LOS ANGELES — Exhibitors at the Los Angeles International Textile Show, which starts here six days before Earth Day, are responding to more demand for environmentally sustainable products.
The portfolio of natural fibers for the spring-summer 2008 season ranges from lyocell made of wood pulp and silk dyed in eco-friendly tints to bamboo blends and cotton that has been treated to resemble cracked leather.
Several vendors who will participate in the show at the California Market Center from April 16 to 18 attributed the bump in interest to "An Inconvenient Truth," last year's Oscar-winning global warming documentary narrated by former vice president Al Gore.
Jim Jakubecy, owner of Green-Spun Textured Knits in Gastonia, N.C., who has been offering textiles made of recycled yarn for at least a decade, said the number of inquiries on anything recycled has surged tenfold in the last year. He said that previously, customers bought from Green-Spun mainly for the aesthetic appeal of the muted, soft, heathery colors that resulted from its technique of dry-blending yarn with recycled fibers.
"Now people want to know if it's recycled, how much is recycled [and] which components are recycled," he said.
Jakubecy next week will introduce a tri-blend of regular cotton, polyester and organic cotton in one yarn. The company already offers a blend of regular and organic cotton that is a mechanical union of two yarns. The new tri-blend will represent a single yarn, which will have the same performance and strength of his other fibers, but cost slightly more.
"It puts all the components of 100 percent recycled [materials], that will be important for the sustainability of our earth, together," Jakubecy said, noting that his prices range from $2.75 a yard for recycled cotton jersey to $6.75 a yard for 15-oz. fleece made of recycled cotton.
Because of heightened environmental concerns, demand of organic cotton also has grown. Global sales of organic cotton products increased to $583 million in 2005 from $245 million in 2001, and are projected to jump to $2.6 billion by the end of 2008, according to Organic Exchange, an Oakland, Calif., nonprofit promoting organic cotton.
Still, Cotton Inc., a Cary, N.C.-based trade group for the cotton industry, said organic cotton constitutes only 0.1 percent of the world's total cotton production, or enough to fill a medium-sized cargo ship.For Los Angeles' Design Knit Inc., bamboo and Supima cotton are alternatives to organic cotton. Shala Tabassi, a principal in the privately held knitting company, noticed that designers and apparel manufacturers prefer textured textiles, such as pointelle and jacquard, over a solid jersey. Displaying products for summer and fall 2008, Design Knit will present anything but basic goods in a bid to differentiate itself from competitors in China and other lower-cost countries.
In addition to Supima cotton, which costs 30 to 40 percent more than regular cotton but has a softer hand, lower tendency to pill and a smoother surface, Design Knit will offer Micro Modal as well as bamboo blended with linen, silk, wood and cashmere. That's not to say that synthetic materials that are shiny and feature Lurex aren't popular, she said. Recent runway trends for futuristic looks have buoyed interest in the opposite end of the spectrum from the natural textiles. Nonetheless, Tabassi said there was a 20 percent increase in production of natural fibers for spring 2008 from spring 2007.
Natural has been the buzzword at Ecotex Inc. since its founding 16 years ago. Taking its name from an abbreviation of "ecological textiles," the Los Angeles-based company made its mark in the industry as a domestic developer of Tencel, the brand name for lyocell, until it jumped the Pacific Ocean to work with South Korean factories after the closings of many U.S. mills. In 1994, Ecotex began marketing organic cotton. Next week, the company will unveil fabrics made of organic Supima cotton, bamboo, soy and 100 percent organic cotton that has a rainbow heathery effect without having been yarn dyed or mixed with polyester.
Although demand for organic cotton among designers and consumers is mounting, Ecotex is upping the ante with its variety of organic Supima cotton, which costs from $4 a yard for cloth that is prepared for dyeing to $7 to $8 a yard for fabric that is blended with Micro Modal and spandex. The organic Supima cotton costs about 10 to 15 percent more than organic cotton and 20 percent more than conventional cotton.
"Our biggest challenge would be for people…to see the value of giving back to the environment and helping as much as they can," said Raphael Javaheri, president of Ecotex, which has annual sales of less than $20 million. "Still, we have to be competitive. Retailers want a certain item at a certain price point."Designers also want fabrics that have classic looks but are environmentally sustainable. For fall 2007, Solstiss-Bucol, a joint venture of French lace maker Solstiss and silk specialist Bucol, launched a novel fabric dubbed "mud skin" that is now part of Bucol's permanent line. Woven out of silk or cotton thread, the fabric is hand-finished in an elaborate but environmentally sound process. The fabric is soaked in a dye mixed with crushed roots and water. It is dried in the sun after being washed in specially treated water to remove the mud. Then it is stored to stabilize the coating. To finish the "mud skin," Bucol washes the material again and overdyes it. Sturdy enough to be lacquered and waterproof, the final product resembles dry, cracked leather with a darker tone on one side and a lighter one on the other. John Marshall, a Los Angeles-based sales representative for Bucol, said Juan Carlos Obando and Peter Cohen were among the designers who integrated "mud skin" in their fall 2007 collections.
As for Solstiss, it is testing combinations of nettle and banana fiber and also of silk and bamboo for its intricate lace, which has traditionally been made of polyester and rayon, cotton and silk, cotton and silk cashmere or Lurex and polyester. Sandrine Bernard, executive vice president for Solstiss-Bucol in New York, couldn't provide a timeline for when the nettle-banana fiber and silk-bamboo blends will be available. "We are just trying to develop the yarn with the supplier. After that, we have to work on that on the loom," she said. "There is great demand on the market for such a product."
Even a long-standing natural fiber like silk also could be improved to have less impact on the environment. Steve Hirsch, senior account executive for U.S. Silk in New York, said that, in the last 12 to 18 months, the company has made a concerted effort to request that its mills do not use azo, which is believed to cause health problems in people exposed to it, in dyes. Another by-product of the trend for natural fibers is a larger number of requests for silks that have a softer, more comfortable feel, including spun silk, spun silk blends and Fuji broadcloth. "It's a more natural feeling," Hirsch said.
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