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Cotton pickin' good - suppliers of cotton to nonwovens remain optimistic about future.

A slow economy and the disappearance of one supplier from the market did not seem to dampen interest in, or the success of, cotton as a fiber for nonwovens. During the past year, domestic production of bleached cotton fiber for nonwovens remained stable, staying in the 70-75 million pound range (this figure also includes several smaller cotton bleachers who process cotton fibers and use them exclusively for in house production). With the closing of Alpha Cellulose, Lumberton, NC, in the second half of last year and a recession in the U.S., fiber production may have been expected to decrease.

However, solid relationships between existing cotton fiber producers and their customers kept the production level fairly constant and the established producers stepped in where necessary to pick up any slack.

The market for cotton fiber in nonwovens has increased in recent years and further expansion is expected. There is speculation that some cotton consumers are waiting on the sidelines for the availability and consistency of the product to rise before they become major buyers. Rumors of a Japanese rayon plant starting up as competition have sprung up, but cotton continues to be a more and more viable fiber in nonwovens. Recent trends see continued consumer preference for cotton in the apparel industry, which may bode well for nonwovens in developing applications.

The two main domestic producers of bleached cotton fibers for nonwovens, Veratec Natural Fibers Group, Walpole, MA and Barnhardt Manufacturing, Charlotte, NC--both of which incidentally use the kier bleaching process--reported a solid year.

Veratec's introduction of its "Easy Street" fiber two years ago for nonwoven roll goods with its super-opening process is proceeding according to plan, according to Ed Hart, product manager. He explained, "Easy Street's success is tied to our customer's success and recently, production has been growing nicely."

Plant expansions at the Griswoldville, MA facility are continuing, although Veratec will not comment on the new bleachery in Bethune, SC. The Bethune expansion has reportedly been in the works for several years, but no information on the timetable or bleaching methods has been released. Veratec also continues to import a good amount of bleached cotton fiber from its Toronto plant. Overall, Mr. Hart commented, "Business has been very strong."

Barnhardt Manufacturing recently completed its plant expansion in Charlotte, NC. The expanded facility has doubled capacity, putting them "right there with Veratec in total capacity," claims John Smith, sales manager. Room to expand was designed into the facility so that future increases can proceed without delay. "The plant is running at near capacity, but we are always looking for more," explained Mr. Smith. "We will keep producing the best product we can." There are plans for several product introductions in the coming year.

Cotton Inc., Raleigh, NC, the marketing arm of U.S. cotton growers, is also involved in strengthening the fiber's presence in nonwovens. The nonwoven cotton wrap for cotton bales from Cotton Inc. is in a field test mode, said Glenn Morton, director of product and process research. A 1000 bale test has been run, but the packaging committee overseeing the development recommended further testing. Acme Pad, Baltimore, MD, which has been involved with the project from the start, was recently granted permission to run an 8000 bale test; the test will occur in the fall.

Overseas cotton supplier Edward Hall, Stockport, U.K., reports increasing use of its "Luxicot" fiber in Europe. The fiber, made with continuous bleaching technology licensed from Cotton Inc., has experienced success particularly with thermal bonded products. Hospital, retail and industrial wipe markets have all recently been targeted for increased Luxicot use. Several European spunlacers are also actively promoting 100% Luxicot cotton spunlaced fabrics in specialized wipe applications; further development is expected to center on semi-durable products.

Although import restrictions have limited the importing of Luxicot fibers into the U.S., possible manufacturing expansions into the U.S. market are being considered at Edward Hall. "We are at present reexamining the feasibility of a U.S. production base...for continuously processed Luxicot," stated John Catterall, managing director.

The closing of Alpha Cellulose's continuous bleaching line late last year stirred different reactions from those close to industry. Originally, industry insiders saw the company's initial start up as beneficial as it created new interest in cotton fiber use in nonwovens. The downside occurred when problems in meeting demands for quantity and quality plagued the Alpha Cellulose line, damaging the credibility of cotton fiber use in general.

Veratec appreciated the interest generated by Alpha Cellulose and felt that they rode above the negative aspects of the closing. As Mr. Hart put it, the closing "did not leave a bad taste. In fact, it whet the appetite of nonwoven producers for bleached cotton."

For the future, all three major bleachers are looking for new products and new markets. Mr. Morton reports that Cotton Inc. is working with John Hollingsworth, Greensville, SC, on a machine to open the fiber and reduce nep content.

Greenville Machinery, Greer, SC, is also working on a patented system for continuous bleaching for nonwovens processing, according to Mr. Morton. The system is being shown to the trade but no buyers have as yet signed up for the equipment.

Finally, Auburn University, Auburn, AL, is also developing a method for evaluating and testing kier bleached fiber to predict its processability. Such a method would be an improvement on plant testing and would provide another means for quality control at the bleaching source.
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Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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