The workwear market is changing rapidly and material manufacturers are responding to the challenge of a widening and more demanding audience.

Traditionally the core of the market, at least as far as rental sector is concerned, has been heavy-industry garments made of 65%/35% polycotton, a proven workhorse in terms of reliability, launderability and durability.

While that core remains, workwear now addresses a wider range of needs. Modern high-tech and service industries all use workwear but their requirements are different and need more sophisticated materials that are reliable and durable but also comfortable to wear in a variety of environments and must reflect a successful company image.

The smart casual look is moving into workwear as fleeces, polo shirts and sweatshirts are accepted in more industries from building sites, to utilities and the distributive trades.

Slow response

As traditional industrial garments come under heavy price-pressure, it is by responding to the changing market that the real opportunities lie, but rental companies have been slow to respond. Peter Cook, MD of Peco International, a specialist agency for workwear material makers including Lauffenmühle says that they are still too concentrated on the price-pressured core. As a result, he says, they are losing share in the workwear market.

Specialised areas, particularly safety and protective equipment, open up avenues that rental companies could profitably explore. European legislation is influencing developments. Employers are required to assess the risks at work and provide personal protection. Mr Cook explains that protective clothing has to be supplied and also maintained in excellent condition. Keeping it clean is a requirement for it to function properly.

Rental companies should, he says, be looking at offering a wider range of garments. Continually chasing price in the basic market will only push levels further down. He does acknowledge that end-users too can be ruthless in specifying on price.

His feels that companies may be unwilling to take the risks and put in the investment needed to take advantage of the new specialist niches. Adopting this route means that companies must equip themselves at all levels, training staff, and acquiring the necessary technical expertise to handle the wider market.

As to the actual laundering, the materials that are being developed are not necessarily difficult to handle, but may require some adjustments such as lower temperatures, perhaps more individual handling, but with computer-controlled equipment such fine-tuning is not a technical problem.

Right of reply

Replying to such arguments, David Milne, sales director of Fisher Services says that in his view traditional fabrics are used because they are processable and in the rental sector there are still doubts about launderability of some of the newer fabrics.

The second point is that rental laundries are driven by their customers, and the problem is that, on the whole, the companies going the rental route do not want to stray far from traditional clothing.

Yes, says Mr Milne, we can move slightly in the direction of polo shirts and trousers, but the new opportunities are coming from areas such as the fast-food and healthcare sectors which tend to buy uniforms outright. Making the employees responsible for laundering or cleaning is then more cost-effective.

While he would love to supply such companies, they too would have to change their attitude to rental.

“It’s a vicious circle and we all blame the customer,” he says.

He notes that in the USA casual wear opportunities are opening up to rental companies and the States usually leads the rest of the world.

Perhaps a two-prong attack is needed, the rental laundries have to go out and seek new sectors but customers, both within and outside the traditional sector, have to change too.

At least awareness seems to be increasing. Last winter’s TSA conference highlighted workwear developments and the association has already named this as the subject of its next marketing initiative.


From the materials point of view the innovation is there for those willing to be moved away from the high volume/low price sector.

Developments of the polycotton blend answer expectations of greater comfort. Lauffenmühle’s Evolution has a higher cotton content (50/50 polyester/cotton) and is now also available in a variant giving 20% stretch. Rebecca, a more traditional 65/35 blend is also available in a stretch version.

At Klopman International, European product manager, Roberto Rabaoitti says that the company’s aim is to provide added wearer comfort but without losing performance. The 65/35 polycotton blend is proven for strength and durability. Klopman’s 14%stretch variant mirrors the standard fabric in appearance but adds extra comfort and is produced in two weights for ladies’ and men’s garments Starlight, (210g) and Showstar (260g). Starmaster offers the same stretch but, with a higher cotton content, it is particularly suited to warmer environments

Peachy feel

The comfort factor is also being explored via Tencel, a new manmade fibre. Klopman has developed a polyester/ Tencel blend, Raphael. Mr Rabaiotti says Tencel has advantages in the mix over cotton, providing greater strength and absorption. It also has an attractive “peach-like” touch.

There is a greater emphasis on appearance and image of workwear with end users often demanding “company” colours.

Dark and light combinations can create difficulties for the launderer as there is the danger that the dark shade will stain the paler parts of the design. Klopman’s response has been Super Colours, an option that gives greater colour fastness. The company has also developed a new finish which, when applied to lighter colours minimises pick-up of the dark shade.

Another colour development is Lauffenmühle’s Youngster dying technique that creates marl, twist and melange effects and has been applied to six different fabrics but still launderable.


Specialised sectors such as personal protective equipment are opening up opportunities and this is a niche that is less price-sensitive.

At materials company John Heathcoat, Peter Moses, general manager careerwear and protective fabrics division, says that the company has deliberately avoided the competitive mainstream polycottons and decided to specialise in personal protective equipment (PPE) focussing on fabrics for CE marked garments and flame-retardant fabrics to suit different environments Mr Moses also acknowledges the need to protect workers against more than one hazard, and in this area has developed a coating to protect against petrol splashes that can be added to flame retardant materials.

Klopman’s Roberto Rabaiotti also believes that the need for multi-hazard protection could be a major trend. Klopman’s response has been Megatec (available in 250g and 360g weights) which is flame retardant, chemical repellent and antistatic.


PPE could well be developing its own niches as Helen Antcliffe at 3M, producer of reflective tapes points out. In the high-visibility market where 3M operates, the core outfit is a standard mesh-polyester waistcoat and waterproof. This price-sensitive sector is saturated, so the company is trying to take the high-vis concept into other areas, marketing its tapes not only as personal protection but as a reflection of company image, showing it cares about its employees.

Ms Antcliffe says that this will impinge on the rental sector as higher quality high-vis wear will have to be able to withstand laundering or cleaning. It cannot be thrown away when too dirty for use, as standard garments often are. 3M produces tapes to suit a range of cleaning methods The latest 9920 silver industrial wash fabric will withstand processing in industrial tunnel washers and finishers.

Beyond established PPE trends, there are other areas opening up potentially profitable opportunities. Materials that provide a degree of climatic control, by adjusting to body temperature, are one area that Heathcoat’s Peter Moses feels could develop although his company is not directly involved.

Healthcare and antimicrobial materials are still a very new area and Heathcoat is currently testing a process.

Lauffenmühle’s Biotec claims to be a breakthrough in this respect and is claimed to be the first permanently antimicrobial fabric designed for all end-uses where bacterial proliferation is a potential hazard.

The significance of all these developments is that they provide a route out of the price-pressured core of the workwear business. However, the new sectors are not necessarily high-volume. Suppliers, rental companies and end-users may need to rethink their business methods.