sliver prepared by Peignage Dumortier for a customer.

Major stressed the company's service, sliver quality and flexibility: "We can provide lots as small as 300 to 500 kilograms (kg), and even as small as 100 kg, but also large lots of up to 100 tons. If you want to compete successfully in the European market, you have to sell technology, know-how and creativity. Otherwise, clients will go to low-cost suppliers. Our activity in Europe is possible because Europe still has fiber producers and spinners."

Peignage Dumortier's clientele has shifted in recent years, Major said: "In the past, 75 percent of our business was for apparel, handknitting and other traditional markets, and 25 percent was for technical textiles. Since the financial crisis, that has changed. Now, 60 percent is for technical textiles and 40 percent for traditional textiles and apparel."

Duflot: From Diapers To Barriers And Insulation
Nonwovens manufacturer Duflot Industrie S.A.S., Caudry, is the youngest of the companies profiled here, with a history dating from the mid-20th century. Early production consisted mainly of disposable nonwovens for hygiene applications. In 1986, the company began producing thermal barriers, and in 1990, under new ownership, it changed its focus to needlepunched nonwovens primarily for acoustic and thermal insulation and fire-resistant (FR) barriers for construction and transportation applications, but also for ballistic and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Today, it operates two factories employing 65 people and producing 1 million m2 of nonwovens per month, and has an annual turnover of 12 million euros, with exports representing 40 percent of sales.

According to Flavien Mauny, Duflot's innovation manager, the company provides FR barriers for seats to the French rail company SNCF for its standard and high-speed TGV trains; as well as for aircraft. Barriers for city trains and subways are also cut-resistant. Thermal insulation goes into firefighter gear. Acoustic insulation applications include tiles and other construction applications. Duflot also offers a patented, layered shock-absorbing insulation for underflooring. In the PPE area, which represents 20 percent of its business, it has developed a breathable, low-weight quilted FR barrier made using aramids. The company also produces polypropylene/glass fiber mats that are selling to automotive door or panel makers in France and elsewhere, and stainless-steel fiber nonwovens for belts used in the glass industry.

The factory floor at Duflot's headquarters includes Asselin-Thibeau and LaRoche machinery and equipment, set up so that almost all processes can be carried out inline. Most of the company's products are made in that facility, while FR barrier and glass fiber products are made at Duflot's second factory located a few kilometers away.

Duflot’s ISO’AIR® FR barrier (inset) for firefighter gear is a breathable, quilted aramid nonwoven fabric.

Technical Textiles: A Viable Future In Europe
The transition from traditional to technical textiles in France, and Western Europe in general, is helping to ensure that a viable textile industry will remain in the region.

"There is still a future for technical textiles in Europe," Major said, while also acknowledging that technical textiles demand will grow in China and India as well, and producers there will upgrade their products to meet that demand. "For technical textiles, you need a very close supply chain. Quantities are smaller -- to buy from China, you need to buy a whole container. And, you must make sure the technical specifications are what the customer wants."

Education & Research: ENSAIT & CETI

L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Industries Textiles (ENSAIT), founded in 1889 in Roubaix, is the oldest school in France dedicated solely to textile training, and graduates 140 of the 220 students who earn textile degrees in France each year. ENSAIT offers selective educational tracks leading to engineering and Ph.D. degrees; and trains more than 70 percent of the textile engineers working in France and 15 percent of European textile engineers.

ENSAIT's curriculum has evolved in line with the evolution of the French textile industry from commodity, traditional textile production to more niche-oriented production. "Today, 10 to 20 students are interested in the traditional industry," said Xavier Flambard, ENSAIT's director. "Half of the students are going into big retail enterprises and half into technical textiles such as automotive, aircraft, medical and sport."

School facilities include laboratories for polymer spinning, knitting, weaving, textile chemistry, apparel pattern making and sewing and all other aspects of textile and apparel production. Students going into the retail area study supply chain management.

ENSAIT also houses the research lab Génie et Matériaux Textiles (GEMTEX), where 40 professors and 40 Ph.D. candidates research new textile materials and processes in areas such as composites, multifunctional and smart textiles, mass customization, renewable resources and polysensoriality. Some work involves partnering with private industry to develop technological solutions, such as a loom invented by GEMTEX researchers to weave the substrate for a seamless 3-D carbon-fiber composite corner box to be used in aircraft built by France-based Airbus.

The Centre Européen des Textiles Innovants (CETI) opened in October 2012 in Roubaix to offer a platform and facilities to enable small to medium-sized enterprises to develop advanced textile applications for healthcare, transportation, safety, civil engineering and other markets; test and prototype new products; and set up pilot-scale production runs. UP-tex, CLUBTEX and ENSAIT have been closely involved in establishing the center. UP-tex Managing Director Marc Honore serves as CETI's director general, and UP-tex Project Manager Julien Payen, Ph.D., is heavily involved in its operation. Numerous other institutions and government entities also have been involved in the setup. Public and private funding in phase one, which includes nonwovens and meltspinning facilities, totals 39 million euros.

ENSAIT researchers designed and built a special loom to weave this substrate for a seamless composite corner box for use in aircraft built by Airbus.

The nonwovens lab offers spunlaid and drylaid processes and houses web-forming, web-consolidation and other machinery from Andritz Asselin-Thibeau, Andritz Perfojet, Andritz Küsters, LaRoche and Hills Inc. The spinning lab houses a Hills mono-bi-tricomponent spinning line -- one of just five in the world -- and a crimping and cutting line.

In setting up its nonwovens and meltspinning facilities, CETI received collaborative assistance from The Nonwovens Institute at North Carolina State University, which offers a similar facility for nonwovens R&D.

Over the next two years, CETI plans to add other spinning capabilities along with electrospinning, knitting, weaving, braiding and finishing capabilities, mainly for composites and technical textiles.

Sophie Hallette: A Link To Tradition

State-of-the-art technology may be the mainstay of northern France's technical textiles industry, but Maison Sophie Hallette, founded in 1887 in Caudry, continues a successful business producing delicate lace and tulle on heavy, clunky cast-iron machinery developed in England in the early 19th century to replicate the production of handmade bobbin lace. The company offers more than 2,000 stock patterns to haute couture houses and high-end ready-to-wear and lingerie brands, and it supplied the lace that went into the dress Kate Middleton wore when she married Prince William in April 2011.

Maud Lescroart, the company's marketing director, noted that the Bobbin net and Leavers looms used in the factory have not been made for quite some time, and the loom operators must go through seven years of training to attain a high level of skill and to fully understand the complex loom workings. Setup for a new project takes three people two months to complete. Other workers prepare the bobbins and conduct other tasks. Designs are still drawn by hand, although there is computer assistance at the stage of transferring them to technical drawings before they are communicated to the loom via punched cards on a mechanical Jacquard system.

Sophie Hallette's workshop in Caudry is equipped with heavy cast-iron machinery developed in the early 19th century to produce  delicate bobbin lace that is sold to haute couture houses and high-end ready-to-wear and lingerie brands. Photographed by Philippe Schlienger

Once taken off the loom, the lace is inspected for flaws and repaired by skilled hand workers. Then, pattern units are separated and cut along the scalloped edges. After that, the lace may be dyed, and embroidery or other embellishment may be added.

"The sky is the limit on invention and innovation," Lescroart said, noting that some laces may be embellished with semiprecious stones, and showing the range of possibilities in the company's stock collection. "The human being needs to dream and see beauty, and we are proud to provide this little bit of beauty."


March/April 2013