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Blanket Makers Get Warm and Cozy

Jill Rowen -- Home Textiles Today, December 3, 2007

Blankets are feeling the heat, literally. An unpredictable climate and a particularly warm fall have made it a tough retail season for blanket makers. But more are optimistic as winter approaches.

While the rising price of oil is a headache for most, blanket vendors see it as a potential boon, as consumers turn down the heat in their homes and pull up the blankets instead.

One price issue — a weak dollar worldwide — does have makers concerned, especially as the latest trends point to efforts to trade consumers up with ever softer hands, better construction and finishing and easier care.

"There's always pressure to reduce prices," noted Rick Lotuff, founder and ceo, Berkshire Blanket. "You can always make a product less expensive; there are so many ways of taking the quality out. We don't stand for price. We want to build a better blanket."

For Berkshire, the bright spots have been in its Serasoft polyester blanket line. Microfleece products have also been doing well, and according to Lotuff, the construction has been tweaked to deliver easy care with significantly less pilling in this line. "Softness, warmth, durability and ease of care are what people are looking for," he concluded.

"Price is certainly a concern for us, but we haven't yet had to raise prices," said Phyllis Moore, vp bedding product and development, Homesource International. "We work with a limited number of suppliers. We don't spread ourselves too thin, and therefore we become more meaningful partners with our suppliers."

New from Homesource is a 100% bamboo blanket in a pique weave with shrinkage of less than 5%. In the past, bamboo fabrics have sometimes had shrinkage of up to 14%. According to Moore, the blanket had been in development for a year to get the performance just right, including ease of laundering.

Ease of care has been the product focus of Zambaiti USA, as well. An importer of high-end blankets from Italy, the company has introduced a washable cashmere blanket. "Our customers would prefer a blanket they could wash rather than dry clean," noted general manager Claudia Parati.

According to Parati, a trend toward more textures and new blends of yarns like alpaca/cashmere are on the horizon for Zambaiti. The dollar has posed its problems for this company, too. "We import from Europe, so the weak dollar is an issue," she said. "The highest end of the market has been no problem, but the medium-high end is suffering in terms of margin."

"We see our blankets as investments; they can last for generations," reported Bob Christnacht, head of the home and blanket division, Pendleton Woolen Mills, which continues to expand its line of classic blankets with new fashion stories that even bring its blankets "top of bed."

Among the new items from Pendleton is the Churro blanket, named for a rugged American sheep that produces coarse, long-haired wool common in traditional Navajo weaving. Christnacht calls it "cultural sustainability," as the company revitalizes the market for that particular sheep's wool. Pendleton is also creating a line of Vintage blankets, using patterns from the company archives and giving them the proper patina for a heritage blanket look.

"There is definitely a trend going back to natural fibers, and we've had a lot of interest in our wool blankets," said Mike Harris, president, Faribault Mills. "I think people want the warmth and weight that wool provides, and which most micro-plush blankets can't deliver."

Among the new items at Faribault is the Plaza Blanket, a soft, 100% wool blanket that's been doing well in the hospitality area.

Stefan Hunter, marketing director, Downlite, noted that his company is another that has been working to get blankets out from under the covers. "The newest trend is offering blankets with matching shams, as most consumers dress their bed with blankets exposed — so tying in the blanket with matching bed décor is a no-brainer — especially as exclusive patterns or trims are used," he said.

Hunter observed that many Downlite customers have been using blanket trim options such as dupioni silk and faux dupioni silk to differentiate their merchandise mix.

While ease of care is one of the cornerstones of traditional blankets, ease of use is vital in electric blankets. David Holloway, vp marketing, International Home Fashions (IHF), said that the use of microprocessors has aided the industry by providing more safe and efficient models. "We've also challenged the wire producers to come up with more flexible products so you don't feel like you're sleeping under a chain link fence," remarked Holloway. "The comfort factor sets our products apart, along with controls that are easy to use."

For IHF and other electric blanket companies, the graying of America is "a large part of the market." To satisfy the vast, ageing demographic groups, fresh and simple-to-use technology is a vital consideration for new and updated products, he noted.

In addition to Homesource's 100% bamboo blanket, many of the blanket makers have given their own nod to the green movement. Christnacht, of Pendleton, confirmed a trend toward organics, as well as the use of new dyes that actually put nutrients back into the soil.

Holloway said that IHF has been using Earth-friendlier packaging, and is working on a blanket made of 100% recycled soda and water bottles. Faribault Mills, which has won environmental awards in its home state of Minnesota, has been using Ingeo — a man-made renewable fiber source — in some of its blends. At Berkshire, cotton/bamboo and cotton/soy blends have supplemented the line; the company is also an advocate of open packaging for blankets. "The hand tells the story," said Lotuff.

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