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Wearing Planet Earth

Pet apparel manufacturers are increasingly focused on natural fibers.
By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson

Among the many pet product categories with a new focus on natural is apparel. Customers across the country are purchasing dog sweaters made from corn fiber, party dresses made of milk proteins and T-shirts made of soy.

It might seem like the hottest, newest thing, but those in the know say it’s really nothing new. The “green” movement has just renewed interest in the use of these fibers.

“A lot of the eco-friendly fibers have been around since the 1930s and 1940s,” said Sharon Harnett, sweater designer and owner of Wool and Kashmir in San Jose, Calif. “They’re becoming fashionable simply because back then choices were made to use other things, like rayon and nylon versus going with soy. Probably in the last 10 years, a lot of eco-friendly fibers have started to come to the surface.”

Though some have yet to take hold in the pet marketplace, here are some of the natural materials in use by apparel manufacturers:

  • Hemp: Hemp has been used  for thousands of years, thanks to its strength and durability. It is machine washable and dryable,  softens when laundered, and it stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter, said Dave Colella, of the manufacturer Earthdog in Brentwood, Tenn.

“Hemp is grown herbicide and pesticide free,” he said. “It’s  a sustainable crop. Add in the fact that it doesn’t require any chemicals to grow; you basically have a hypoallergenic textile.”

  • Bamboo: Joe Raffino, director of sales for yarn maker South West Trading Company in Tempe, Ariz., said bamboo yarn is made by breaking open the plant, which grows up to a foot a day, stripping and drying the fiber and then spinning it. 

Bamboo’s popularity has  gained strong footing, Hartnett said. But bamboo isn’t just comfortable, said Rachelle Rees McCarthy, owner of Elmo’s Closet Inc. in Little Silver, N.J. Items made from the plant are pliable and strong, especially when blended with other fibers.

“The blend of the cotton and bamboo is a strong blend, but we get an even higher tensile strength with hemp webbing on the inside,” she said.
Retailers should be aware that bamboo fibers are not all created equal. While some processing plants break down bamboo in an eco-friendly manner, others use chemicals that may make it less eco-friendly. Talk to your manufacturer to find out more about the process.

  • Corn: Corn yarn comes from waste products from the commercial corn industry, said Hartnett. Like bamboo and hemp, it is machine washable and dryable. It absorbs moisture, breathes like cotton, is naturally soft and retains its shape much like wool does, he added.
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  • Soy: Made from tofu manufacturing waste, soy protein is liquefied and extruded into long, continuous fibers that are cut and processed into a spinning fiber, said Raffino.

Soy fiber is soft and strong, said Hartnett. It’s washable, breathable and soft—and it’s antibacterial, making it a suitable yarn for pet product textiles.

“A lot of soy yarns look and feel like wool,” she said. “And you can blend them with silk, alpaca or wool, and so you get the best of both worlds.”

  • Milk: Like soy proteins, milk proteins, or caseins, are extruded and spun into fibers, said Hartnett. Milk fibers are strong and antibacterial—and they may have added benefits.

“You’ve always heard about how great it is to take a milk bath,” she said. “In the process of making the yarn fibers out of milk, a lot of the properties of the milk are still in the fibers, so it nourishes your skin.”

  • Chitin: Derived from shrimp and seafood shells, chitin is the most natural abundant polymer on Earth and has the same physical properties as nylon, said Raffino.

“The seafood industry has a gigaton of waste every year, and we’re taking that waste and taking the chitin out of the shells and processing it,” he said.

  • Jade: Jade fiber is derived from the powder left over after cutting jade for jewelry. Jonelle Raffino, master spinner and president of South West Trading Company, has learned how to take that powder and transform it.

“It becomes a honeycomb fiber that we blend with wool and silk,” Joe Raffino said.

Interest in these fibers has led to a demand for more apparel that uses them.

“[Manufacturers and retailers] are really trying to find a way to make natural and organic fashions a growing piece of their business,” said Tim Ford, chief executive officer of Sherpa Pet Group LLC in Rockaway, N.J. “It’s here, and as the volumes get bigger, this whole pricing issue becomes less of an issue, and then product can move into the mainstream.”

To tap into this burgeoning market, designers have created a range of apparel options.

These once hard-to-find items now make regular appearances on runways and trade-show floors as they’ve moved out of couture and into the mainstream, said Suzanne Hein, who owns LexiDog Boutique & Dog Salon with four locations in the Portland, Ore., area.

The challenge for designers is sourcing the certified-organic raw materials and keeping the price in line with what consumers are willing to spend, Ford said, whose company produces  Woof Wear organic dog clothing.

“We brought out the apparel in bamboo and natural cotton,” he said, adding that the company’s 2010 line will include leather and hemp items, too. “We went through a long process to make sure the materials we had were really certifiable. It’s a more expensive material than what you can get regular, so to keep product that’s affordable and that our small stores and boutiques want at a price that their customers want has been a little bit of an issue.”

But as popularity continues to surge in the segment, supply should go up and prices come down, said Hein. In fact, she said it’s already begun.

“I haven’t seen the price constraints that there were a couple of years ago, so eco products are pretty easy to buy,” she said. “Regular companies are getting involved in it.”

Though their introduction into the pet industry is just beginning, many of these alternative fibers have practical and useful applications in the dog and cat marketplace.

Shop owners should keep their eyes open for products made with these sustainable fibers, said Hartnett.

“These fibers are great alternatives to cotton and they have better functionality,” Harnett said. “And in some cases, they are going to be easier to take care of, and they’ll definitely wear better. But like anything, it’s going to take a little time for them to get out there,” she added.

Though manufacturer trends point to products made with eco-friendly fabrics, many retailers have yet to see the demand from their customers. They’re concerned with price and practicality over sustainability.

Jody Maddox, owner of Wag! Dog Boutique in Eugene, Ore., jumped on the eco-friendly bandwagon a few months ago. She invested in hemp and bamboo collars and sweaters made with reclaimed cotton. 

“It seems to be a trend now, but my customers are concerned about price and whether it’s going to work for them,” Maddox said. “I don’t have anyone coming in and asking for recycled sweaters or all-natural fibers, but they’re interested in them once they find out how they’re made.”

Retailer Rae Thomas, owner of Paw of Approval in Fredonia, Wis., said she simply sticks to cotton, steering clear of trendy materials. “No one’s asking for them, so I buy fleece and sweatshirt material,” she said.

Vallea Rose, owner of Pretentious Poodle in Spanish Springs, Nev., said her customers like her organic cotton T-shirts, but they’re looking for natural ways to keep their pets healthy, requesting things like flower remedies and organic foods and treats.

Most important for retailers considering a jump into the natural apparel arena is a comprehensive knowledge of the needs and wants of customers. This applies across all inventory decisions.

This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser


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