Product Focus

What’s new in the world of marine fabrics? A better question would be: What’s NOT new? This fast-moving industry hastily responds to market trends, constantly introducing improved fabrics, monitoring the latest fashions in color and design, and finding new ways to capture the greatest possible market share in this highly competitive niche industry.

The state of the market

Keeping tabs on fabric is the non-profit IFAI (Industrial Fabrics Association International.) This 2,000-member trade association serves both the suppliers and end-product manufacturers of the specialty fabrics industry. Manager of Market Research Robin Simoson reports that in 2004, boating sales overall (including aftermarket accessories) were up by nearly six percent. Projections for 2005 are also good, between 6 and 8 percent.

“My research indicates that approximately 70 percent of marine fabric goes to end-product manufacturers of custom covers and tops, with the remaining 30 percent of the fabric consumed by OEMs,” she says.

“There are approximately 20 key suppliers of marine fabric for North America. On the fabric-supplier side, there doesn’t seem to be much growth domestically. On the end-product side, there seems to be growth in the number of smaller one- to two-person shops, particularly in the western U.S.”

“The industry seems strong and the builders we call on tell us they’re running full,” says Shuford Mills’ Director of Sales Jeff Jimison. “I don’t know if it’s a trend, but we have noticed a number of builders that use other types of fabric express an interest in solution-dyed acrylics as an upgrade to what they have used or are currently using.

“The aftermarket marine business seems to be strong as well, and our customers expect modest to strong growth in this area. Here at Shuford Mills, we’ve seen a large percentage increase in our marine business this past year with more boatbuilders specifying our Outdura fabric, and we expect to see this trend continue. Our name recognition among boatbuilders continues to grow and there is increased understanding of what we bring to the table — a high-quality, domestically produced solution-dyed acrylic marine fabric.

“Our business is about equally divided between boat manufacturers, OEMs and aftermarket product providers.”

The fabrics

Overall, solution-dyed acrylic fabric is used nearly 55 percent of the time, according to the IFAI’s Simoson. It is followed by vinyl-coated or laminated polyester (17 percent), acrylic-coated polyester (13 percent), cotton polyester blends (9 percent), and “other” (6 percent).

“Solution-dyed acrylic seems to be the fabric of choice because of its breathability and UV resistance,” she says.

Jimison agrees: “Solution-dyed acrylics generally have more UV resistance. It also is normally made from staple-spun yarns as opposed to filament yarns.

Marketers place a great deal of emphasis on the durability of their product. Fabric is a finicky material — It fades in the sun, mildews in the shade, gets stretched out of shape, and heaven knows, you don’t want it to catch on fire.

Glen Raven leaves no stone unturned when describing its Sunbrella brand acrylic fabrics: “Breathable, resists sunlight, mildew, rot, and atmospheric chemicals, dimensionally stable.”

Manufacturing techniques are continuously upgraded, with the latest innovation being the ability to make fabric that is both water-resistant and breathable. At Shuford, Jimison says, “We introduced Outdura Trio, a laminated fabric that is both waterproof and breathable. It has an acrylic face that is made with the same highly UV-, mildew-resistant solution-dyed acrylic fiber, with a brushed tricot liner fabric on the back. In between is a microporous film that lets water vapor escape and at the same time won’t allow water droplets to penetrate. It is completely nonabrasive, and very durable.

Glen Raven recently introduced a new fabric, Sunbrella Supreme, which uses a proprietary bonding process that adheres an acrylic fabric for the face of the product to an acrylic flocking for the reverse side, while also creating a waterproof barrier. With Supreme, “We also provide the opportunity to have contrasting colors on either side of the fabric,” says Derek Robinson, marine products manager for Sunbrella. “You can have a dark, rich color on the outside, with a lighter, brighter color reflecting inside the cabin or on deck.”

What’s in a color

One of the ever-present trends in fabrics is color. Like the rest of the fashion world, fabric-makers must constantly refresh their palettes.

This is particularly evident now that, with the Martha Stewart-ization of America, we’ve become increasingly house-proud. “Consumers are more focused on their home interiors,’ says Glen Raven’s Marine Specialist Paige Mullis, and they want their boats to be an extension of their home-style. They really didn’t think about it like that 5 or 10 years ago.

‘At one time,’ she continues, ‘fabric styling was geared toward mass appeal so neutrals were everywhere. Now, everyone is tired of seeing the same colors and wants distinction. It’s all about visual merchandising.’

As a result, fabric companies must track trends across influencing industries. ‘We look to other industries for color trends — the apparel, home fashion, and automotive industries. Although blues and neutrals are still industry standards,’ says Mullis. ‘We’re embracing more ‘fashion-forward’ colors that are indicative of home fashion, such as Tuscan Orange, Wheat and Glacier. We’re also seeing copper tones inspired by automotive.

‘We also look to national catalog retailers such as Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and so on, to monitor their color palettes. We’re seeing bright reds and warm oranges, citric hues, clean blues. Colors are becoming cleaner, fresher, not as muddy as in the past.”

Still got the blues

Blue is the tried-and-true favorite of the marine industry, so Glen Raven continues to freshen its palette of blues. ‘We’ve added several new blues to update our most popular marine color: Capris, Deep Sea, Ocean and Marine,’ Mullis says.

In addition to watching other fashion-oriented industries, Sunbrella gauged its customers’ tastes toward its 2005 fabric introduction by conducting an online survey.

“When the votes were in,’ according to the Web site, ‘it appeared the new solid blues are the big thing.”

New competition drifts ashore

One significant market trend in the marine fabrics market, according to IFAI’s Mary Hennessy, is the introduction of fabric suppliers from Europe and Asia.

“U.S. (custom marine canvas) fabric suppliers face increased competition from foreign companies, “she said.” Most custom marine manufactuers are small companies (one to 10 employees) and cannot buy in large enough volume to buy directly from mills. They buy from distributors, and many of the U.S.-based distributors of fabric are starting to stock cheaper fabrics imported from overseas. Still, other manufacturers stick by brands like Sunbrella, a brand that has developed tremendous market awareness, and advertise that to their customers.”

‘There is always a threat from foreign competition,’ says Jimison. ‘We focus on running an efficient manufacturing operation, provide a high-quality fabric to the trade at competitive prices, give excellent customer and technical service and delivery from a stock inventory. We then let our customers decide where they and their clients are best served.’

How does Glen Raven respond? Glen Raven has a long history in the business of solution-dyed performance products. With extensive research and testing we assure a quality product and continually strive to bring new, innovative ideas to our customers … globally.’

No longer do you see dull, neutral boat covers and furniture. Now it’s all about ‘styling’ on the water — all about looking good, while secure in the knowledge that the fabric will stand up to the tortures of a beating sun, whipping winds and that nasty mildew.

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