Neulana Protect by Nanshan Group. 100% wool fabric that is resistant to wind and rain. Photo courtesy of Woolmark.

Brands and retailers are opting for casual, utilitarian fabrics that align with “post-ath-leisure” trends as the demand for soft, functional fabrics is steadily increasing among consumers. Across wools, cottons, yarns and blends, comfort and function is key.

Post-ath-leisure or “lounge leisure” fabrics blend coziness with utility to offer fleecy, luxurious textiles and are often appointed with technical properties such water, odor and stain resistance and temperature control. Materials like Merino wool, touted primarily for its feel and warmth, are top of mind when selecting a versatile functional fiber for performance apparel. Merino wool offers natural elasticity and its soft, extremely fine fibers are breathable, static resistant, low maintenance and a luxurious alternative to coarser, scratchier wool fibers. And wool is a completely natural, biodegradable and renewable fiber, grown year-round.

Fifty-six percent of consumers are willing to pay a premium for Merino wool if it costs more than any other fabric, according to a Nielsen study for The Woolmark Company. In the U.S., one in three sporting brands associate high quality with 100 percent wool products, the same report stated. And the category is strong: The national market price for graded wool for less than 18.6 microns is at a weekly rate of $6.26 per pound. For mohair, the weekly rate is at $5.62 per pound, all according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

Wool wadding. Photograph courtesy of Woolmark.  Photo courtesy of Woolmark.

Textile technologies in Merino wool are wide-ranging and include moisture management, aromatherapy, quick-dry and UV-controlled materials, among other performance capabilities. In signaling Merino wool’s importance to the sportswear category, Adidas opened its pop-up store “Knit for You” in Berlin in earlier this year. The pop-up allows shoppers to create their own “sport-to-street” knitted Merino wool sweater in-store, which can be designed, fitted, produced and completed in only a few hours time. Performance wool products have grained traction with many leading sportswear brands, such as Athleta, Burton, Fjallraven, Helly Hansen, Reebok, Timberland, Under Armour, Outdoor Voices, New Balance and Civic by Taylor Stitch.

It’s no surprise that cotton, too, is highly regarded as a performance material. And cotton’s competitive pricing is driving demand. “It’s a really strong time for cotton right now,” said Mark Messura, the senior vice president of global supply chain marketing at Cotton Inc. “There is an abundant world supply of cotton. That large world supply makes it easy for companies and textile mills around the world to get the quantities of cotton that they need at competitive prices. So the fact that we still have in the world market today a very large supply of cotton, that’s a very positive thing for manufacturers and retailers and brands down the line that are looking to put cotton in product. [It’s] a very ample and competitive raw material supply.”

The current world price of cotton is $79.10, according to the Cotlook A Index.

Messura told WWD, “We’re seeing trends particularly in the athletic area. We’re seeing cotton going up in products, particularly for performance features like moisture management. Eddie Bauer’s flash dry moisture management-treated cotton is doing very well in the market. Moisture-management technologies allow the fabrics to move moisture. Trans-dry technology, a yarn technology, enables designers to put the moisture management properties in different places within the same piece of apparel. Another trend is water repellency and breathability, especially in outdoor wear.” Also of note is Storm Cotton, a popular material for sportswear and outdoor wear brands that is praised for its sturdiness and water repellency.

Green Trans-dry. Photo courtesy of Cotton Inc. 

Messura recognized consumers’ “strong interest in more sustainable and natural [fabrics],” which is growing across generations, particularly for younger consumers. “Natural fibers have that advantage of being biodegradable — they’re natural, it’s plant material, so in time it does biodegrade. Those kinds of issues are really forcing companies to kind of reexamine the opportunities for natural fibers and cotton in particular, and that’s contributed quite a bit to this surge and interest in using cotton in performance apparel.”

Overall, world fiber market consumption has increased and was 1.5 percent up to 99 million tons in 2016, according to the Lenzing Group. The biggest share at 62.7 percent was mainly oil-based synthetic fibers; cotton at approximately 24.3 percent; wood-based cellulose fibers at 6.6 percent; and other natural fibers at 5.3 percent and wool at 1.1 percent, all according to the same Lenzing report.

Robert van de Kerkhof, the chief commercial officer of the Lenzing Group, told WWD, “We see a trend towards much more emotional and functional clothing and to higher volumes for sustainable offerings such as wood-based fibers. Consumers increasingly expect that their garments are meeting the highest environmental standards. This leads to higher awareness, increased transparency in the value chain and brands and retailers taking a larger responsibility.”

Fibers, Lenzing AG. Photograph by Markus Renner/Electric Arts 

Knitwear blends are another key player in performance material trends. Eurojersey, an Italian warp-knit manufacturer, debuted a new line of its Sensitive fabrics in May, which aimed to amalgamate function and fashion. Its Sensitive fabrics are wrinkle-free, lightweight, breathable and engineered with moisture-wicking and compression technologies. The collection is certified by Lycra Sport PCE, an Invista initiative launched last year that combines its proprietary Lycra fiber with testing standards that calculate “fabric performance descriptors” via three indexes — power, comfort and energy — measured against a 1-10 scale for each category.

Huw Williams, Invista’s global segment director for activewear and outdoor wear, said that its Lycra Sport technology and PCE index enables the firm to “simultaneously [build] up our own and our customers’ capabilities to create outstanding value,” in a demanding and competitive category.

And companies such as Unifi, that provide multifilament polyesters, nylon textured yarns and other raw materials, also recognized the trend toward functional fabrics. Unifi manufactures a number of proprietary all-in-one performance yarns, such as Sorbtek, Amy, Inhibit and Repreve, which collectively promote sustainability and performance features.

Jay Hertwig, the vice president of global brand and premium value-added sales for Unifi, told WWD that “The demand for performance fibers is not slowing down. Consumers are looking for fashion, function and sustainability in every piece of apparel they own. Performance attribute demands are growing in a variety of apparel categories including socks and hosiery, undergarments, dress and causal shirts, pants and suits, denim, outerwear, and headwear. Unifi’s premium value-added fibers grew to 40 percent of consolidated sales for fiscal year 2017. The definition of ‘performance’ is quickly expanding in apparel and non-apparel markets and we are excited about new opportunities it will create for Unifi and our industry.”

For More Textile News From WWD, See:

Pantone on Understanding the Language of Color

Outdoorwear Brands Meet Consumer Demands With ‘Cozy’ Performance Fabrics

University Scientists Develop Printed Battery Technology for Textiles

International Textile Industry Growth Spurred by Preference Programs

Sourcing Is Key to Reformation’s Ethical and Sustainable Manufacturing