Textiles that combine performance and aesthetics please fabricators and customers
Sun and water are the iconic companions of leisure and recreation. However, if you are a marine fabricator, those same elements can also play an adversarial role. Marine fabrics should protect the people and equipment on board from the effects of heat, UV radiation and moisture, as well as hold their shape for years in any weather—and look good doing it. Throw in the added advantage of affordability and a textile with all of these qualities may seem a little elusive. Marine textile suppliers continue to strive for innovative products that are raising the bar not only for performance, versatility and durability, but also for manageability and aesthetics. If the perfect fabric does not yet exist, innovators are getting closer to it all the time—by paying attention to technical advances, industry trends, what customers really want and which product characteristics they can borrow from other specialty fabrics market segments.
Assessing the market
After years of relative stagnation, the boat industry is slowly rebounding. New boat sales increased 5 percent in 2015 and pre-owned boat sales were up 6 percent in 2014 compared to 2013, according to IFAI’s 2016 State of the Industry Report by market research director Jeff Rasmussen (see the May/June issue of Marine Fabricator).
Perhaps the most significant news, due in part to corners cut by OEMs, is that after-market fabricators can look forward to more work in coming years. “The Great Recession caused some shifts in what fabrics were used by OEM accounts,” says Doug Dubay, national sales manager for Recasens USA, Blue Bell, Pa.
“They were looking for ways to cut costs, and shifted from using solution-dyed acrylics on protective tops and covers to using a range of polyesters. A lot of boats that have been made in the last five years or so are going to need their tops recovered or replaced, which is good news for after-market marine fabricators.”
With new business on the horizon, the industry is ripe for the next new fabric, but not all products introduced are new and improved—or even equal to what’s already available. “Often new fabrics being introduced are similar to what’s already out there but are a lower quality and price to get into the market,” says Rick Hirsch, president of Manart-Hirsch Co. Inc., Lynbrook, N.Y. “It’s harder to find innovative fabrics coming onto the market that are truly different.”
Still, innovative textiles are hitting the market if you know where to look for them.
Motivation to innovate can come from many places, but sometimes it is simply thrust upon us. Safety Components Fabric Technologies Inc., based in Greenville, S.C., has continued to improve the performance of WeatherMAX®, its water-repellent, mildew-resistant outdoor fabric engineered for long-term color and strength retention, used in marine and other outdoor applications. The most recent improvements, however, were the result of recommendations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that companies convert from using perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) with C8 telomeres (a chemical compound that contains 8 carbon atoms and 17 fluorine atoms) to C6 fluorochemical products. What that meant for Safety Components was redeveloping HydroMax™, WeatherMAX’s proprietary finish that provides the outdoor performance fabric with its high level of water resistance.
“We made the change to C6 about two years ago—and it was not an easy transition,” says John Pierce, product manager at Safety Components. “C6 is not as durable or effective in causing water to bead as C8 is, so essentially it requires more chemistry to try to achieve the same results.”
Since the initial transition two years ago, Safety Components has continued to improve the finish, and launched its most recent version about a year ago. “It took a lot of development time, but the end result of where we are today is that we have a better, more durable finish than we’ve ever had—even better than when we were using C8 chemistry.”
The color of change
When it comes to color trends for marine fabrics, neutrals are still king—black, navy, taupe—but within that subtle and safe realm, texture is a trending option. Sunbrella® Crest is a textured solution-dyed acrylic fabric with a fluorocarbon finish that can be used for biminis, and the Sunbrella Silica collection, also textured, is popping up on dodgers.
While new color trends are hard to identify, when trends do emerge, it’s often the result of large boat manufacturers setting them. Sea Ray, one of the larger players, has started a few color trends over the years. “Every once in a while Sea Ray comes out with a new color or pattern and people will start buying that pattern for aftermarket to match,” says Hirsch. “That’s how new colors come out, but normally it’s tough breaking out new colors.”
“Boat manufacturers continue to produce boats with fiberglass hard tops and hull designs that require less fabric infrastructure,” says Craig Zola, vice president of marketing and distribution, Herculite® Inc., Emigsville, Pa. “This means that the gel coat color (usually a shade of white) dominates the exterior color scheme. As a result, white fabrics are popular for cushions, covers and enclosure trim work on the larger boats and motor yachts. Some boat brands accent the exteriors with faux leather like upholstery in earth tone colors, but we see much less bright blue, green and burgundy.”
For interiors, there’s more than one school of thought. Many boaters are bringing the colors of their homes to the upholstery of their boats. “I’ve had it stated to me that marine upholstery used to mimic automotive, but now it’s mimicking home,” says Pierce. “Boat owners used to say ‘I want my boat to look like my car,’ but now they’re saying ‘I want my boat to look like my patio, which I want to look like my living room.’”
Innovators often look to other markets to find inspiration for their particular needs. That was the case for Sunbrella® Contour, a knit textured shade sail fabric launched by Glen Raven Inc., Glen Raven, N.C., at IFAI Expo in 2015. It didn’t take long for the company to realize it would be right for the marine market as well. Originally designed for tension fabric structures in places such as playgrounds, parking lots and picnic areas, Glen Raven is now marketing it to provide shade on boats as well.
Winner of a 2016 Progressive Insurance Miami International Boat Show Innovation Award in the boat care and maintenance category, Contour can be fabricated to attach to the center console and stretch fore and aft to protect boaters from the sun. “One of the unique characteristics of Contour is that the polypropylene knitted structure—the backbone of the product if you will—can be cleaned with bleach,” says Bill McDaniel, marine market manager at Glen Raven. “We’ve also integrated Sunbrella yarn to give it a softer look and the feel of fabric, along with the UV-resistance of solution-dyed acrylic. Because the weave is relatively open, air flow can come through so people don’t feel like they’re sitting in a sauna.”
Serge Ferrari North America, Pompano Beach, Fla., also borrowed an idea from its own inventory, a product used around Olympic-sized swimming pools to control noise in wet environments. Its Batyline® Aw is an acoustic composite the company has had for some years, but only recently is it marketing the product to the marine market. “We thought we’d introduce it to the boat builders, and they’re liking the idea of it because on boats that are 60 feet and up, noise is an issue,” says Steve Szenay, marine products manager, Serge Ferrari North America and chairman of the Marine Fabricators Association (MFA).
Safety Components’ BreakWater X™, an innovative PVC fabric designed for lace-on tops, permanent and semi-permanent tops, as well as enclosures, was also the result of looking to other markets for marine applications. “This product was based purely on requests from the users on what they wanted,” Pierce says. “They were telling us they wanted an enclosure fabric or top fabric that wouldn’t crack and peel.”
In southern Florida, with its intense sun, heat and humidity, boat owners discovered that they had to replace enclosures after only a few years—and often the installations cost more than $10,000. So Safety Components looked to the architectural market for a solution. “We knew that you could make a stadium roof out of PVC that lasts 30 years,” Pierce says. “The answer was in how you make the PVC and what you rely on to make it soft.”
Traditionally, PVC is made soft by loading it with plasticizers, but it’s not a permanent situation; they’re extracting continuously and as the plasticizers decrease, the fabric stiffens, resulting in cracking and peeling. Safety Components blends rigid PVC with an advanced polymer alloy bi-component that is naturally soft, so there is nothing to extract. BreakWater X won an innovation award in the Boatbuilding Methods & Materials category at the 2013 International BoatBuilders Exhibition & Conference (IBEX).
Arguably, designing fabrics that perform better is part of any innovation, no matter what fuels the efforts or what’s behind the inspiration. Recasens USA developed the finishing Infinity Process six years ago, but it’s only been during the last couple of years that it’s been stressing the benefits to its clients. “What we’ve found is with great care in weaving and with our proprietary finishing process, we’re able to achieve a much more stable fabric than is typical with acrylic fabrics,” says Dubay. “What that stability does for the fabricators is that after they’ve fabricated a bimini or enclosure, the finished project holds its shape better over time and looks better in all kinds of different weather conditions.”
Recasens USA offers two acrylic fabrics that have a coating on the underside, combining the aesthetics of a woven natural-looking solution-dyed acrylic with the water-resistant performance of back coatings. RECsystem has a proprietary acrylic back coating on the acrylic fabric, with two different antimicrobial agents built into the coating. RECwater is a solution-dyed acrylic base cloth, coated on the back with liquid vinyl that is drawn off and cured after the PVC soaks into the fabric. “The process we use for coating the acrylic with PVC is a more reliable method to get the vinyl to bond than if we calender-coated it,” Dubay says. “Both fabrics were originally developed for the marine market but are now also used in awnings and canopies.”
If at first you don’t succeed…
Ask any inventor: They’ll tell you that innovation is a process that includes missing the mark before finding just the right combination of elements. That was the case for Serge Ferrari before it launched Stamskin® One in 2015, an elastomer-coated polyester jersey for cushions used in marine and medical markets. “The first version didn’t do too well because it wasn’t as soft and supple, so we’ve been working on improving that for the past couple of years,” Szenay says. “With this version, when I show the sample to clients, they love it. It’s the only sample they refuse to give back. It’s got a soft feel and is cool to sit on. We’ve done temperature testing against regular vinyl when people sit on it, and it’s 10 degrees cooler.”
Nor do textile innovators stop working on new ideas just because the most recent launch was a success. There’s always a new idea being worked out on white boards and in labs. Safety Components is launching a stretchy version of WeatherMAX—WeatherMAX 3D—that is expected to be available this year. The fabric moves in all directions and is designed to help with fitting difficult shapes. The company is also planning to launch a new product at IFAI Expo 2016 in Charlotte, N.C., this October. “I can’t
say much about it except that we expect to change the market much like WeatherMAX did,” Pierce says.
Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.
Fabricators know that their companies’ survival relies on keeping their customers happy. And for smaller shops, one dissatisfied customer can domino into a significant problem. What that means for taking on new fabrics is this: fabricators don’t tend to do it quickly. “The reality of it is, people come up with new ideas to make money, so I am very cautiously optimistic when I’m looking at a new great idea,” says Darren Arthur, MFC, owner of Nautilux Custom Canvas LLC, Hazlet, N.J. “I like to talk to other fabricators who may have used the product and to see it tested.”
And by tested he means in real-world situations.
“I want to see it proven in the real world, not just hear it’s gone through an aging treatment,” Arthur says.
When looking into the latest, greatest fabric, there are a few things fabricators always want to know: Is it really different than what’s already out there? Can I invest in the change without taking on too much risk? What will the learning curve be like for my sewers?
New products can sometimes just be what’s already out there, but marketed to seem new and improved. Fabricators want to be sure there’s a real benefit to making a change in what they offer their customers. “I like to have a group of core products for materials we use and stick with that,” Arthur says. “Constantly changing is confusing in-house and also to the customer.”
When embracing new materials does seem like a good idea, Arthur tries to get other fabricators to share the risk. “If I try a new fabric on 20 enclosures, for example, and there’s a failure, that’s big for me,” Arthur says. “But if I do two or three and have four or five other fabricators who each do two or three, then it’s spread out geographically and the risk is minimized. It’s also helpful to bounce ideas off each other.”
Ed Skrzynski, owner of Marco Canvas & Upholstery™, Marco Island, Fla., says embracing change is the only way to stay relevant. “The only constant is change,” he says. “We have to be looking at new materials and new processes that will help us continue to stay in business.”
He also recommends doing your due diligence when trying new fabrics and materials. If the product is truly different, there will likely be a learning curve for how to work with it effectively. When Marco Canvas began working with WeatherMAX® a few years ago, it took them a while to figure out the best way to work with it. “It’s been a running change for us, but we like it because we can tension the daylights out of it on bimini tops and it looks fantastic, and when it’s being folded we’re not worried about getting a wear-through,” he says. “It’s also more waterproof than a traditional woven acrylic. But it took us a while to figure out what the proper needle size and thread size were to use with it. We had to take time to experiment with it, including doing test cuts across the roll and down the roll, and then double-checking the size before and after sewing to ensure the product stayed the same size.”
Arthur agrees. “The new product that we’re looking into is BreakWater X™,” he says, “but we need to take some time to play around with it a little more.”
No matter what the change, fabricators agree that educating the customer about choices and consequences is vital. “We always involve our customers in any type of potential change or new product,” says Don Zirkelbach, president of Ameritex Fabric Systems, Bradenton, Fla.
“It is imperative that our customers understand the wide range of fabrics available and the pros and cons
Keeping marine fabrics clean is a challenge. With constant exposure to sun, wind, freshwater and saltwater, corrosion and pollution, manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to incorporate cleanability into textiles.
Serge Ferrari’s Stamskin® One, used in marine upholstery as well as medical and hospitality industries, touts cleanability as a characteristic. “Normally hard-to-clean substances, such as ink pen, red wine and lipstick wipe right off it,” says Steve Szenay, marine products manager, Serge Ferrari North America.
Boat owners in regions with a lot of air pollution, such as Southern California and Southern Florida, need to replace bimini tops, T-tops and covers more often. In an effort to offer boat owners fabrics with better resistance to pollutants, Serge Ferrari developed Stamoid Pure, a lightweight woven PVC material with an oil-resistant formulation that resists dirt.
Sunbrella® Clarity, for marine and awning applications, features a photoactive ingredient that decomposes organic material and a hydrophilic component that allows water to wash dirt off its surface.