Byline: Michael McNamara

The activewear fabric market is stretching out.
Lycra spandex-containing fabrics, fleece, nylon and several types of polyester blends, primarily with cotton and nylon — bellwethers of the true activewear market — continue to penetrate into non-activewear markets.
While a significant portion of those fabrics are hitting spectatorwear in the form of licensed sports apparel and various other applications, those fabrics are continuing to make strides in dresses, sportswear and ready-to-wear.
DuPont, the manufacturer of Lycra spandex, is banking on the fiber’s further penetration into new markets. Last year, the firm established a certification program for those that utilize the Lycra brand in ready-to-wear applications. Certification lets the mill use the Lycra brand name on its fabric. To be eligible, a mill has to meet requirements for stretch, recovery and shrinkage. Ten mills were cited for their efforts: Baras Jersey, Burlington Knitted Fabrics, Fabrictex, Guilford Mills, Liberty Fabrics, Lida, Milliken & Co., Shara-Tex, Symphony Fabrics and Texollini.
“We see accelerating growth opportunities for circular knits with the Lycra brand for the future,” said Wally McWalter, regional director, DuPont Lycra North America. “Leggings in Lycra are a staple in women’s wardrobes, and circular knits are moving into new end-uses — from loose-fitting sportswear to dresses and even men’s wear.”
Underscoring DuPont’s commitment into the non-active circular knit market, a major portion of its $10 million “Nothing Moves Like Lycra” ad campaign is aimed at the ready-to-wear, sportswear and hosiery markets.
And while Lycra fabrics are making forays into those relatively untapped markets, the rugged construction of those domestically made fabrics isn’t often changing. Only on imports, where price is a significant factor, is there less construction going into the fabric, mill executives said.
“We really can’t skimp on what we put into any activewear fabric, because often we don’t know the final application it’s going into until it gets to the retailer,” said Isaac Kier, chairman of Lida, a vertically integrated converter that does about half of its $88.5 million in Lycra-containing fabrics. “A stretch top may be the same one worn in the gym as it is on the street. Manufacturers won’t allow a subpar fabric to be used.”
Kier went on to say he’s seen his business in non-activewear applications “significantly increase over the last few years. People want to look as though they go to work out, even though they may not.”
Guilford Mills Inc., the number one U.S. knitter, is another Lycra-containing fabric producer that’s increasing that portion of its business in non-swimwear, non-active applications.
“We’re more conscious of designing good-looking fabrics than just getting something together that has tremendous construction,” said Alfred Greenblatt, president of Guilford’s apparel, home fashions and industrial business units. “We are aware, however, that this Lycra spandex into rtw sportswear is part of a fashion cycle that right now is embracing the activewear-type fabrics. It may end, so we have to be prepared for that as well.”
Greenblatt said the primary blends of activewear fabrics moving into new applications include Lycra with cotton, nylon and polyester.
While Lycra’s penetration into the women’s wear market continues, polar-type fleece, too, is shedding its “rugged activewear only” tag. For many, fleece is now fashion.
“Our printed Polarfleece is doing as well in the fashion arena as it is with retailers of rugged outerwear,” said Howard Ackerman, Malden Mills’ vice president and general manager, apparel. Ackerman is widely considered the dean of the fleece industry. Malden also has a trademark on the Polarfleece and Polartec names.
Ackerman said technological advances in fleece manufacturing “have allowed it to be a fashion fabric.”
Ackerman said a large percent of Malden’s Polarfleece sales go into apparel that will never be worn on the side of a mountain. “Five years ago, that figure wasn’t very high,” Ackerman said. “Still, we don’t take anything out of the fabric. Then, it wouldn’t be Polarfleece. You may as well use imported fabric.”
Richard Levy, vice president of Texfi’s new knit division, said the move of fleece into more women’s wear categories played a key role in Texfi’s decision to enter the market. Texfi is importing polar-type fleece from two factories in the Far East.
“Malden and Dyersburg [Corp., another leading maker of fleece] are dominating the true activewear market,” Levy said. “We think we can make some headway in the ready-to-wear, sportswear and non-rugged markets. If we went head-to-head with Malden in activewear and outerwear, we wouldn’t fare that well.”
Levy said Texfi expects to make its initial shipments in February.