Carpet Fiber Update - March 2012
By Darius Helm
The trend toward soft fiber is now in its second decade and it shows no sign of slowing. And now, with soft fibers established in the market, fiber producers are going one step further with the development of ultrasoft carpet fiber, using new precision technologies to maintain performance parameters of the increasingly thin filaments.
There’s no question that the demand is there. Even though soft fiber carpets start at higher price points than traditional carpets, growth in that category has outpaced the market as a whole. And over the years, the first generation soft fibers have slid down the price scale, replaced from above by new generations of softer fibers.
Whenever there's a complicated, not entirely logical system for measuring a material's property, you can bet it has obscure biological roots. The inch, for instance, was originally the width of a man's thumb until an English king decided three grains of barley laid end to end was a more consistent measure. In the case of the denier, which is used to denote fiber thickness, the culprit is the silkworm. One denier is equal to the weight of a single strand of silk 9,000 meters long, which is one gram. So a fiber 1,000 times heavier (and proportionally thicker) than a strand of silk has a denier of 1,000 which is actually a fairly common denier in the carpet industry--most carpet fiber ranges from 900 to 2,400 denier.
Fibers are made up of multiple filaments, with the number depending on the total bulk of the fiber (the denier) and the size of the actual filaments (denier per filament). When it comes to soft fiber, it's the thinness of the actual filament that makes the biggest difference. For instance, a 5 DPF filament is softer than a 10 DPF filament; if these filaments are used to make a 1,000 denier fiber, it would take 200 of the thinner 5 DPF filaments (1,000 / 5=200) compared to 100 of the thicker 10 DPF filaments (1,000 / 10=100).
Because denier is a per unit weight, it can be applied to both fibers and filaments, which is why soft fibers are often described as having finer denier filaments. When applied to fibers, bulkier fibers with deniers of 1,600 or 2,000 are generally coarser to the touch than 9,000 denier fibers--though soft fibers can offset that feel--and they tend to perform better as well.
Stainmaster’s Tactesse and Anso’s Caress pioneered the trend at the turn of the century with nylon fiber in the range of 12 deniers per filament (DPF) while the industry standard for residential carpet fiber was more in the range of 16 to 18 DPF. Invista’s Luxerell, first introduced in 2008, then relaunched a couple of years later with an expanded product line, is 8 to 9 DPF. Now Invista’s taken it one step further, with TruSoft, touting the sort of DPF historically reserved for the ultimate in barefoot luxury—the bath mat. At 4 to 5 DPF, TruSoft for now has the thinnest nylon carpet filament on the market.
Invista’s not alone in the quest for soft fibers. All of the carpet mills offer either proprietary systems or make fiber from independent producers like Invista. And now, with the growth in PET carpet fiber and the advent of triexta, soft fibers are being made from a range of polymers.
Industry experts analyzing soft fibers tend to focus most of their criticism on one key property—surface area. The more filaments there are in a fiber, the greater the total surface area, which means more area to stain and soil, so stains on a soft fiber carpet will come out darker than on standard carpet.
Shaw, whose Anso Caress brand was first introduced over a decade ago, has been focusing heavily on its soft fibers for the last three years, extensively shifting its nylon and polyester carpet product offering in that direction. The firm has moved away from staple fiber and converted all of its Anso production to filament and most of it to soft fiber, including the entire Anso Colorwall. Soft fiber is estimated to account for close to half its residential nylon carpet sales.
In addition, the firm has moved to soft on all its ClearTouch PET carpet and EverTouch in-house nylon 6 brand. ComforTouch polypropylene has also been enhanced. Traditionally, polypropylene’s low melting point has necessitated the use of oil in the tufting process, and the residue has increased the crushability of polypropylene carpets and rugs. But Shaw’s new scouring process removes all that oil, leaving a product with a soft feel and enhanced performance.
Over the years, Invista’s residential carpet fibers have grown steadily softer. The newest soft fiber, TruSoft, is nearly three times thinner than Tactesse, the firm’s original soft fiber. According to the firm, TruSoft meets the same performance standards as all of its nylon 6,6 residential fibers. The product was launched earlier this year and by the second quarter Shaw and Dixie will likely start selling carpet using this ultrasoft fiber.
Of the 150 or so Stainmaster products introduced this year, about 25 were TruSoft products. And well over 130 of the products were made with one of Stainmaster’s soft fiber brands.
The firm also added a new soft fiber to its SolarMax line of solution-dyed nylon 6,6, with about the same DPF as Luxerell. The fiber was introduced at the end of last year, and is being used on carpet from Dixie, Phenix and Beaulieu Canada.
Another major player in the soft fiber business is Mohawk, which just came out with SmartStrand Silk. SmartStrand is already fairly soft, and the thinner filament takes it to a whole new level. The fiber’s 37% bio-based content sets SmartStrand apart from every other fiber in the market. And because the bio-based content is integrated into the polymer at a molecular level, it will perform like a plastic and not bio-degrade like organic materials. In addition, like nylon and PET, triexta is a thermoplastic, which means that it can be remelted and turned into new product.
On the nylon side, Mohawk’s soft carpet is made from Wear-Dated DuraSoft and SoftTouch. The firm, which also makes product from Invista’s Luxerell fiber, offers soft PET fiber as well.
Beaulieu, the third largest residential carpet mill, offers its family of soft fibers, which include nylon and both white and solution-dyed PET under its Bliss brand. Bliss SoftSense is the firm’s 10 DPF soft nylon. Its dyeable PET is Bliss HealthyTouch, while its new solution-dyed PET, introduced at Surfaces, is called EverClean. EverClean is also 10 DPF, while HealthyTouch comes in both 8 and 10 DPF.
Engineered Floors, which produces PET carpets using state of the art technologies, says that the vast majority of its fibers are soft, 9 to 12 DPF, which is softer than the same DPF in nylon. All of the firm’s fiber is solution dyed filament. The firm’s brand new processing equipment enables the manufacture of fibers that both retain softness and have good bulk.
Soft fibers are strictly residential products. In the commercial market, it’s about the look and performance of the product, not the feel of it. The only commercial sector where soft carpet may one day find some demand is in assisted living, where design derives from both the hospitality and residential markets. That residential ambiance is key to the comfort of assisted living clients, who want the feel of home in their new digs. The lush comfort of soft carpet may be a good solution, as long as it can meet performance criteria.
There are a number of reasons why soft fibers have had such success in the market. It’s partly from new technologies, which can make a product never before available. And part of it is increased demand for comfort from consumers. But probably the biggest driving force behind the rise in soft fibers relates to the growth of hard surface flooring.
Twenty years ago, carpet was found in most rooms of the typical American home—living room, den, corridors, bedrooms—but over time hard surface flooring has been taking share away from carpet, particularly in living rooms and other high traffic areas. This means that a greater percentage of a carpet mill’s total sales go into bedroom carpet than in years past, and more than any other location in the house, the bedroom demands barefoot comfort. This is why soft fiber carpets will likely grow, even as carpet continues to lose share to hard surface flooring.
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