What can’t nonwovens do?

June 12th, 2017 / By: / My Take

When I started working as a writer and editor in the specialty fabrics industry, “nonwoven” meant an engineered textile that was used in a disposable end product: diapers and wet wipes – that sort of thing. Disposable nonwovens were (and are) a huge market. (How many parents use cloth diapers these days?)

One of the first stories I wrote for our magazine Specialty Fabrics Review was about nonwovens, and that’s where I first learned about durable nonwovens. I had no idea! I have since learned that this type of textile can be anything from a commodity to a highly specialized material developed for one use, and maybe one client, too. The range of uses, applications and markets that nonwovens serve and impact is huge. Just plain huge.

And it’s growing. “The new nonwovens,” our feature written by Marie O’Manhony, cites a market analysis that puts the global nonwovens market at $8 billion by 2022, and there is evidence of that growth right now. The European nonwovens show INDEX had record-setting attendance this year, and North Carolina State University just celebrated a grand opening for a new building to house its Nonwovens Institute. (See “NC State opens new nonwovens facility.”)

Technology is driving the innovations that drive this growth, but that’s an oversimplification. Because technology is capable of creating unique textiles, the market is asking for new functionalities and better performance—and is getting them. Mahony’s article discusses some of the newest developments involving carbon fiber, in particular, and washable nonwovens.

So what are the goals in creating new and improved nonwovens? Light weight is always desirable, but it also needs to be durable. Of course economical is important if it’s going to be commercially viable, and many applications also require high strength. There is increased demand for more sustainable nonwovens, which is a challenge for the industry. But with the demand there is also growth in this area, which will spur the development of new and better eco-friendly products.

And what about “smart” materials? New conductive fibers and thermal control products are being developed that may have an impact in medical and biomedical applications; sportswear, especially for “extreme” athletes; emergency responder garments and gear; for military uses in clothing, shelters and packs; and in buildings to collect solar energy and provide responsive insulation and cooling. I’m pushing the envelope a little, here, but really not very much.

Even without the extreme end of the high-tech continuum, nonwovens more standard functionalities create an impressive list. INDA, the Association of the Nonwovens Fabrics Industry, offers a good one: “Nonwoven fabrics provide specific functions such as absorbency, liquid repellency, resilience, stretch, softness, strength, flame retardancy, washability, cushioning, filtering, bacterial barriers and sterility.”

You would think that would be enough, but the industry is not stopping there, and there’s no telling what this amazing segment of the textile world will come up with next.