Cotton Inc. tests newest wrinkles in world of textiles

One of the hottest things in textiles won't burn.

With a certain flair, Hal Brockmann lights a match and holds it to the bottom edge of a sample of blue denim fabric. It flames at once, and he puts it out before he has a three-alarm blaze in his office.

Out comes another piece of fabric. Another match is struck. He holds it to the edge of the denim. And holds it. And holds it.

Oh, it chars all right, but it doesn't flame. It's 100-percent, fire-retardant cotton.

And that's why Mr. Brockmann calls it the ''hottest thing in textiles.'' Unlike a lot of synthetic protective clothing, this stuff looks like real denim -- because it is. And in textiles, looks are what sells, even for industrial clothing.

Mr. Brockmann is executive vice-president for textile research and development at Cotton Inc., the cotton producers' marketing institute.

Its simple goal is to make cotton the No. 1 fiber in the marketplace. The institute's headquarters are in New York, but its modern new research center, where Mr. Brockmann gives his fireproofing demonstration, is here in Raleigh. This location in a traditional textile state puts it close to the expertise in Research Triangle Park and the North Carolina State University School of Textiles.

Cotton Inc. set out some 11 years ago to take on the synthetic-fiber industry and win back a share of the market for cotton. David and Goliath is an operative metaphor here. Or rather, make that Goliaths. DuPont's annual marketing and research budget for Dacron alone is said to be five times that of Cotton Inc.'s total annual budget of some $25 million. And then there's Celanese , Monsanto, Eastman Kodak, and others.

But there have been triumphs for David. The new cotton logo now is as familiar as some other trademarks in use for decades, such as the CBS ''eye.'' And Cotton Inc.'s aggressive marketing is reckoned to have created over the past decade $2.5 billion in retail sales that would otherwise have gone to synthetics.

Textile manufacturers, garmentmakers, and retailers have been convinced there is a market for synthetic-blend shirts with 60 percent cotton instead of only 35 percent. Cotton Inc. says independent researchers find that this higher proportion of cotton offers maximum ''natural comfort'' while retaining the durability of synthetics. The 60-40 ''Natural Blend'' is also showing up in bedsheets. Towelmakers are switching some of their lines to 100-percent cotton.

Protective clothing, like the denim that doesn't flame in the match test, has been another bright spot. Steelworkers, NASA astronauts, and New York City firefighters now all wear flame-retardant, 100-percent-cotton garments.

Mr. Brockmann tells of a steelworker whose arm was splashed with molten steel. ''He's still wearing the garment.''

And the work goes on at the research center, a bright, airy, modern lab, full of knitting machines and racks of fabric samples and prototype garments in all colors, patterns, and textures. Their tactile appeal is irresistible.

There are specialized machines, with digital readouts and blinking lights, to test fabric strength or to simulate the effects of weather on fabrics. Some look pretty exotic.

And some look pretty ordinary. A young woman takes fabric samples out of a clothes dryer. They are being tested for durable-press qualities, she explains. In another part of the lab they will be put under harsh clinical light to show their wrinkles. The samples will be scrutinized and rated on a scale of 1 through 5; the higher the number, the more wrinkle-free the fabric.

The smell of burnt matches laces the air. Vice-president Brockmann isn't the only one here who's into flame tests. One area of the lab is filled with scorched furniture cushions; slightly the worse for wear, they have apparently passed their test.

Another project is 100-percent-cotton carpeting. Samples are being tested for their flame-retardant qualities as well as their response to steam cleaning.

In a glass case on the wall is a before-and-after display showing what appears to be solid black carpeting that has been ''treated'' with ''topsoil, clay, carbon black, motor oil, and corn oil.'' Even the most roughneck of adolescents aren't that hard on the carpet. Then there is an ''after'' panel, and well, you wouldn't want it in your living room, but the pastel lavenders and greens revealed by the cleaning process do bear a family resemblance to the ''control'' sample.

Part of the work at the Cotton Inc. research center is geared toward overseas customers. Cotton growers need foreign markets for their crop, and they find that a little show-and-tell helps close a deal. Cotton Inc. can step in and say, ''Buy our growers' cotton, and we'll show you some new things you can do with it.''

This is the point at which Cotton Inc. parts company with United States textile manufacturers, whom it otherwise courts, since its main loyalty must be to the cotton growers. It's one more case of the world's largest industrial nation exporting raw materials for third-world countries to make into finished goods.

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