NEW YORK — While U.S. mills and fiber makers are having a hard time competing in many sectors of the price-conscious apparel market today, many of them see room for growth in the $17 billion U.S. activewear market. That’s because activewear makers and consumers place a premium on fabric technology and performance, the so-called value-added features that allow makers to command somewhat higher prices and margins.

By combining synthetic fibers such as nylon, spandex and polyester with each other or with cotton, mills and fiber companies have begun to focus on a niche market — something that textile executives have repeatedly said is a key for sustaining business in the shrinking textile market.

With the popularity of spandex apparent in everyday apparel like jeans and T-shirts, executives said the public has grown accustomed to marketing catch-phrases like "breathability," "spill-proof" and "moisture management." While the added values in performance fabrics are solutions to genuine problems, they’ve also created a demanding mind-set from consumers, which could be a good thing for textile firms specializing in them.

Through an increasing amount of market research to better target its products to consumers, DuPont is banking on its nylon and cotton blend Supplex for the activewear market, according to Dana McCauley, global marketing director for DuPont’s active, outdoor and swim divisions.

While Supplex is not new, its qualities — such as abrasion resistance, durability, reduced shrinkage and quicker drying — have been embraced by the activewear apparel industry. To further tap that vein, DuPont added new variations of Supplex into its product offerings that it unveiled last week at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. By combining performance and fashion elements, the company created fibers geared toward golf and tenniswear.

One is Supplex Micro, which is a lightweight fabric used for outerwear shells like anoraks aimed at the golf industry.

Another product, Supplex Mercerized, can be used in knit and woven fabrics, such as those commonly used in golf and tennis shirts, two active industries that have a fashion element in their apparel, according to McCauley. The mercerized aspect lends a dressy feel while still maintaining the benefits of Supplex, she said."High-end golf brands...look for dressier fabrics," said McCauley, noting that performance fibers can be used in various industries. "Even in the outdoor industry and travelwear, you see the need for people that are hiking in the morning on vacation and then stopping at a nice restaurant for lunch. They want something that looks nicer, but is still easy to maintain. They want something they can wash in their hotel rooms that’s quick to dry. These fibers are designed to do that and are basically wrinkle proof."

McCauley said product geared toward the activewear industry is an area that DuPont plans to continue growing.

Kansas City, Mo.-based eVent Fabrics created a special version of a Teflon laminate that is waterproof and breathable, similar to W.L. Gore & Associate’s Gore-Tex, according to marketing manager Rob Hendon. The laminate can be applied to jackets, shells for sleeping bags, footwear and gloves.

"We manufacture here in the U.S. and then we partner with a couple of companies in Asia to laminate the fabric," said Hendon.

Dina Dunn, vice president of marketing for North America at Nylstar Inc. — the U.S. branch of the Cesano Moderno, Italy-based nylon manufacturer — said activewear is an integral part of her company’s business. During the past two years that Nylstar’s nylon brand Meryl has been available in the U.S., Dunn said a majority of the products were driven by the activewear industry.

Three products include Meryl Skinlife, a yarn with inherent antimicrobial characteristics to be used in fitness and golf apparel. Meryl Nexten is a hollow nylon that is one-third lighter than normal nylon, a desirable property for things like mountaineering clothes for example. While all Meryl fibers wick, Dunn said Meryl Nateo offers enhanced moisture management.

Another branded nylon manufacturer, Nilit America Corp. also plans to get involved with the activewear market, though merchandising manager Molly Kremidas said specific plans are still under wraps.

"We’re planning on moving into high-tenacity or moisture-moving yarns," Kremidas said. "Plenty of people are doing it right now with a finish, but it has been requested by some of our customers, though I don’t know at this point if it would be advantageous for them costwise."The Material ConneXion library in Manhattan houses over 3,000 innovative materials, many of which are fibers and can be used in apparel. Andrew Dent, director of library and materials research at the members-only facility, said he’s noticed a growing number of fibers in the market that indicate people want added value.

"They want it to have extra performance," Dent said. "They don’t seem to mind what it is, though, as long as it keeps you warm and looks good. It’s not gimmicky, but people want to know their textiles are doing more than just covering the body."

Wicking fibers are probably the most common performance material geared toward apparel, Dent said.

"I’ve yet to come across a good odor-resistant textile. There are a lot of anti-microbial coatings, but nobody has come up with a T-shirt that you don’t need to wash or only wash every third time," said Dent. "I think if someone could come up with that, it would do really well."

Saxon Textiles president Gail Strickler also cited added value as key, such as fabrics with stretch, waterproofing and breathability.

"The interesting thing that has happened is that people want performance in things where it wasn’t previously needed," Strickler said. "It’s the ability to create fabrics that are more comfortable."

Strickler said she sees the industry heading toward lightweight fabrics and that two Saxon fabrics, Nimbus and Cirrus, are selling well for the activewear industry because they are both soft and don’t make a lot of noise when worn. Nimbus is a nylon/Lycra spandex blend, and Cirrus is a polyester/Lycra spandex blend.

Further, Strickler said Cirrus fleece, a laminated polyester/Lycra spandex version is both breathable and waterproof aimed at jackets, pullovers and outerwear, often used by golfers. Moondust, a nylon fabric with a metallic shine, is often used in ski apparel, Strickler added.

Spandex is one of the original performance fibers, according to Radici Spandex’s Bill Girrier, who is vice president of marketing and sales. However, Girrier said consumers have overcome the fiber’s stereotype of it solely being used for body-hugging clothes.Today, he said, it is being applied to looser-fitting garments aimed at tennis, jogging, swimwear and underwear for athletic support, whereas 10 years ago, it was less varied.

New products at Radici include S45, a heat-resistant spandex that launched in June intended to make it easier to dye stretch polyester fabric. Polyester needs to be heated to 265 degrees Fahrenheit to be dyed in conventional processes, which was a problem for spandex blends, since that fiber melts at 225 degrees. The other is a black spandex, called E12, since 12 is the number for carbon on the periodic table of elements. Radici’s chlorine-resistant spandex, S17, and its UV resistant spandex are popular for the swimwear industry, Girrier added.

"There’s a store for every activity out there, and then 10 catalogs to boot," Girrier said. "Whether it’s hiking, biking or kayaking, there is apparel for all the different activities, and spandex definitely fits into that. Also, baby boomers are this market’s demographic, so they have expendable income."

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