NEW YORK — With the outlook for apparel sales remaining unstable — despite retailers’ recent revelations that they had something to be thankful for this past weekend — fiber manufacturers said their sales into the garment arena remain shaky.

That has them looking to cut costs, develop new products to catch customers’ eyes and diversify into nonapparel categories like home and industrial textiles, with the goal of buoying their businesses next year.

Wellman Inc. fibers division vice president John Hobson said his Shewsbury, N.J.-based company plans to focus on new products and new categories next year. According to Hobson, Wellman focused on new fibers during the past 18 months that are slated to hit the market next year.

One new Wellman product is the company’s hollow polyester fiber, which is currently undergoing testing at an academic institution to see if the fiber improves the flow of blood and the amount of oxygen in the blood. The study is focused on people with diabetes and seeks to figure out if wearing garments made of hollow fibers improves some of the symptoms associated with the disease. Hobson said the company has a number of partners lined up to launch a line of hollow fiber garments aimed at the medical and athletic community, if the study proves the fiber makers’ belief about the fiber.

The biggest challenge going forward is staying cost competitive, Hobson said.

Overall, Hobson said he has a positive outlook on next year’s business and believes that the decline in the fibers industry over the past several years has finally leveled off.

Nilit America Corp. in January plans to roll out a three-color version of its Sensil Cupelle yarn, which can take two colors in one dyeing process.

The company also plans to introduce Sensil Lightwise, a nylon yarn that stops accepting color early in the dye process, so the final result is always light-colored.

"There are areas that we haven’t approached this past year," said Molly Kremidas, marketing manager. "One is warp knits — we just dipped our toes in it, but next year, we’ll be in the water — and more in weaving, with different denier counts and different products, such as industrial use, for example."The biggest challenge for Nilit’s business, according to Kremidas, is the dwindling of the hosiery business — a market that Nilit has focused significant attention on for many years. Going forward, the company will try to explore options outside the hosiery arena.

Bill Ghitis, of Dupont Textiles & Interiors agreed there is a "big question mark" surrounding the hosiery business. Ghitis, who is president of DTI’s global apparel division, said a dramatic drop in that sector over the last three years will most likely continue into next year.

"There is uncertainty over all of the business, though, like whether or not the war in Iraq will happen," said Ghitis. "Apparel has become such a global trade, even if there is a war in the Middle East, it can dislocate distribution channels and logistics."

Beginning in January, DTI will be treated as a wholly owned subsidiary of Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont. That marks the completion of a yearlong effort to set textile-related businesses that had been scattered through the industrial giant’s divisions as a single independent entity. The move clears the way for a spinoff and possible initial public offering, which Ghitis said could come as early as the fourth quarter of 2003, if market conditions are favorable.

Several executives also said there is a need in the industry to diversify their product offerings. With the imposing threat of war in the Middle East they said apparel is one of the weaker categories, while home interiors and the industrial market is holding steady.

"The concern on the part of the consumer is that there is a small chance that something can go wrong in Iraq," said National Spinning president and chief executive Jim Chesnutt. "As a result, I think the consumer is being careful."

Business throughout the past year has come in fits, but a steady increase over the past few months is an indication that it should continue to grow in 2003, Chesnutt added.

At Acordis Cellulosic Fibers Inc., vice president of marketing Ellen Flynn said she’s expecting strong growth for the company’s Tencel lyocell fiber to continue in the year ahead.

Meanwhile, Unifi Inc. this year finished paying off its remaining $76 million debt load, so maintaining a strong balance sheet is a top priority next year, according to senior vice president of commercial operations Mike Delaney.Unifi is also planning to pursue business that’s moved overseas. The opening of a Hong Kong office and inking of a joint venture with Tuntex Thailand means Unifi’s sales of fibers in Asia should begin in 2003, Delaney added.

"We’re hoping to see an increase, but we’re not projecting much right now," said Delaney. "We’re looking at the market as being more positive and we hope to b up slightly, though I don’t think I’d dare put a figure on it."

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