Fabric suppliers uncertain of business prospects

Carole Sloan, February 18, 2002

Despite recent upticks in business, decorative fabric suppliers are generally apprehensive about business strengthening significantly for the first half of the year.

With comments ranging from "God-awful" to "very stop/start," the fabrics community generally agreed that, although January showed a relatively positive upturn and February to date has been fairly good, there appears to be no consistency in the business pattern for any of the channels of distribution.

Interestingly, the jobber segment is cited by a number of fabric executives as being stronger than others, while a few suppliers point to one or two major retail fabric chains as standouts. But overall, the appraisal is that, with the exception of hospitality/contract and furniture, most of the other channels are about on a par.

Among the converters there is a feeling that prints, long a struggling category, are actually staging a comeback — but only when offered with unique designs and fabrication, not run-of-the-mill offerings.

And the well-publicized growth of imports, some believe, are not having an effect on their business.

For Roger Gilmartin, executive vp, coo, Covington Industries, "It's been very stop/start. There are weeks where I think we've turned the corner, and there are others where it hasn't happened. Overall it's marginally better than last year."

At Covington, jobber business is strong and the big fabric chains are doing well, while furniture is mixed, Gilmartin reported.

Roger Berkley, president of jacquard mill Weave, calls this era "God-awful. Certainly as bad as I've ever seen it across the board." There's no consistency to business, he related.

In contrast to his peers, Mike Shelton, president of Valdese, reports a 25 percent increase for January "but this was in the face of a terrible year last year. Last month was excellent."

As a result, Valdese is anticipating a very good home textiles and furniture market and is ramping up production, Shelton noted. "The mini-market in home textiles this month produced more product than normal, and we did very well." Contract, he added, was the last to slow down and will be the last to come back.

"January was excellent, and February hasn't been bad so far," said John Ringer, vp, sales for Richloom. With retail reorders coming in strong, he saw all channels as being up. As for the first quarter, he wryly said, "I have no clue."

January produced "one of the few rebounds in the past year," said Ron Kaufmann, president of P\Kaufmann. He added that February has been good so far. There's been a strengthening of most distribution channels but not one of them stands out, Kauffmann said.

For Lanscot-Arlen, "there's been an increase in business, but not an important uptick," said Bob Woodcock, president. "But I'm really optimistic about the second half." The increase to date has been minimal, "but the business mood is better."

The strongest areas, he noted, are the retail fabric chains and jobbers. Furniture is the weakest.

As for the comeback of prints, Gilmartin said, "You can't just offer a floral on a duck. It has to be a little different and interesting."

Similarly, Kaufmann said, "There are prints that do sell. It's a factor of making sure they're meaningful, creative or really beautiful."

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