Continually making improvements in fabric technology is the product development team at Camira Fabrics who recently conducted a market survey within the residential care sector to understand the current needs and requirements of how fabrics can offer substance and style in high traffic and high demand areas.
Perhaps not surprisingly findings from the survey discovered that well over half of respondents put cleanability at the top of their priorities when deciding on a fabric, with aesthetics coming a close second.
So how does the care sector balance fabric performance with aesthetics and why is it so important? Perhaps a brief look at history will set the scene.
In the Middle Ages upholstery was exclusive to the wealthy, and over time became more comfortable with padding and covering, especially in the 18th Century when there was an increased demand for luxury goods.
However technological advances of the 19th Century marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the massive increase in output of textile production.
Mass manufacturing led to the rise of the middle classes. Rather than home ownership being the preserve of the aristocracy the middle-classes were asserting their dominance and embracing the Victorian fashion of opulence by embellishing with patterned wallpaper, carpets and upholstery to create plush and inviting homes.
It wasn’t really until the 20th Century that the modern home, the kind we recognise today, emerged and with it the birth of man-made textiles.
Advanced manufacturing technologies presented people with affordable products and man-made synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, PVC and vinyl were meeting mass-consumerism needs. The rate of consumption generally continued to grow and with it the shift in domestic roles. Both men and women went to work, home help was a thing of the past and manufacturing was picking up the slack by producing time saving appliances and products for convenience to aid the transition.
Today the man-made market continues to grow with world production in 2015 at 68.9 million tonnes and still growing.
The advances in manufacturing and convenience products wasn’t just important for the domestic market; as these technologies became more established other corporate industries were making the shift, specifically the healthcare sector.
Given the importance of textiles throughout the ages and the shift from natural to man-made fibres, leading textile manufacturer, Camira, wanted to understand what drives decision making for upholstery fabrics within the healthcare sector, and the impact they have on a care environment. One thing is for sure – textiles are an emotive decision.
“You can’t show me any vinyl that’s going to make me love it.”
Speaking to healthcare interior design specialist, Jacqui Smith, of HomeSmiths, and a care group facilities manager Sophia Talarek from Belong Limited, it became clear managing expectations is a huge part of the job when getting down to the nitty-gritty of specifying upholstery materials.
“Right at the start of a project I’d be asking about function, use of the space and what level of care the providers are offering, which would then lead me on to the use of appropriate fabrics. I had one client who requested vinyl everywhere, adversely I’ve had clients who have said: ‘I don’t like vinyl, and you can’t show me any vinyl that’s going to make me love it’.
“For me the objective is it has to be useable, is it going to be worth considering a mix of fabric and vinyl? A lot of peoples’ perceptions of vinyl are those really shiny cloudy ones from years ago in a relatively limited and clinical colour palette. Once I am able to show a client better quality vinyl that feels good to the touch, and doesn’t have that sheen, then they are usually much more receptive. Says Jacqui Smith.
“Going back years vinyl wasn’t soft to the touch it was harsh and uncomfortable. Unfortunately that reputation has stuck but vinyl has progressed considerably since then and personally I like vinyl but fabric is definitely where we get the colour and interest into a scheme.” Says Sophia Talarek.
Perceptions are still firmly rooted in bad experiences and even after years of research and development leading to many more sophisticated vinyls, it seems those negative feelings have stuck.
Fabric wins as the textile of choice
Results from the industry survey that looked at the motivations for specifying textiles amongst residential care providers found that most would prefer seating to be covered in fabric not vinyl. However, most upholstery decisions are not simply based on aesthetics, performance and comfort are main considerations with available budget driving the selection process.
58% of those surveyed predominantly cover seating in vinyl but given free choice of what material they would prefer, 95% said they would choose fabric.
When specifying seating material the biggest motivator is fabric performance with respondents balancing performance with comfort closely followed by price. However 74% of those surveyed claimed look, design and feel of the fabric is important but budget has a massive impact on the decision.
So are restrictions in budget driving the textile choices or is performance the driving factor?
The consultation discovered negative feedback concerning the longevity and performance of fabric compared to vinyl. However it also revealed that mis-handling and cleaning against manufacturers’ instructions as the most common mistake resulting in damage to the protective properties of fabrics and thus leading to a shorter lifespan of fabric.
“I never want to be that designer who sits in front of a care team and says ‘oh yes but if you clean this properly it’s fine’. I think we’ve always got to be mindful and humble as designers about the fact we don’t have to do their job, but we can create something that makes their job easier and educate them on how to use it – ultimately make the care home better, that is a much better approach than saying ‘just clean it.” Comments Jacqui Smith.
The future is to create more homely fabrics but cleanability is a big issue!
Belong Limited told us that in the early days of their business vinyl was a traditional go-to upholstery fabric with easy clean being the main consideration followed by a neat and tidy look. However times and opinions have changed and their customer expects to see plush fabrics and leather look upholstery because this is what their customers recognise as normal and homely. The same is true of HomeSmiths customers who always place ‘homely’ at the centre of an interior design brief.
“The challenge for us is creating a homely environment for our customers but one that is fit for the day to day demands of a caring environment. I’d be excited to see a fabric that is easy to clean, wipeable like vinyl, but plush like a domestic fabric. The last thing on the minds of the caring staff is ‘How do we clean this chair?’ the normal principles of wiping clean would apply and staff wouldn’t have to be re-trained on how to look after it.” Says Sophia Talarek.
“I’d be most excited about a waterproof fabric with a new pattern, but soft to the touch is really important. Senses decline as you get older, the skin gets thinner and people bruise more easily, there is a real need to have soft textiles. Imagine someone with thin skin sitting on a hard vinyl chair. There are some environments where the choice has to be vinyl. If they are soft to the touch then it goes some way to making it more like a home rather than a hospital or waiting room.” Says Jacqui Smith.
So are we any further on in understanding the role and importance of textiles within a care home environment?
There are many considerations to take on board. From aesthetics to performance and price, one thing is very clear; ease of use is a top priority.
But design, look and feel are equally important aspects of an overall care home interior. There is a need for vinyl but also a need to get the product right. 90% of textiles specified by HomeSmiths are impervious fabrics and although only 10% of their schemes feature vinyl, they still deal with objections such as getting hot.
Belong Limited’s challenge is the opposite, staff would always prefer vinyl based on it being easy to wipe and the confidence it provides staff knowing the surface is clean. However the company is all too aware that doesn’t represent a homely environment. Their solution is a 60/40 split where vinyl is used in high use areas, footstools, dining chairs, and headboards in bedrooms, still allowing for easy cleaning wipeable surfaces.
The future is bright for care home textiles.
Whilst we hark back to the opulence of the Victorian interiors looking for plush cosy environments, we ultimately want the convenience the man-made manufacturing revolution brought to us.
The reality is treated fabrics are so advanced that they are easy to clean and vinyl production has developed so much so to make softer materials and overcome the negative associations with vinyls. It looks like challenging perceptions might be the key to wider understanding but more importantly education about how to look after fabric to maximise its longevity is equally important.
There is need to challenge the status quo and make it easier to specify fabrics without sacrificing design and comfort. Camira Fabrics has always invested heavily in innovating performance fabrics for the healthcare sector and this latest research confirms innovation has to come with understanding specific needs. Camira continues to develop products that fulfil all needs, by manufacturing cleanable fabrics and providing colour matched vinyl options, creating solutions, which allow both fabric and vinyl to work together, or separately.