French Technical Textiles Industry: Evolving & Competitive

The Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in northern France is home to one of two technical textiles clusters
in France, the other being in southeastern France near Lyon. Centered just south of the Belgian
border around the cities of Lille, Roubaix and Tourcoing, the northern cluster comprises some 150
specialized companies that employ 9,000 people and generate annual revenues of approximately 1
billion euros, according to Lille-based investment promotion agency Nord France Invest. There are
more than 300 technical textiles companies — Europe’s highest concentration — within 150
kilometers of Lille. Many of them originally produced traditional textiles — the region was a
major flax and wool producer and a traditional lace-making center. As in the United States,
lower-cost competition from emerging economies forced these enterprises to reinvent themselves, and
they are now producing niche-oriented textiles that require specialized expertise rather than
competitive costing to be successful.

FrenchTechCETI 


The Centre Européen des Textiles Innovants (CETI) in Roubaix offers facilities to enable small
and medium-sized enterprises to develop advanced textile applications.

There is a strong collaborative spirit among business, academic, and research and
development (R&D) circles. UP-tex, an association comprising a competitive cluster of 90
technical textiles companies and 23 research laboratories, provides R&D, fundraising,
promotional and communication, and export market access assistance; networking opportunities; and
other services to its members. Another organization, CLUBTEX, offers similar services to its
members, which include 63 companies in northern France and Belgium, five training and educational
institutions, three R&D institutes and three textile organizations.

Following are quick snapshots of five northern French companies that made the transition
from traditional to technical textiles, two education and research facilities, and, as a contrast,
one company that makes beautiful lace and tulle using machinery developed in the 19th century.


Doublet: From Liturgical To Public Ornaments, Banners


Luc Doublet, CEO of Avelin-based digital and screen printer Doublet Group, exudes an
enthusiasm that is in keeping with many of his company’s creations. The company dubs itself
CRéATeUR d’ENtHoUsIASme (creator of enthusiasm), and much of its production is geared to public
events – including flags, banners and tents for major sporting events including the Olympics and
Tour de France, among others; and costumes and murals for events such as lille3000, an ongoing
cultural celebration inaugurated after that city was designated the 2004 European Capital of
Culture.

Doublet was established in 1832 as a maker of liturgical vestments and ornaments. Luc
Doublet’s grandparents bought the company in 1932 and continued making liturgical articles,
employing 25 embroiderers, until after World War II, when the company began to make banners for
public groups. Their son Bernard, an architect, added metal structures to the company’s product
line. Luc Doublet joined his father, Bernard, in 1969 and began to add innovative manufacturing
technologies including computer-aided design, sublimation printing and laser cutting. He began
making polyester flags using sublimation printing techniques and built on his success by acquiring
and setting up companies outside of France — in the United States, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain,
Portugal and Poland. Luc Doublet remains at the helm, but his three children now own the company.

The plant in Avelin houses state-of-the-art printing equipment and a R&D team of
well-trained mechanical and textile engineers and designers. However, Doublet produces very
special, unique articles as well, such as hand-embroidered silk flags. During a recent tour of the
plant, Luc Doublet also pointed out the company’s commitment to sustainability: Process chemicals
are recycled, and flags have no grommets to reinforce the holes, which are incorporated into the
fabric via an innovative patented solution.

 
FrenchTechLille

Luc Doublet adjusts the sleeve on a costume designed for lille3000 celebrations.


Dickson-Constant: From Linen And Cotton To Acrylic


Dickson Group, based in Wasquehal, dates from 1836, when Scottish spinner David Dickson
founded the first linen mill in France in Dunkirk. In 1840, Dickson began weaving sail fabrics and
soon developed methods for preventing mold and rot on marine fabrics. By 1909, it was producing
tarpaulins and tents for the French National Defense. In 1945, it turned to acrylic fibers for
production of outdoor fabrics. In 1969, it merged with cotton and polyester canvas weaver Eugène
Constant, which had been founded in 1913 in Lille. Dickson-Constant became known for its awning
fabrics and began an international expansion, which accelerated when Sunbrella® marine and outdoor
solution-dyed acrylic fabric maker Glen Raven Inc., Glen Raven, N.C., acquired it in 1998.

 
DicksonBeams

Beams of solution-dyed acrylic warps have been prepared for weaving at Dickson-Constant’s
facility in Wasquehal.

That acquisition yielded benefits to both companies, said Patrick Raguet, Dickson’s
marketing director: “The product lines are very complementary, and the acquisition made it easier
for Glen Raven to enter the European market. Dickson also took advantage of the Sunbrella brand. We
imported some of those lines and entered the marine and casual furniture markets, and, little by
little, we started producing the same quality here. Today, we have both Sunbrella and Dickson®
fabric lines, and depending on the market, we will push one brand or the other.” He added that
solution-dyed acrylic fabrics comprise 90 percent of Dickson’s current product portfolio, mainly
because of the company’s leading position in outdoor markets — particularly, solar protection
markets.

Dickson today has 600 employees in three business units in France — including a coating
plant near Lyon and a coating/lamination plant in that area that produces highly technical textiles
for industrial applications — and 14 foreign sales subsidiaries marketing to 110 countries.
Exports account for 75 percent of its turnover. Its Wasquehal plant produces woven fabrics for
consumer markets. The 27,500-square-meter (m2) facility houses 110 looms that produce 25 million m2
of fabric annually. Yarn going into the fabrics comes from various European sources as well as from
Glen Raven’s U.S. spinning plants.


Cousin Biotech: From Ropes To Implants


Cousin Biotech, a manufacturer of medical textiles since 1994, is one of three firms that
evolved out of a company that began twisting linen in 1848 and in 1870 started braiding ropes for
fishnets and other marine applications. Cousin Group also includes industrial cordage manufacturer
Cousin Trestec and Cousin Composites, which manufactures thermoplastic-coated rods, cables and bars
made from aramid, glass or carbon fibers.

According to Cousin Biotech President François Cousin, his company entered the medical
textiles market by accident. “A customer needed a very small quantity of something different, and
we charged a heavy price to be able to develop it,” he said. From that start, the company has
developed a line comprising 400 braided, knitted, woven and nonwoven implantable products such as
hernia meshes, spinal stabilization systems, ligaments, gastric bands and many others including
customized products. Materials used include biocompatible and bioresorbable fibers, elastic and
shock-absorbent materials, and metal and ceramic materials. Product assembly involves a lot of
stitching, including manual stitching for products that may require special shaping.

In 2008, the company moved into a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in the town of
Wervicq-Sud. All manufacturing and packaging are performed in two clean room areas totaling 1,600
m2. The manufacturing operation employs around 50 people, and 10 people are involved in product
R&D. Products are distributed mainly in Europe, North America, South America and South Africa.

 
FrenchTechCousin

Cousin Biotech’s inguinal hernia implant is made with 90-percent bioresorbable poly-l-lactide
acid and 10-percent polypropylene to reinforce the wall of the groin.



Photographed by Maxime Dufour


Peignage Dumortier: From Wool To Nearly Every Fiber


Tourcoing is home to Peignage Dumortier S.A.S., a processor of fiber for downstream
spinning. Established in 1896, the company originally was a wool comber, but in 1965, as the wool
industry was declining in Europe, it transitioned to processing man-made fibers. Today, it
processes a wide range of natural and man-made fibers on a commission basis and supplies sliver to
be spun into yarns used mainly in technical textiles and apparel.

“We process raw materials provided by our clients and do what they cannot or do not want to
do,” said Georges Major, commercial director, Peignage Dumortier. “They may not have the know-how,
machinery or capacity; or they may specialize in one or two fibers and don’t want to contaminate
their machinery with a new fiber.”

The company processes nearly every fiber but carbon and glass. Its customers fall into two
groups: fiber producers — such as Lenzing, Trevira, Azota, DuPont, Kermel and others — that want
to sell the yarn; and spinners that want to process blended fibers.

Peignage Dumortier has six workshops: one with three carding lines for carding raw white
fiber and two cut converting lines for converting tow; one equipped with 12 combers for combing raw
white fiber; one with three carding lines and 12 combers to process spun-dyed or stock-dyed fibers;
one for cut converting spun-dyed tow, which also has two high-production cards for carding raw
white or spun-dyed fibers; a short-staple workshop with six small cotton cards; and a workshop for
proccessing special fibers and blends for what Major described as “exotic products” such as fake
fur. Equipment includes Thibeau cards and NSC combers.

 
PDMajor

Commercial Director Georges Major shows a sample of sliver prepared by Peignage Dumortier
for a customer.

Major stressed the company’s service, sliver quality and flexibility: “We can provide lots
as small as 300 to 500 kilograms (kg), and even as small as 100 kg, but also large lots of up to
100 tons. If you want to compete successfully in the European market, you have to sell technology,
know-how and creativity. Otherwise, clients will go to low-cost suppliers. Our activity in Europe
is possible because Europe still has fiber producers and spinners.”

Peignage Dumortier’s clientele has shifted in recent years, Major said: “In the past, 75
percent of our business was for apparel, handknitting and other traditional markets, and 25 percent
was for technical textiles. Since the financial crisis, that has changed. Now, 60 percent is for
technical textiles and 40 percent for traditional textiles and apparel.”


Duflot: From Diapers To Barriers And Insulation


Nonwovens manufacturer Duflot Industrie S.A.S., Caudry, is the youngest of the companies
profiled here, with a history dating from the mid-20th century. Early production consisted mainly
of disposable nonwovens for hygiene applications. In 1986, the company began producing thermal
barriers, and in 1990, under new ownership, it changed its focus to needlepunched nonwovens
primarily for acoustic and thermal insulation and fire-resistant (FR) barriers for construction and
transportation applications, but also for ballistic and other personal protective equipment (PPE).
Today, it operates two factories employing 65 people and producing 1 million m2 of nonwovens per
month, and has an annual turnover of 12 million euros, with exports representing 40 percent of
sales.

According to Flavien Mauny, Duflot’s innovation manager, the company provides FR barriers
for seats to the French rail company SNCF for its standard and high-speed TGV trains; as well as
for aircraft. Barriers for city trains and subways are also cut-resistant. Thermal insulation goes
into firefighter gear. Acoustic insulation applications include tiles and other construction
applications. Duflot also offers a patented, layered shock-absorbing insulation for underflooring.
In the PPE area, which represents 20 percent of its business, it has developed a breathable,
low-weight quilted FR barrier made using aramids. The company also produces polypropylene/glass
fiber mats that are selling to automotive door or panel makers in France and elsewhere, and
stainless-steel fiber nonwovens for belts used in the glass industry.

The factory floor at Duflot’s headquarters includes Asselin-Thibeau and LaRoche machinery
and equipment, set up so that almost all processes can be carried out inline. Most of the company’s
products are made in that facility, while FR barrier and glass fiber products are made at Duflot’s
second factory located a few kilometers away.

FrenchTechDuflot 

Duflot’s ISO’AIR® FR barrier (inset) for firefighter gear is a breathable, quilted aramid
nonwoven fabric.


Technical Textiles: A Viable Future In Europe


The transition from traditional to technical textiles in France, and Western Europe in
general, is helping to ensure that a viable textile industry will remain in the region.

“There is still a future for technical textiles in Europe,” Major said, while also
acknowledging that technical textiles demand will grow in China and India as well, and producers
there will upgrade their products to meet that demand. “For technical textiles, you need a very
close supply chain. Quantities are smaller — to buy from China, you need to buy a whole container.
And, you must make sure the technical specifications are what the customer wants.”



Education & Research: ENSAIT & CETI

L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Industries Textiles (ENSAIT), founded in 1889 in
Roubaix, is the oldest school in France dedicated solely to textile training, and graduates 140 of
the 220 students who earn textile degrees in France each year. ENSAIT offers selective educational
tracks leading to engineering and Ph.D. degrees; and trains more than 70 percent of the textile
engineers working in France and 15 percent of European textile engineers.

ENSAIT’s curriculum has evolved in line with the evolution of the French textile industry
from commodity, traditional textile production to more niche-oriented production. “Today, 10 to 20
students are interested in the traditional industry,” said Xavier Flambard, ENSAIT’s director.
“Half of the students are going into big retail enterprises and half into technical textiles such
as automotive, aircraft, medical and sport.”

School facilities include laboratories for polymer spinning, knitting, weaving, textile
chemistry, apparel pattern making and sewing and all other aspects of textile and apparel
production. Students going into the retail area study supply chain management.

ENSAIT also houses the research lab Génie et Matériaux Textiles (GEMTEX), where 40
professors and 40 Ph.D. candidates research new textile materials and processes in areas such as
composites, multifunctional and smart textiles, mass customization, renewable resources and
polysensoriality. Some work involves partnering with private industry to develop technological
solutions, such as a loom invented by GEMTEX researchers to weave the substrate for a seamless 3-D
carbon-fiber composite corner box to be used in aircraft built by France-based Airbus.

The Centre Européen des Textiles Innovants (CETI) opened in October 2012 in Roubaix to offer
a platform and facilities to enable small to medium-sized enterprises to develop advanced textile
applications for healthcare, transportation, safety, civil engineering and other markets; test and
prototype new products; and set up pilot-scale production runs. UP-tex, CLUBTEX and ENSAIT have
been closely involved in establishing the center. UP-tex Managing Director Marc Honore serves as
CETI’s director general, and UP-tex Project Manager Julien Payen, Ph.D., is heavily involved in its
operation. Numerous other institutions and government entities also have been involved in the
setup. Public and private funding in phase one, which includes nonwovens and meltspinning
facilities, totals 39 million euros.

 
FrenchTechENSAIT

ENSAIT researchers designed and built a special loom to weave this substrate for a seamless
composite corner box for use in aircraft built by Airbus.

The nonwovens lab offers spunlaid and drylaid processes and houses web-forming,
web-consolidation and other machinery from Andritz Asselin-Thibeau, Andritz Perfojet, Andritz
Küsters, LaRoche and Hills Inc. The spinning lab houses a Hills mono-bi-tricomponent spinning line
— one of just five in the world — and a crimping and cutting line.

In setting up its nonwovens and meltspinning facilities, CETI received collaborative
assistance from The Nonwovens Institute at North Carolina State University, which offers a similar
facility for nonwovens R&D.

Over the next two years, CETI plans to add other spinning capabilities along with
electrospinning, knitting, weaving, braiding and finishing capabilities, mainly for composites and
technical textiles.





Sophie Hallette: A Link To Tradition

State-of-the-art technology may be the mainstay of northern France’s technical textiles
industry, but Maison Sophie Hallette, founded in 1887 in Caudry, continues a successful business
producing delicate lace and tulle on heavy, clunky cast-iron machinery developed in England in the
early 19th century to replicate the production of handmade bobbin lace. The company offers more
than 2,000 stock patterns to haute couture houses and high-end ready-to-wear and lingerie brands,
and it supplied the lace that went into the dress Kate Middleton wore when she married Prince
William in April 2011.

Maud Lescroart, the company’s marketing director, noted that the Bobbin net and Leavers
looms used in the factory have not been made for quite some time, and the loom operators must go
through seven years of training to attain a high level of skill and to fully understand the complex
loom workings. Setup for a new project takes three people two months to complete. Other workers
prepare the bobbins and conduct other tasks. Designs are still drawn by hand, although there is
computer assistance at the stage of transferring them to technical drawings before they are
communicated to the loom via punched cards on a mechanical Jacquard system.

Hallette

Sophie Hallette’s workshop in Caudry is equipped with heavy cast-iron machinery developed in
the early 19th century to produce  delicate bobbin lace that is sold to haute couture houses
and high-end ready-to-wear and lingerie brands. Photographed by Philippe Schlienger


Once taken off the loom, the lace is inspected for flaws and repaired by skilled hand
workers. Then, pattern units are separated and cut along the scalloped edges. After that, the lace
may be dyed, and embroidery or other embellishment may be added.

“The sky is the limit on invention and innovation,” Lescroart said, noting that some laces
may be embellished with semiprecious stones, and showing the range of possibilities in the
company’s stock collection. “The human being needs to dream and see beauty, and we are proud to
provide this little bit of beauty.”

Chantilly


April/May/June 2013
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