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Today’s polyester a far cry from the past

Fiber continues to gain in popularity at expense of nylon

by Matthew Spieler

Since the economy started to go downhill and then into recession, polyester has been steadily gaining market share, going from 21% in 2006, the carpet industry’s high-water mark in terms of sales, to 24% last year—33% if triexta, a sub-class or cousin of polyester, is included in the mix.

A major part of this growth can be attributed to the rising cost of oil, especially when it soared to over $100 a barrel, as nylon is more dependent on petroleum than polyester.

Ed Williams, president of Lexmark Carpet Mills, said while the cost of polyester versus nylon “certainly increased the awareness level of polyester, its value proposition is higher than nylon.”

But there are other reasons why the fiber historically reserved for specific uses due to its various limitations, such as crushing and matting, is being used more by mills to produce carpets of all types and why retailers and consumers are gaining more acceptance of it.

“The product that put my father’s former company on the map, Ferver, is a far cry from the polyesters that are being extruded today,” said Zach Kennedy, vice president of marketing for Phenix. “We even renamed our polyester fiber Livefree and Livefree Ultra because it is a completely different yarn system from the days of spun polyester that so many remember from the 1970s and ’80s.”

Mike Goodall, Mohawk’s vice president of product development, noted, “I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years and I am truly amazed at some of the polyester products we are making today—even compared to just 10 years ago when they were harsh, not soft like today, and didn’t have much bulk because they tended to mat and crush.”

Brad Christensen, Shaw’s polyester fiber marketing manager, pointed out, “Shaw, and the flooring industry in general, has certainly seen transitions in how polyester carpet is developed, marketed and ultimately viewed and understood by today’s consumer. The increasing popularity of carpets made from polyester signals a change in the perception of what was once considered a less than ideal fiber.”

Even retailers are noticing the difference between today’s polyester products and those of the past. “They most definitely have changed,” said Shari Hughes, manager of Kelly’s Carpet & Furniture in Lincoln, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa. “They are increasingly getting better—better performance, better colorations and better styling.”

Jason Jabara, vice president of Jabara’s Carpet Outlet in Wichita, Kan., added, “The construction of polyester carpets is like night and day from a generation ago. Plus, the old polyester carpets had no bells and whistles; now there are extras built into them, which have also broadened the applications. Mills are now even putting premium backings on them and such things as Shaw’s R2X, which increases soil and stain resistance. We stock about 2,000 rolls of carpet and upwards of 70% of them are polyester.”

 

Technological changes

Williams noted when it came to polyester in the past, the industry as a whole “used to produce some very inferior products. Now we’re seeing it more and more in higher styled offerings. But there is not one magical bullet, rather it is a bunch of things combined that has allowed us to make better products, including learning how to make it differently.”

Manufacturers big and small say the difference maker is technology. Specifically in how the fiber is extruded, which has allowed companies to do things in the overall processing they could not do before.

“Thanks to technological advances in yarn processing and improved carpet construction techniques,” explained Christensen, “polyester’s purported weakness as a performance fiber has been largely overcome.” And, when combined with its strengths, “which are abundant, including inherent stain and soil resistance, excellent color clarity and uniformity, exceptional softness and value,” it is more easily understood why polyester is gaining share across the board.

The main reason why polyester has advanced the way it has, noted Goodall, is due to advances in extrusion technology. “The polymer itself is still the same but the technology changes in the machines it is extruded on have given us much more flexibility in how and what we can produce—from friezes to loops to adding bulk and not having it crush and more.”

He added if you took the raw material and ran one batch on old machines and one on the new machines, “it’s a world of difference and allowed us to really make an improved product, including yarns that are extremely soft and durable.”

Goodall said the equipment makers in Germany are the ones who should be given the credit as “they are the ones who made these advancements, just like they did for nylon, they learned how to do it for polyester and it has proven to be a great thing for the industry.”

Kennedy agreed, noting, “This new fiber does not have many of the issues the staple polyesters [of the past] did. Matting and crushing is less and with solution dyed products, side match and dye lot issues are virtually eliminated. Plus, we have found the softer you go with polyester, performance is not compromised. In fact, performance is enhanced in many cases. This will help polyester to continue to gain market share.”

Williams added the new extrusion has allowed for “more realistic twist levels. And just like with nylon, the higher the twist, the better the performance.” Also, solution dyed, which lends itself more to the smaller mills, “has excellent properties” which add to polyester’s already inherent strengths, such as colorfastness and stain resistance.

Christensen said advancements in dying techniques—in both piece dyed and solution dyed—and overall polyester yarn processing has allowed Shaw “to create an array of unique visuals using 100% filament fiber where in the past using staple fiber was the only way to achieve certain visuals free of defects. Furthermore, this dramatic shift to filament lines up better with today’s consumer who may not fully appreciate or understand the original wool-like texture so de-sired decades ago and only achieved in staple products.”

 

Environmental story

There is another factor helping polyester’s cause— plastic-drinking bottles. For nearly two decades, the carpet industry has been helping to keep bottles marked with the No. 1 on the recycling logo from going to the landfill by turning them into new polyester carpets. In fact, the industry is the largest recycler of bottles in the country, keeping more than 5 billion of them from clogging landfills every year.

“The environmental story is great to tell,” Hughes said. “Consumers really like that and we talk about this in our sales presentation. We sell a lot of higher-end polyester carpets made with recycled bottles such as Shaw’s ClearTouch and Beaulieu’s EverClean.”

Christensen explained, “Technology developments over the years have enabled us to develop this premier fiber brand featuring long-term wear resistance, softness and stain-resistance.

On the environmental front, he added, “The exceptionally soft ClearTouch contains a minimum of 25% recycled content and is a testament to exceptional product development only made possible through years of study, passion and our commitment to innovation. The result is Shaw can bring every polyester visual and feature to the marketplace—from staple to filament and solution dyed to piece dyed.”

Kennedy said Phenix’ Live-free Ultra is made of at least 25% recycled plastic bottles and uses little to no water in the production process. “Livefree Ultra far exceeds all industry standards and looks better, feels better, lasts longer, resists stains and fading better, and is friendlier to our environment than many other fibers in its price point.”

In the end, though, Goodall said it all comes back to “making the carpet right. That means designed to meet consumer styling trends and constructed to perform to her expectations. And overall, the industry is doing a good job.”