Upcycling fabrics growing in popularity in design industry

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Perhaps fairy tales really do come true. Take Grimm’s fairy tale in which the poor miller’s daughter bargains with Rumpelstiltskin to spin straw into gold. Far-fetched? Certainly. How about spinning plastic soda containers into environmentally friendly fabrics? It’s called “upcycling” and it is a trend worth noting.

Upcycling, the process of taking a waste product and developing it into a usable product, is growing in popularity in the design industry. In this case, 100 percent recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles are spun into polyester fabric.

Although the resulting fleece-like fabric is primarily marketed for use in clothing, it is suitable for use in graphics as well. Nora Norby, of Banner Creations, Inc., in Minneapolis, Minn. (www.bannercreations.com), explains her interest in the product. “I like that you’re taking something out of landfills to make into a useful product,” she says. “The fabric comes in white, can be printed in any color, and takes ink well. It can be used in just about any interior banner project.” Norby points out an additional benefit. “Banners made from this environmentally friendly fabric can be rolled up in a suitcase and when unfurled at a show, look as good as new.”

There are problems with availability of the fiber, however. As experts and environmentally minded designers explore applications, the limited supply of the product is dwindling. In September 2006, Wellman Inc., who introduced Ecospun® fiber in 1993, announced that they are no longer producing it. And although the company is exploring strategic alternatives for its PET resin business, for the moment, the industry is left without an ongoing supply of the fiber. At the same time, there is demand. Carolina Specialty Fabrics of Newton, N.C., one company that has been producing fabric from Ecospun, is seeing increased interest. “I get calls all the time for samples,” says Colleena Ramsey, sales coordinator. “And we aren’t making [the fabric] right now. But we still have some in stock.”

One hopes this fairy tale will have a happy ending. With experts in the industry putting a priority on sustainable design practice, perhaps fiber manufacturers will be able to revisit their involvement and find ways to produce the fiber while managing the bottom line. The use of upcycled fabric in substrates is one way to reinvest in the environment and demonstrate insight into the trends of the industry.

Sigrid Tornquist is associate editor of Marine Fabricator and Upholstery Journal, other publications of IFAI.

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