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FIBRE CHOICE, which in this case means choosing the fibres used to make upholstery outer covers, is an ever-present issue, very little discussed but recent events like the Select Committee Report on Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life has put pressure on the Supply Chain to consider these matters more carefully.


This is a complicated and multi-faceted issue and so, of course, we asked STUART to offer his thoughts on the subject.


STUART believes it is important to understand what makes textile fibres so useful also makes them tend to ignite easily. But that is something for a different discussion.


STUART can see that these Upholstery Covers are not ordinary textiles.

They carry a huge responsibility for the appearance and feel of a piece of furniture and that after all is what makes customers want to buy them.

The textile must also carry much of the technical performance of the article including wear, soiling and (we must make this point) its ignitability – at least in the UK and Eire.


FIBRE CHOICE is made at the start of fabric manufacture and is implicated in all the aspects of cost and design and these are constant factors. Fibres may be chosen quite simply because the differences between fibres makes both colour and design effects possible and these are highly prized in upholstery.

Textile processors know that, where Consumer Safety recognises the ignition risk, the precise composition and indeed the where and how that fibres are placed in a fabric, are important. Members of the FRETWORK Group have seen examples where one colourway in a range used a different type of fibre to ensure the design and colour range was just right. Unfortunately that one failed the burn test because of the ignition behaviour of that particular yarn in that fabric.

That matters when it is the Textile processors responsibility to ensure that all goods leaving his care meet legal requirements.


RECYCLING is important in the Modern World. What we make is not just for disposal after it has served its purpose. We must create a “circular economy” which is a bit like resurrection at “End of Life” so some other use or purpose can be found for the bits the article is made from.


A little recycling technology. The best quality, and ones that may even be so useful that they have a real value, are those that are simple and non-contaminated. A good example is a plastic drink bottle that has high purity single plastic for food use and, especially if controlled through a return deposit system, can produce waste streams of very useful plastic with a good potential for future use. The opposite side of this can be described as mixed and contaminated and not the best quality for recycling. This would put the most expensive mixed fibre jacquard design upholstery outer covers at the bottom of the list when it comes to value in recycling. It’s a funny old World?


One of the phrases that makes STUART smile is when “Naturally flame retardant” fibres are brought into the FIBRE CHOICE debate.


STUART knows that some fibres have a lower ease of ignition potential and this can be measured. Cotton does char rather than melt and wool contains a lot of chemicals in its structure that do not burn easily.

Any claim of low ignition potential must be supported by testing of actual fabrics used to make the end article.

STUART thinks that too few people realise that in the UK we have 2 distinctly different systems in operation. Upholstery and Mattresses are manufactured according to different process control and testing methods.

This is particularly interesting when we have to consider so-called Sofa-Beds.


FIBRE CHOICE of natural fibres is supported by prominent people as it is “grown” therefore must be sustainable and “naturally flame retardant” is an added benefit so it must be a win-win approach(?).


For STUART there is one factor that all these good ideas don’t seem to embrace. Natural fibres coming from the natural environment tend to be self-modified to be able to survive in the natural environment. This basically requires all of that “protection” must be removed before the fibres can be used. That includes the water use, the energy, the chemicals used and the waste removed from the fibres. Lanolin is purified from wool grease that waterproofs the fibres on the animals back but how much Lanolin do we need?


Please note that STUART has not mentioned the issues of quality, supply and price and issues such as pesticide use in cotton production, Vegan demands to stop eating the animals and then the Greenhouse Gas emissions and the contribution to Global Warming. Let’s not make this too complicated (?).

How much wool used in textiles is “grown” in the UK?


STUART has a problem with the Soak Test as required before burn testing according to the FFR. One of his objections is from the use of modern “plastic” fibres with very low add-on of processing additives. They are often used without any scouring and they do not require special processes including chemical use, water consumption and waste problems – it’s a matter of cost sometimes. Some of these process additives are easily removed but they remain in the bath used to make the soak test to the point where we can sometimes say we are NOT testing what the consumer receives. They can influence the outcome after the soak test has been performed.


Here’s a contrast: the environmental demand of growing and producing “natural fibres” compared to the “plastic” fibres that need little or no processing. This, by the way, is the only example STUART can find where so-called “Modern Manufacturing Techniques” do influence the performance of textiles in FFR burn testing.


Here’s a similar: Where do the fibres come from? Asia, yes, most synthetic fibres come from there. Wool? Well how about Australia and New Zealand – plenty of air miles there then.


STUART is certain of one point in all of these considerations. The idea of designing and engineering fabrics to use less treatment to ensure safe performance has seldom (if ever) been a subject for discussion.

The one thing he can offer is the knowledge and experience of the members of the FRETWORK group to address such an idea.


FRETWORK Group members devote a large amount of time to solving problems with textiles that are difficult to treat or that do not behave as expected. The responsibility of ensuring the production of legally compliant goods when fibre choice is not properly controlled ensures they are fully aware of what works and what is a problem.


This article is not intended to be a definitive description of the issue. Our web site has more detailed information in small packages:


STUART is, of course, a fictional character based on the acronym Science, Technology, Understanding And Reasoned Thinking.

The FRETWORK Group are always ready to offer their knowledge and expertise in the issues raised here.


Peter Wragg

FRETWORK – The Flame Retardant textiles Network

Peter Wragg
Peter Wragg
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