Supply chain issues aside, advancements in marine fabrics bring long-awaited solutions to at least some of the problems that have plagued marine canvas manufacturers since the dawn of the industry.
by Sigrid Tornquist
Despite a log-jammed supply chain and an increase in the number of people who want to renovate their boats, this is a thrilling time to be in the marine fabrication industry. Yes, marine fabricators are struggling to keep up with demand and find materials. But working with new fabrics that bring solutions to pinking, staining and deterioration may just make up for those challenges—and boat owners are lining up to reap the benefits.
“The pandemic contributed to a spike in many outdoor activities,” says Bill McDaniel, marine marketing manager at Glen Raven Inc., Glen Raven, N.C. “As consumers spend more time on the water, and with the introduction of new technologies and a desire for more sustainable and long-lasting products, consumers expect strong product performance they can rely on even after continued use.”
Those new technologies include fabric and coating combinations that stay cool to slow down deterioration due to heat, and others that resist staining and pinking. “While customers are not looking at moving away from vinyl, there are new materials entering the market such as silicone, polyurethane and TPO [thermoplastic olefin],” says Eric Petersen, director of sales and marketing for Enduratex™ in Corona, Calif. “However, vinyl and coated fabrics remain the workhorse for marine seat applications.”
Start with vinyl and add oxygen, moisture, warmth and food; and you get pinking—perhaps marine upholstery’s worst enemy. “Pink staining is a byproduct from bacteria and fungi,” Petersen says. “The bacteria feed on the plasticizers [phthalates] that impart flexibility to PVC. Coated fabric manufacturers use additives to prevent pink staining.”
Enduratex offers a TPO product that resists pink staining called Jetty for the marine market. “TPOs have been used in the automotive industry for years,” Petersen says. “They are ideal for the marine industry because they will not pink stain.”
Sunbrella® Horizon® marine vinyl fabric also resists pinking. Introduced in 2019, the fabric is designed to “resist bacterial pink staining, cold cracking and excess stretching, and won’t fade despite consistent exposure to sunlight,” says McDaniel. “It is the only product in the marine industry that offers a three-year warranty against microbial pinking.”
Coatings also provide stain resistance, and among the most recent advancements are silicone-coated vinyls. “A year or so ago I was at a manufacturer demonstration and they provided us some silicone-coated vinyls to play around with,” says Bill Marriott, owner of Extreme Upholstery Designs LLC, Summerville, S.C. “What I liked about it was that nothing would mark it up. You can take a black Sharpie® marker and write on it—and it wipes right off.”
Marriott hasn’t begun using the product in his shop yet, but he was impressed with the cleanability. “The one thing I didn’t like was that tape wouldn’t stick to it—and sometimes when patterning you need to mark or tape the fabric,” he says. “Still, I’m sure if I played with it long enough, I’d figure out a way around that.”
Enduratex offers a proprietary graffiti-resistant topcoat called Forbid, which is cross-linked into the vinyl’s structure, as opposed to simply acting as a surface treatment. “Forbid preserves the upholstery’s integrity, luster and softness,” Petersen says. “Ketchup, black marker, lipstick, red wine, coffee or indigo dye can all be easily cleaned off of it.”
The heat is off
While many manufacturers turned to darker vinyls in an attempt to avoid pink staining, those darker fabrics came with an increased structural deterioration due to the heat they absorb. “A lot of boats got away from white fabrics because of the pinking problem so they started using darker colors,” Marriott says. “But when you start using darker colors, you start building up heat—and the heat on darker colors will ruin the vinyl quicker.”
Enter vinyl fabrics that remain cooler to the touch, which helps with comfort for boaters as well as longevity for the material. “For years boat owners have complained about their seats being too hot from the sun,” Petersen says. “Enduratex has developed ChromaCool™ technology that keeps coated fabrics cooler over an extended period of time. There is nearly a 20-degree difference between standard vinyl and vinyl with ChromaCool technology.” Currently, Sonar is the only Enduratex collection to have the ChromaCool, with more to come. Another option is Chil™ Cool Touch technology from Spradling® International Inc., which offers darker colors that stay 20 to 30 degrees cooler than traditional vinyls. Widely used in the tow boat market, luxury pontoons and runabouts, Chil™ Fresco is available in nine colors ranging from black to Cognac, and multiple shades of tan and grey in between.
Supply chain pain
No matter how advanced the materials are, they’re no good to manufacturers if they can’t source them into inventory—and one of the challenges manufacturers are facing since the onset of COVID-19 is a disrupted supply chain. “We’ve had problems in all areas of products. Fabrics, foam, etc., have all been hard to get,” says Chris Costa, president of Costa Marine Canvas and Enclosures, Egg Harbor City, N.J. “Foam has become particularly expensive. As the price of fuel goes up, foam always goes up.”
Petersen agrees. “All products that use petrochemical raw materials are facing cost increases,” he says. “The industry is still recovering from the freeze in Texas earlier this year, and there are products that remain on allocation.”
Fabrics are also proving difficult to procure. “Interruptions in the global supply chain, including material availability, container delays and port quarantines—among other challenges—have naturally impacted delivery estimates and costs for a range of products across the marine industry,” McDaniel says. “We’ve seen an incredible surge in demand for Sunbrella fabrics and record orders across our portfolio, which has resulted in longer lead times to get fabric into the hands of our valued partners and marine fabricators.”
In the meantime, some fabricators are exploring fabrics they otherwise wouldn’t have looked at. “Because of the shortage of materials I normally use, I’ve been forced to look into brands and types of materials that I haven’t considered before,” Marriott says. “I’ve found another canvas that I really like, called Tempotest®. The fabric is manufactured in Italy and I buy it through Miami Corp. One thing I like about it is that it seems to be waterproof as opposed to water resistant.”
No matter which supplier he’s ordering materials from, Marriott tells his clients to choose multiple selections just in case one or more is not available. “I tell clients to pick three colors because you don’t know which one you can get,” he says. “And the price changes almost daily. I tell them what the current price is and if they wait a month, I’ll have to go back to check the price because it’s sure to have increased.”
Fabricators, manufacturers and suppliers are nothing if not innovative and resourceful—and not even a pandemic can stop the advancement of materials and the desire of boaters to be on the water. “Demand for product has been off the charts,” Costa says. “During the pandemic—and now as we exit COVID-19—demand has been nonstop. The boating industry has been booming.”
Sigrid Tornquist is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minn.
SIDEBAR: Upping the design ante
Good designers know how to look for inspiration outside their own industry. For marine fabricators, this often means looking to the auto industry—and sometimes that direction comes directly from the clients. “We’ve had several customers matching boat upholstery to cars,” says Chris Costa, owner of Costa Marine Canvas and Enclosures.
One customer wanted diamond “Bentley” stitching on the yacht’s exterior cushions to match his automobile. Another asked to have the upholstery of his Valhalla Boatworks V-41 match his Rolls-Royce, while one client requested that his boat seating match the style of his Tesla. “He brought the car to the shop several times for comparison,” Costa says.
But inspiration from automobiles can go deeper than creating exact likenesses. “I ask customers as many questions as I can get out of them and then go to work,” says Bill Marriott, owner of Extreme Upholstery Designs LLC. “If I’m drawing a blank, I’ll walk through a car parking lot for inspiration.”
The challenge, Marriott says, is that higher-end customers may like what you’ve done for someone else—such as contoured sculptured cushions—but then they want you to do something even more unique for their vessel. “They always want better than their neighbor, so you’re always trying to outdo yourself,” he says.