Last spring, Anderson Gibbons wondered if he’d be the last generation to work in the family textile business. The nearly 60-year-old company, North Carolina-based STI Fabrics, produces upholstery for both indoor and outdoor furniture applications. But when the economy shut down in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, it set a chain reaction in motion—shuttered furniture stores canceled orders, forcing manufacturers to halt orders for materials like fabric.
Suddenly faced with no business, closed factories and no idea when things would re-open, textile companies like STI weren’t sure they’d survive.
“I thought I was going to be the last Gibbons to ever make a yard of fabric,” said Gibbons, who serves as vice president of marketing for STI. “Looking back, this time last year was one of the most terrifying times of my life—we didn’t know what the future held at that point.”
As we now know, the future would bring unprecedented demand for home items, with people trapped indoors for months during quarantine suddenly realizing their spaces could use some sprucing. At the same time, those consumers were also feeling germaphobic—terrified of the invisible coronavirus-bringing, life-threatening disease into their safe space.
“What we saw after Covid is performance is everything in the home,” said Gibbons. “People were Lysoling everything, they were bleaching everything, and it became a function first mindset, especially in the first half of the pandemic. It became a regular household chore to constantly clean, so the home needed fabrics that could keep up with that.”
And the solution for that need? Performance fabric.
The word “performance” gets thrown around a lot in the home industry, loosely encompassing everything from solution-dyed acrylic fabrics designed to withstand everything Mother Nature throws at them outdoors to traditionally made indoor textiles treated with a surface protectant like Crypton.
While performance fabrics have grown in popularity due to their resistance to staining and fading, with the advent of Covid-19, demand for these textiles has increased because of their antimicrobial qualities and the ability to clean them with bleach without ruining the fabric.
“People really wanted fabrics that could hold up to stringent cleaning,” said A.R. Swan, marketing director for Ultrafabrics. “They wanted stuff that would hold up and still look good.”
Ultrafabrics, which makes polyurethane synthetic leathers, has seen an uptick in requests for its products for use in residential settings since Covid hit.
“All of our fabrics are bleach-cleanable—we’ve been selling into healthcare and spas for 20-plus years,” said Swan. “So in most of our collections, we have some real workhorse products that exist in those healthcare settings that can work well in the home, too.”
While being bleach cleanable is critical, it’s just as important for performance fabrics to look and feel good to work for interior spaces. Historically, performance fabrics have been stiff or rough to the touch because of how they’re made, but in recent years, textile companies have innovated their processes to produce a softer, more textural fabric.
“For indoor settings, we continue to see visual and physical texture as an important design element,” said Sarah Dooley, director of upholstery, Sunbrella. “Sunbrella has expanded our yarn portfolio to include a wealth of new textural and innovative yarns, including marled and bouclé constructions.”
Sunbrella uses solution-dyed acrylic—acrylic fiber dyed while it’s still in viscous form to saturate the color throughout the fiber—to create its fabrics. STI makes its Revolution performance fabrics with polypropylene, a polyolefin material often used in making outdoor rugs. Each process has its benefits and challenges when trying to create a fabric that has the texture and hand of a traditional indoor fabric.
“We use the continuous filament polypropylene—that way our fabrics don’t fuzz and pill,” said Sean Gibbons, CEO, STI. “We’ve made the deniers of the polypropylene finer—so we took that oily feel, that shiny twinkle, and we’ve engineered that out of our products. Now we make polypropylene that looks and feels like cotton, but with this incredible performance story you can’t achieve with cotton.”
And companies like STI and Sunbrella have also been able to produce novelty yarns that mimic natural fibers to create fabrics with rich texture, making them more desirable for indoor applications.
“We’re able to make really heavy textural yarns, air jet texture yarns, boucle yarns—and these are the same yarns we use in our indoor product,” said Sean Gibbons. “We just add the UV stabilization, so it still has the same look and feel of regular indoor fabrics.”
While most performance fabric companies feared the worst this time last year, the demand for their products not only for outdoor spaces but inside the home has become greater than ever. And performance fabric producers like STI feel fortunate to see their businesses not only weather the pandemic, but grow in a way that positions them for greater success in the future.
“We saw about eight years of e-commerce organic growth in three months,” said Anderson Gibbons. “We were proactive very early on when we saw those orders pick up, and we made a pretty large investment. We’re upping our production by 25 percent, and the equipment we bought for that gets delivered in August and we’ll have it operational by October. We’re not just sitting back and taking orders; we’re growing to meet our demand.”