Hotel and restaurant diners judge the establishment by many factors. Food is of course important, but the externals – service, furnishings, and decor contribute much to the guest’s impression.

And the linen on a guest’s table is all important to the image that the establishment is trying to build. As the influence of boutique hotels, style-led restaurants and even gastro pubs spreads through the highly competitive hospitality market, that importance may be growing.

Laura Elliott, who handles marketing at the Manchester-based textile supplier Richard Haworth, believes this is indeed so.

Dealing both directly with the market and through textile rental businesses, Elliott says her company is finding that establishments that used to rely on food and service to make the impression are turning to atmosphere and decor as the way to mark themselves out from the competition.

To underline this point, she refers to a recent study of diners which found that seeing a cloth napkin, rather than a paper one, even in an informal restaurant, immediately raised their expectations, and, the study inferred, they might be willing to spend more as a result.

A cloth product has benefits too says, Elliot. It’s practical as it doesn’t fall apart, and provides better protection to the diner’s clothing. It is also economical as each guest will find one cloth napkin sufficient, but most use two or more paper ones during a meal.

Perhaps it is this need to differentiate that is influencing the state of the market at present.

At Linen Connect, managing director Mark Lockwood, says that feedback from his customers, mainly the commercial laundries, suggests demand is fairly buoyant, due to the investment made by the larger hotel groups.

However he notes that the restaurant sector is more static, as a large proportion of restaurant revenue is now generated by family diners and disposable income has fallen as interest rates have risen steadily over the last 18 months.

He says the current trend is for cotton and cotton-feel polyester. His company supplies mainly to commercial laundries and after discussing their needs and those of their customers, plans to introduce its next generation table linen next year.

The buoyant trend is certainly evident at Stalbridge Linen Services part of the Johnson Group. Marketing director Ken Wheeler says the company has seen 28% increase yearly. Customers include hotel groups, independent hotels, conference groups and organisers. The leisure industry too is becoming a growth area, using linen and laundry services more and more.

The company service covers a complete range of products including full table settings.

But Wheeler sees a shift in the market. Higher end pubs have increased the demand for napkins as these pubs have invested in attractive tables and use napkins rather than full linen. Some restaurants and hotels are also taking the same approach.

A market that is being driven by image, is also influenced by fashion, and companies acknowledge this.

Gillian Saxon, sales and marketing director at textile supplier Tonrose, says that the boutique hotels are setting the standard and they are looking for individualism. Ivy leaf and white remain highly popular but now there is also a trend to sophisticated plainer linen, with a palette of neutral colours.

But perhaps the biggest change in the market has been in terms of materials with a gradual shift towards polyester.

Though more expensive than cotton, it had the benefit of being more robust and longer lasting, so in terms of linen life it was preferable to cotton.

The early polyesters, however were not particularly satisfactory in terms of appearance and feel.

Stalbridge Linen’s Wheeler says his company tended to stay away from the early generation of polyesters.

A second generation of polyesters started to appear, spun polyesters which claimed to combine the longevity with the softness, handle and appearance of cotton. These products had appeal for the consumer, were easier for hotels to handle and from the laundry/textile rental viewpoint, they were longer lasting and easier to process.

Richard Haworth’s Laura Elliott notes the advantages for laundries of the Signature spun polyester linen which her company supplies. Signature allows savings in processing, leading to cost savings and gives a better return on investment. It retains its shape well and Milliken’s Softouch technology reduces linting significantly while also having great stain release properties.

Milliken works very closely with Richard Haworth and continues to identify market trends and opportunities.

Milliken’s USA parent has recently developed the Signature concept further with Signature Plus which Richard Haworth will be introducing in the near future.

Signature Plus, shown at Clean 05 in Florida earlier this year, improves the stain release properties and allows processing at lower temperatures, reducing energy costs and also uses less chemicals.

The popularity of spun polyester is confirmed by Ian Trulock at textile supplier Esteco. He notes that many laundries are replacing their stock of cotton table linen with polyester which lasts so much longer.

Forward thinking laundry managers and directors see the advantage both to their customers and to their own costs. Trulock estimates that the switch could halve the amount of linen replacement needed to maintain the laundry’s circulating stock.

Esteco has introduced its Forte 100% spun polyester table linen. It is available in white, plus a range of colours and in both plain weave and ivy leaf bordered design. Trulock says it has easy stain removal properties and is economical to launder. Like Esteco’s cotton table linen, Forte is finished with two hems and two selvedges in a single width – an advantage for laundries which are switching from cotton to spun polyester. It also has polyester’s durability while looking and feeling like cotton.

At Tonrose, Gillian Saxon says that polyester market has developed over the last couple of years. Though hardwearing, polyester was formerly “cost prohibitive” but is now widely available at prices much nearer to those of the cotton damasks. The laundry industry benefits, says Saxon. Tonrose Kudos spun polyester has excellent colour retention, minimal shrinkage, inhibits pilling and gives excellent soil release. Providing it is laundered correctly, Kudos will keep its cotton-like feel throughout its life span.

With the trend for simpler styling, Tonrose has introduced a plain weave version – Kudos ultra

The Hilden Group has been in the textile industry for 131 years and is constantly developing its range.

The table linen market, it says, has moved to larger sizes of circular cloth and to meet this demand it is now weaving table linen at 130inches wide so it can produce these large cloths without a seam.

It is also responding to the change to plain linens, by increasing the colour choice in its Apollo Alpha ( spun polyester) range with ten additional shades, plus a further two – cocoa and slate– for next season.

It has also developed two additional designs, based on the same principles as Alpha.

Metallic uses a polka dot effect with tone-on-tone metallic colours and is available in four shades, white, silver, platinum and gold.

The damask fabric is mercerised with a two fold yarn and, with its 50/50 polycotton blend, it is deigned to combine quality and durability.

The Hopsack range takes the Alpha concept still further to emulate Irish linen in a spun polyester. Pure Irish linen has a superb reputation, but, says Hilden, its cost can be prohibitive and laundering difficult.

Despite the growing use of spun polyesters, cotton remains popular.

Andy Jamshidzadeh at table linen importer and wholesaler, DG (UK) Textiles says, two designs have proved a best seller. First the 100% cotton damask in ivy leaf, popular at the top end of the market, and the second, satin band. Both designs are made of top quality, combed, double-folded 100% cotton with a minimum weight of 190 to 200gsm.

But says Jamshidzadeh the feature that makes the difference is that both are made of mercerised cotton. Mercerisation (the process of swelling the fibres with caustic soda) gives significant benefits, such as 10 to 20% increase in strength, minimum shrinkage (only 3 to 4% compared with unmercerised cloth), up to 20% better dye penetration and retention, increased lustre and easy stain removal.

Mercerisation is a permanent process and its effects will not be removed by laundering.

Tonrose’s Saxon also stresses the appeal of a top quality cotton.

There is still a huge demand for this at the top end she says but again with the plainer designs such as satin band and plain weaves.

Her company also offers Croatian and Italian damask linens for the boutique and five star markets.

Saxon also recognises the importance of the material’s constructions and says that new cotton constructions have been used to produce linen that not only matches the expectations of the end user, but also allows easier processing in the laundry.

Richard Haworth
PLEASING BOTH PARTIES: Signature table linen from Richard Haworth has benefits both for hotel or restaurant and for laundries

STRONG PLAYER: Forte spun polyester table linen from Esteco

Buoyant business: (above)Johnsons’s Stalbridge Linen is seeing its business growing 28% a year. It supplies most market sectors

Hilden Hopsack
IRISH INSPIRATION: (below) Hilden’ s Hopsack linen combines the feel of Irish linen with the practicality of a spun polyester

Milliken signature plus
BETTER SIGNATURE: Milliken’s next generation of Signature spun polyester linen, Signature Plus, is being launched

SOPHISTICATED; ( far left) Tonrose believes the market is now looking for simpler designs with plain weaves and neutral colours

Linen Connect Rose
WORKING TOGETHER(above) Linen Connect develops its products by working with laundries and hotels/restaurants> . The rose design from its current range is pictured above, but the next generation of table linen will be launched
in 2006