Feature: Textiles

BY JO AUSTIN

The wear and tear on pillows, blankets, napkins and airline seats is enormous, but textile producers are developing some exciting and sustainable materials and concepts focused on durability.

One of the biggest changes in textiles over the last few years is the onboard use of products made from polyester across all cabins, not just Economy. Traditionally many of the carriers were reluctant to have synthetic materials in First and Business and tried to emulate the fine cotton bedding experienced in a high-end hotel, or used luxury-fibre textiles such as lambswool.

Man-made materials such as polyester have had quite a bad press in the past, often being thought of as shiny, synthetic-feeling and full of static, but today there are many more polyester fabrics on the market which do not have these characteristics, including faux-suede, faux-silk and peachskin, as well as cotton polyester blends.

Whilst many airlines do still favour natural materials (such as wool and cotton) in their premium cabins, there are also many that have identified the cost savings and ease of care that come with using synthetic materials. Lower shrinkage rates and less likelihood of fading means polyester products can also have a longer lifespan than cotton as they keep their appearance for longer. By choosing polyester, airlines benefit from a reduced purchase cost, but also the cost of maintenance can be less too.

New fabrics and fibres

Peachskin is becoming a particular favourite. Joanna Shipp, design manager at John Horsfall, says: “Peachskin is one of our most popular fabrics currently. It’s a light-weight woven polyester which has a soft ‘peached’ surface, giving it a handle more like cotton. When used to make the outer of a duvet, a polyester peachskin version can cost up to 50% less than a cotton. Add to this the fact that polyester does not shrink as much as cotton, fades less and has lower laundry costs (it is quicker to dry), it is easy to see why this fabric now makes up a large proportion of our blanket business. We have so far supplied them to at least 10 airlines for First and Business.”

Another renewably-sourced eco-fibre on the market is Sorona, developed by DuPont, which John Horsfall has used as a pillow filling. DuPont claims: “Sorona contains 37% annually-renewable plant-based ingredients and producing it uses at least 30% less energy and releases upto 63% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared with the production of nylon.”

Biodegradable

Also meeting eco-demands is bamboo, increasingly used in the manufacture of biodegradable textiles. The fastest growing plant on earth, it is raised without fertilisers or pesticides and is naturally anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. It grows up to 20 times faster than trees and produces 33% more oxygen. With a feel similar to silk, it is currently being used by Global Inflight Products (GIP) to create (hot) towels which the company says are more absorbent than their cotton counterparts.

Bamboo blankets are also gaining popularity as a versatile, all-season option that insulates and cools the body depending on the climate. The anti-bacterial agent found in bamboo, known as ‘kun’, not only kills bacteria but also repels bugs, mould and allergens.

Alexa Wordsworth, graphic designer at GlP, says: “Bamboo blankets are great for airlines as they are breathable and allow the evaporation of sweat and body odours. We are excited by the success of our bamboo products as they not only come from an eco-friendly renewable source but are also 100% biodegradable”.

John Horsfall is also using bamboo fibre in mattress pads and duvets. The fibre can be woven as a fabric, similar to cotton, or used as filling material in the form of bamboo charcoal which is blended with polyester filling.

Sustainable and recycled

Sustainability is a consideration for many airlines but tight budgets put pressure on the use of new and innovative materials as they tend to cost more. Whilst it is often part of the discussion during the development phase, airlines will usually choose the most cost-effective product over an environmentally-friendly or sustainable one in the final analysis.

Intex, a direct supplier of passenger comfort products to the airline industry, has signed up to both SEDEX and to Ecovadis in an effort to improve the sustainability of its factories which are already Oeko-tex certified, demonstrating that its products contain no harmful chemicals.

Its polyester fleece blankets are made from recycled bottles which are cut up, deep cleaned, purified and dried before being reshaped and stretched into filament fibres. Intex explains: “No carbon dioxide is emitted in the recycling process and the waste water generated by the recycling mills is treated in such a way that it is not harmful to the environment upon release”.

Intex considers newer, more delicate natural products, like bamboo, will not normally withstand the intense, high-impact washing of an industrial laundry. Instead, it is launching a range of high-quality cotton products that will be sourced under the BCI umbrella – Better Cotton Initiative – which aims to promote cotton produced in a sustainable way. The range will include duvets, duvet covers, pillow covers, headrest covers, sheets and table linen.

Earlier this year WESSCO formed an exclusive partnership with Alcantara S.p.A, one of the first companies in Europe to be granted a Carbon Neutrality Certification. Alcantara is a composite material (PES and PU), obtained by a combination of an advanced spinning process (very low denier bi-component ‘islands in the sea’ fibre) which WESSCO plans to introduce into airline amenities. WESSCO also has its own private label fabric called EcoWyv, formed of recycled fleece materials, and is currently rolling out a line of sleep products featuring this material, custom made to fit each airline client’s needs.

The company believes much of the demand for carbon neutrality is driven by the consumer and has responded to the demand by partnering with leading brands to provide sustainable options. Coco-Mat creates all-natural bedding products using cotton, coconut fibre, cactus, lavender and even seaweed amongst its ‘ingredients’. Virtually neutral in carbon footprint, Coco-Mat products are handmade in Xanthi, northern Greece and WESSCO selected the company’s mattresses, duvets and pillows for Etihad First.

Cutting carbon

Wolfgang Bücherl of skysupply says: “Airlines by their very nature generate a considerable carbon footprint and are always looking to offset those negative headlines by presenting a cleaner image through the design and supply of onboard solutions which are reduced weight, recycled or have eco-friendly aspects. All inflight materials can be enhanced to show corporate responsibility but more often than not, after scrutiny by the airline, are deemed uncompetitive.

“Having said this we have been successful in sourcing materials recycled from PET bottles and also came up with a corn-based toothbrush. Re-usable amenity and children’s kits, which feature a give-away or souvenir, offer a win-win for airlines and they are not immediately consigned to the waste bin.”

A range of fleece blankets made from recycled plastic bottles (PET) were also showcased by John Horsfall at WTCE. The plastic bottles are turned into chips, which are then melted and extruded into new polyester yarns in a similar way to normal polyester production.

Buzz Products in Australia won the Best for Sustainability Award in the Onboard
Hospitality Awards 2016 for its ecoTHREAD blanket which is onboard Jetstar. The polar fleece blankets are made from 100% recycled plastic drinking bottles and have helped divert more than 5.8 million plastic bottles from landfill.

GIP claims its eco-friendly recycled PET fleece blanket reduces oil consumption, cuts toxic emissions and lowers energy use and greenhouse gases when compared to blankets made from virgin materials. The company has also designed amenity bags which encourage passengers to keep and reuse, keeping them out of landfills. Recycled PET fabrics and linings are made from 100% recycled PET yarns that are both durable and recyclable.

Lightweight and cool

Another huge consideration for airlines is weight and suppliers are spending a lot of time making their products as light as possible. Duvets and pillows can be filled with polyester hollow fibre (rather than traditional feather or down) which is much lighter but still feels warm and comfortable. Intex has a new three-chamber pillow, the top and bottom of which contain hollow fibre while the middle contains feather and down to give the product a real feeling of quality and means it can be plumped up to retain its shape.

Over the last few years there has been a real push in the retail sector towards more highly-engineered textiles that can help regulate body temperature and ones that are finished in such a way as to be easy iron. Easy iron products have found a way into the airline market and the thermo regulating products clearly have onboard potential too. Intex has recently developed a prototype ‘cool fresh’ duvet for the airline market and sees real potential for this product as airlines look to refresh their First and Business Class cabins.

Luxury touches

There are, of course, instances where the budget is less of an issue for First and Business products and here subtle, soft touches of luxury can transform even the longest, most arduous flights into an enjoyable ‘hotel in the sky’ experience. Says Trish Manten, of Watermark Products in Australia: “The texture, feel, quality and performance of the textiles we choose help fashion onboard experiences that leave travellers with positive impressions, long after the plane has landed.” Watermark sources and designs sleep suits, cabin textiles and catering textiles.

Another supplier of luxury textiles is Clip based in Hong Kong. Clip has secured several prestigious and high-end luxury brands in recent months and is working exclusively with Kuan’s Living in Taiwan to develop luxury and cost-effective towels, blankets, cushions, pillows and duvets as well as pyjamas for all cabins. Says Clip’s Cindy Lam: “We are very conscious of finding materials that address environmental concerns and together with Kuan’s Living we are exploring different materials such a bamboo rayon and organic cotton which would be suitable for premium class passengers. For Economy we are working on developing an EcoGreen micro fleece blanket using 100% recycled polyester.”