SMYRNA, Ga. - Most of the American textile industry might be on the ropes as companies compete with imports from countries with lower labor costs.
But the specialists are doing OK.
Advances in chemicals used to make and treat fibers have opened the door to wider applications and thus increased sales in specialty niches. In some cases, textiles are even replacing metals because they are lighter, easier to work with and stronger pound for pound.
For example, the 40 or so companies that make high-tech ropes are selling tethers for space walks to NASA, spokes for mountain-bike wheels and replacing steel cables used in the shipping industry.
"The price of the high-tech ropes are higher, but you don't look at the price. You look at the system," said Gale Foster, technical director for the Cordage Institute in Hingham, Mass.
That increased cost can become a huge risk to traditional textile manufacturers looking to convert their plants to specialty markets, warns Scott Hilleary, the president of SSM Industries Inc. Regular cotton yarn costs $1.10 per pound while the fire-retardant yarn his Spring City, Tenn., company uses to make fabric for the rescue, racing and military markets costs $48 per pound.
"If you spoil a few hundred pounds of our yarn, you're going to be smarting," he said. "A little spoilage in a regular mill isn't as big a deal."
Ms. Foster and Mr. Hilleary were among 400 corporate executives and researchers who met in Smyrna, an Atlanta suburb, this week to share notes at the Techtextil Symposium North America. The textile market is estimated at about $16.6 billion.
Some there were similar to Bernard Bauman, vice president of Houston-based Fluro-Seal Inc., who was hoping to find customers for his company's novel process for treating synthetic fibers with reactive gases so coatings will adhere to them.
Others were reporting on developments in flurochemical finishes such as Teflon for clothing fabrics that coat nanosized fibers. Coatings that small allow water between fibers to expel perspiration and wash away stains.
A room full of scientists sat mesmerized Thursday morning watching slide after slide of various food stains, accompanied by statistics on how completely they were removed from certain treated fabrics after 20 washings, the typical lifetime of a garment.
Much of the breakthrough textile research is done by the military, which is usually willing to share, industry insiders say.
"We are not hurting as much as other areas (of the textile industry)," said consultant William Smith, with Industrial Textile Associates of Greer, S.C. "A lot of people are looking for ways into the specialty textile industry.
"There are some people who are doing that who will be a success. A lot of people will not."
The key to the transition, he said, is making a unique product. The first makers of car air bags have done well, especially as the number of bags in each car has continued to grow. But now the field is getting crowded, and price competition has limited profits.
New products are in the works though. One is drawing on genetic research that has implanted spiders' web-making DNA into the milk-producing glands of goats. Spider webs are among the strongest fibers on earth for their weight, but the critters are too ornery to cultivate the way, say, silkworms are.
Soon, textile companies are going to be refining goats' milk and spinning it into yarns that exceed the performance of steel and Kevlar, Mr. Smith predicted.