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Futuristic Finishing

Culp, BBA Nonwovens and Fleissner partner to enhance finished home furnishings fabrics.

r Futuristic Finishing Culp, BBA Nonwovens and Fleissner partner to enhance finished home furnishings fabrics. Culp Finishing in Burlington, N.C., a segment of High Point, N.C.-based Culp Inc., the well-known manufacturer of upholstery and mattress fabrics, is approaching finishing from a different perspective these days. Unlike traditional finishing methods, the companys new Aqua-Lok® process is not predicated on adding chemicals and compounds to fabric as it is prepared for shipment to home furnishings customers.Until now, everything weve done to enhance properties of finished fabric for the past 20 years has actually decreased fabric life, said Michael D. Messer, division vice president of manufacturing, Culp Decorative Fabrics. With Aqua-Lok, we are actually increasing fabric life, durability and abrasion resistance, while providing the properties that customers and consumers want.Those properties include superior hand, aesthetics, durability, value and environmental friendliness, he said.Traditional finishing processes for home furnishings fabrics include application of chemicals, particularly latex, to enhance properties, especially abrasion resistance. Those chemicals, however, actually decrease fabric life and performance, prohibit recycling and create considerable expense in wastewater treatment. Durability And SoftnessThis is a big move for us, said Robert Culp, chairman and CEO, Culp Inc. We have a huge investment in latex here. But latex is not friendly to what we do and what our customers want. We can now give them all the benefits of traditionally finished fabric and then some without the use of chemicals. Primary end-uses for Culps finished fabrics are in contract furniture, consumer home furnishings and mattress ticking. 

The real key today is softness, Culp said. Customers look for a soft hand before anything else, and softness in upholstery fabric has a certain look. Used to be, if someone was shopping for furniture and they saw a color they liked, they would go up and feel the fabric. Now, if it doesnt look soft, youve lost their attention.In addition, Aqua-Lok significantly enhances dura-bility, according to Jerry Owens, division vice president, product development, Culp Decorative Fabrics. There are wear-dated tests that Aqua-Lok fabrics pass that fabrics coated with latex cant come close to, he said. In addition, aftermarket treatments applied to improve stain resistance and other properties generally degrade a latex coating, but they have no effect on Aqua-Lok fabrics. The Culp/BBA ConnectionCulps Aqua-Lok is a hydroenhancement process licensed from BBA Nonwovens, Simpsonville, S.C. BBAs Interspun® Division first commercialized the concept in 1995. Logistics essentially economies of scale prompted the company to seek a partner for its implementation, rather than be the exclusive provider. Negotiations began with Culp after ITMA 99, the result of which is that Culp is currently the exclusive licensee of this technology, Owens said. The basic process, according to Frank E. Malaney, business unit manager for BBAs Fabric Enhancement Group, entails impinging high-pressure water onto a woven or knit fabric, thereby changing its structure and the properties of the fabric. Fabric TransformationWhat seems like a very simple process is, in fact, rather complex, Malaney said. BBAs Interspun process, upon which Culps Aqua-Lok is based, involves the impingement of a fabric, while supported on a solid or pervious surface, with very fine, high-velocity and discreet water jets in the form of a curtain. The energy imparted causes the cloth to bulk and blossom and individual fibers to be entangled. This entanglement takes place at crossover points between the warp and the weft, within the yarns, and in the interstices between yarns. The amount of entangling and bonding is directly related to the energy imparted to the cloth and to the nature of the fabric.Determining factors of the enhancement effect, according to Malaney, are the jet density and diameter, distance between jets, energy imparted, structure of the support and the distance of the jet orifice from the support structure.Aqua-Lok and Interspun processes cause a number of things to happen to fabric during finishing. Yarns are displaced and uniformly redistributed in the fabric. Individual yarns are bloomed and then re-entangled. A bonding effect takes place at the crossover points of the warp and filling yarns and between adjacent warp and/or filling yarns. Most of the tensions are removed from the cloth, inhibiting torquing and edge curling. The last side of the cloth facing the support belt can have a soft, sueded hand. Patterning can be imported into the fabric. 
The results of this processing are very profound in regard to the measurable physical properties of the cloth, Malaney said. Depending upon the fabric and the process parameters used, fabric will exhibit many enhancements in properties. The fabric is made more uniform, and edge-fray resistance is improved. Abrasion resistance improves by up to 150 percent, and pilling resistance is also improved. The fabric is bulked as much as 50 percent and has greater cover. Pore size can be reduced. Cotton fabrics absorb dyes and develop color as if they were mercerized. Air permeability is lowered by as much as 80 percent in spun fabrics, Malaney said. In filament fabrics, air permeability can sometimes be increased. Seam slippage is improved substantially. Fabric torque is also reduced. Reed marks are eliminated in a number of cases. Surface durability is improved, and a soft, suede-like hand can be achieved. The fabric is much cleaner, and latex coating of fabrics can be reduced or eliminated.The fabric is transported on a solid or pervious surface, usually a tightly constructed metal or plastic woven screen. Perpendicular to the line of travel are a number of manifolds that contain high-density jet strips from which curtains of very high-velocity water emanate at up to 130 bar. The water impacts the fabric and causes displacement and entanglement. The fabric can be impacted on one side or both sides. The pervious screen can be transported either on a flat or curved surface. The process uses only water to achieve finishing results. The water must be free of any particulate matter that would block a jet hole, which could cause disruption of water flow and create a defective fabric.Each fabric has different process parameters, depending upon final properties desired, Malaney said. Undoubtedly, this is a tremendous process, said Howard L. Dunn Jr., president and chief operating officer, Culp Inc. But we certainly still have a lot to learn about it. It is certainly not a process that can be applied to off-the-shelf products. You have to engineer products to fit the process.Malaney agreed, saying, Merely impacting a cloth with high-energy water will generally not provide an acceptable fabric. One must understand the finished fabric properties required and the interaction between fabric construction and the hydroenhancement process variables. Only then can the appropriate process conditions be set. Once that specificity has been determined, however, it is not difficult to control the process.  Working The ProcessCulp has had the process and machinery in place since July 2000. The line is currently running between 70,000 and 100,000 yards per week. Projected capacity is in excess of 340,000 yards. The company has developed several lines of Aqua-Lok upholstery and mattress fabrics that were introduced in the fall markets.We had a limited introduction at that time, Dunn said. Obviously, we had not been running for a very long time. At markets this spring, we plan to introduce a much broader line of Aqua-Lok products. Weve initially created interest in the contract and mattress-ticking market segments. We will build on that.Currently, Dunn said, Culp has found the Aqua-Lok process improves the properties of all fabric types, except for pile fabrics. As we continue our research and development efforts, I am certain that we will engineer processes by which pile fabrics can be enhanced. For the moment, though, we are concentrating on developing the markets for the products we already have available.Potential future applications include vertical surface coverings, development of Aqua-Lok pile fabrics and continued enhancement of ticking and other offerings. Culp said the process has the potential to make a substantial impact on most home furnishings segments.Soft is everything in home furnishings, said Dunn. This process gives both the contract and consumer markets the effects and properties they want. In the past, we added softness and strength by washing and tumble-drying and then adding a latex backing. High energy consumption, slow through-put and chemically treated water were by-products of the old process. These processes which are the standard in the industry today create products that are structurally weaker and cannot be recycled. The Aqua-Lok process, since it uses only water, is much more environmentally friendly. In addition, we are able to recapture, filter and recirculate more than 90 percent of the water we use in the process. A big advantage to this process, Owens said, is that it is an environmentally friendly process and creates an environmentally friendly product. This is a big issue today, especially within the contract and commercial segment. They want to be sustainable to be able to recycle. Before, you couldnt provide a recyclable fabric at a competitive cost. You either used latex, which is not recyclable, or you added picks, which is not cost-effective. Now we can provide fabrics that are environmentally friendly, of superior quality and at competitive prices. It is a win-win situation for everyone. Fleissner's AquaTexGermany-based Fleissner GmbH is the sole manufacturer of machinery for BBAs Interspun technology, including Culps Aqua-Lok. Fleissners AquaTex line of machinery is a derivative of the AquaJet offering which has enjoyed wide acceptance for nonwovens finishing.In 1995, we introduced the AquaJet for nonwovens applications, said Don Gillespie, vice president of Charlotte, N.C.-based Fleissner Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of Fleissner GmbH. The AquaTex is a design derivative based on the AquaJet. We designed a machine specifically for the BBA Interspun process.In addition to the new Fleissner line, Culp Finishing also uses traditional finishing ranges from Kenyon, ProctorandSchwartz and Babcock. The plant processes fabrics made from polyester, rayon, acrylic, cotton, nylon, olefin and blends. The plant also has three Fehrer NL-21 needle looms. The Many Faces Of Culp Inc.Culp Inc. is organized into three divisions: Culp Decorative Fabrics, of which the finishing facility is a part; Culp Velvets/Prints Division; and Culp Yarn Division. Ticking and upholstery fabrics finished in Burlington are woven on Dornier looms at plants in Graham, N.C., and Pageland, S.C.The company was founded in 1972 by R.G. Culp Jr., the late father of the current chairman and CEO. Originally called R.G. Culp and Associates Inc., the company changed its name to Culp Inc. in 1980. Beginning as a converter of upholstery fabrics to supply small and medium-sized furniture manufacturers, the company has grown into a major manufacturer and marketer of fabrics for the furniture, bedding, recreational and institutional furnishings markets. In the 1990s, Culp Inc. added to the existing facilities in North Carolina and South Carolina by acquiring manufacturing operations in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Quebec. In addition, according to Culp, the company has made a major commitment to global expansion. Culp Inc. is aggressively seeking out worldwide business opportunities including acquisitions, joint ventures and sourcing of raw materials, he said. A publicly traded company, Culp has nearly 4,000 employees, and annual sales of $488.1 million in fiscal 2000. 
Seated (left to right): Robert Culp, chairman and CEO, and Howard Dunn, president and COO, Culp, Inc. Standing (left to right): Jerry Owens, Culp; Michael Messer, Culp; Manfred Hueneke, BBA Nonwovens; Jurgen Heller, Fleissner; Don Gillespe, Fleissner; and Frank Malaney, BBA Nonwovens.

January 2001