Belgium, No. 1 rug exporter, seeks US inroads

Belgium exported enough carpets last year to cover the entire state of Florida -- from Miami to Jacksonville. Although the United States manufactures more floor covering than any other nation, this small country exports more than $900 million worth of carpets, making it the world's top exporter.

To the regret of Pierre Bodson, manager of the Belgian Textile Federation, relatively few of those carpets go to the United States. "The devaluation of the dollar has hurt," he explains. "Our prices are too high. Thus our manufacturers have not been pushing their products there."

Belgium's biggest carpet customer is the United Kingdom. It took 176 million square meters (210 square yards) of carpets and felts in 1978. That is some 2 million more square meters than Belgium's nearly 10 million people bought for themselves. West Germany purchased 162 million square meters; France, 55 million; the Netherlands, 51 million; and much smaller amounts went to many other countries.

The United States is a relatively small customer, buying almost exclusively high-priced imitation Oriental carpets. Nonetheless, the sales are prized by Robert Bodson, Pierre Bodson's brother, who is an executive with S. A. Vlaamse Tapijtweverij, a textile firm in Kortrijk, about 45 west of this capital city.

"Our business has been growing continuously," he said. "Young people are often moving from house to house and thus prefer a carpet which they can move with them, unlike wall-to-wall carpeting. The design also plays a big role. Our designs are conceived here, but inspired by rugs from Iran, Afghanistan, or China. We make our rugs as close to the handmade carpets as can be done by machine."

The sole US importer of VTW carpets is Couri Murad & Co. of New York, which markets under the trade name Couristan. Joseph Frank Purcell, an executive with Couri Murad, notes that a machine-made 9-by-12-foot Couristan carpet costs about has the advantage of consistent color, size, and quality. It does not, however, appreciate in value as genuine Oriental rugs have in recent years.

One of Belgium's largest textile firms, De Poortere Freres, is exporting Leon A. Capel & Sons in Troy, N.C. Sales of these wool imitation Orientals have also been growing well. One reason, says A. J. Clarys, an executive, is the demand for higher-quality rugs in the US. Another is a trend toward the sale of floor coverings in furniture stores, department stores, and specialty stores, as distinct from carpet stores. "The rugs are in their normal surroundings," he explains.

Like other carpet manufacturers in Europe, Belgian makes have had to adjust to the increasing use of man-made fibers in carpets and the development of the tufting process in the United States in the 1950s. This process is cheaper than conventional carpet weaving. Tufting machines work something like a sewing machine. Pile yarns are pricked with a needle into a canvas or other substrate woven beforehand. To fix the knots, the underneath is coated with a plastic emulsion that is itself covered with a coat of antiskid foam. Whereas a conventional loom might weave 10 square meters an hour, a modern tufting machine produces 300 square meters in the same time.

Some Belgian carpetmakers were slow in seeing this revolution in techniques. But by 1978, they were making 124 million square meters of tufted carpets, as against 28.5 million of woven carpets. It is the woven carpets, however, that are most popular in the US. Their production has remained fairly steady over the last five or six years. In both tufted and woven carpets, the demand for quality has been growing.

Belgium, Pierre Bodson notes, also is an important exporter of other textile materials, such as furniture upholstery fabrics, lining materials for suits and dresses, leisure wear fabrics and linen.

Because most of such products are exported, Belgian manufacturers must meet the requirements of many nations. For instance, tablecloths and bed sheets run in different sizes in West Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, he noted. Europe has seen some harmonization of textile products in recent years. "But we are far away from the melting pot," he said.

Because of europe's slow increase in population, the market for Belgian textiles on the Continent has grown only slowly. Belgium has been relatively successful in expanding its sales to other areas, particularly to the member nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

But Mr. Bodson says it has been handicapped by the high wages of its textile workers an the growing proglem of imports from low-wage nations in Southern Europe and Southeast Asia.

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