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THE CUTTING EDGE

Fiber Optimism

The Fashion Industry's Excited Over a New Pollution-Free Rayon, but Its Price Could Be a Snag

March 24, 1997|DENISE GELLENE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rayon production is a dirty business. Chemicals used to dissolve wood pulp into rayon fiber are notorious pollutants. Environmental regulations enacted since the mid-1970s have thrown the domestic industry into a tailspin.

Until now.

Two European chemical giants, working separately, are producing a new kind of rayon using a technology that is virtually pollution-free. Though it costs 50% more than standard rayon, the new fiber has advantages: It's as strong as cotton, and garments made from it can usually be thrown into the home washing machine without fear.

The pricey new fiber, called lyocell, is generating excitement in the fashion industry, a business that thrives on newness. Clothing designers from Donna Karan to the Gap are trying on the new fiber. Los Angeles designer Michael Glasser uses it almost exclusively to set apart his line of casual, upscale clothes.

Fashion mavens say lyocell, the textile industry's first new fiber in three decades, has the makings of a wonder fabric. They say it has the drape of rayon, the softness of silk and takes color well.

Any revival of the domestic rayon business rests on consumer opinion. The British firm Courtaulds, an admirer of the success of DuPont Lycra, is using magazine ads, billboards and garment tags to hype its brand of lyocell, called Tencel. Avoiding the generic name for the fiber, Courtaulds declares Tencel "the fabric of the future," made from "nature's luxury fiber" because it's made from wood, albeit heavily processed wood. ("It's about as natural as polyester, which is made from oil that comes from the ground," says J. Nicholas Hahn, president of the trade group Cotton Inc.)

The stakes are high for lyocell manufacturers. Courtaulds says it spent 12 years and $60 million to develop the process and an additional $85 million to construct a lyocell factory near its big rayon plant in Axis, Ala. Courtaulds has pinned its hopes on the fiber; another plant under construction in Britain is expected to begin operation in 1998.

Lenzing of Austria is finishing a $130-million lyocell factory in that country that is expected to double worldwide production when it opens in June. Lenzing, the world's largest manufacturer of rayon fiber, has been turning out small quantities of lyocell at a pilot factory for European customers.

Beyond their efforts to establish a market for lyocell, the competitors are taking steps to spark demand for their brands.

The companies first squared off in patent infringement suits in Europe and the United States. Courtaulds last year obtained rulings invalidating Lenzing patents on a critical step in the lyocell production process, ending the legal skirmish, according to representatives of both companies.

Now the rivals are working to line up customers in the United States, a race in which Courtaulds has a considerable lead. Hoping to close the gap, Lenzing is exploiting possible advantages of its brand, called Lenzing Lyocell.

Lenzing claims its lyocell isn't as fuzzy as Tencel, a characteristic that could make it cheaper and easier to process into finished fabric. Textile mills can remove fuzz from Tencel, but the extra step adds cost.

Lyocell has drawbacks that both brands share. Because it's expensive and produced in limited quantities, it has been confined to the high-end sportswear market; mass market brands like Levi's and Lee are using lyocell to offer upscale jeans. Retailers are reluctant to offer lyocell garments to price-conscious consumers.

J.C. Penney offered a line of men's lyocell shirts in 1996 but has not reordered for spring. According to David Holloman, merchandise manager for Cone Sportswear, supplier to Penney, the retailer found the shirts too pricey for its customers.

Even purchasers of designer clothing experience lyocell sticker shock.

*

During a recent lunch hour at Bloomingdale's in Los Angeles, Pat Korbel tried on a lyocell shirt, but balked at the $120 price tag.

"That is staggering," Korbel said. "If I am going to spend that much, I'll buy silk."

Lyocell is expensive to make. Highly specialized equipment and costly solvents are needed.

Moistened wood pulp from gum trees is mixed with the solvent amine oxide. The mixture is heated so that the solvent, a solid at room temperature, can melt and dissolve the wood pulp into a hot, gummy solution. The process must be well-controlled because overheated wet pulp can explode.

The solution--now the consistency of corn syrup--passes through filters to remove any impurities. Then it is forced under high pressure through pinholes narrower than sewing needles to form filaments--a process known as solvent spinning.

The filaments are washed to remove amine oxide, which is captured and recycled--an important step because the chemical costs $5,000 a ton. The filaments are dried and cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths to be spun later into fabric.

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