Italy becomes European leader in technical textiles production
Technical textiles are utilised in a plethora of fields, although they are still relatively unrecognised and not very visible. Yet they are playing an increasingly important role in fashion, especially in the luxury sector, always keen on innovation. European consumption of technical textiles has grown from a value of €8 billion in 1995 to almost €30 billion today, although it is difficult to quantify the revenue of this highly disparate sector. Italian manufacturers, currently the leading technical textiles producers in Europe, attempted to outline the sector’s salient features in a new symposium, called ‘Textile Made in Italy 5.0’, that was held in Milan on May 18.
Technical textiles are ubiquitous: they are used to produce uniforms and high-tech fibres in the medical field, protective vests for law enforcement, flight suits, fireproof suits for fire-fighters, as well as in the automotive, food, construction, glass and aquaculture sectors, in household appliances, electronic devices, touch screens, water filters, induction hobs, and of course for sport performance apparel. But they have never been so invisible. The manufacturing industry, with a 19% share, is the main market for technical fabrics in Europe, according to 2018 data, followed by the transport sector (with a 17% share), furniture and packaging (13%) and construction (11%).
The global technical textiles sector is worth €160 billion, of which 60% is generated in China, followed by the European Union with a 15% share, worth €26 billion. More than a quarter of Europe’s technical textiles output (25.8%) is produced in Italy, where the sector’s revenue was €6.71 billion in 2021, when the country topped the ranking ahead of Germany and France. Italy, otherwise renowned for the high quality of its traditional fabrics, employs nearly 27,000 people in this sector, with some 2,800 SMEs that are unique for their extremely high levels of specialisation and R&D. Italian exports are worth just over €3 billion, almost half the country’s output, placing it second exports-wise behind Germany and ahead of France.
However, this record output is still underestimated, according to the participants of the symposium organised by the Tessili Tecnici (technical textiles) section of Sistema Moda Italia (SMI), the association of Italy’s textile and apparel producers. “Italian technical textiles are largely unrecognised, yet they are incredibly present in every aspect of our daily lives,” said SMI’s President Sergio Tamborini.
“In technical fabrics, functionality is essential. They are designed with specific, measurable functions in mind, and are created to fulfil a mission, whereas traditional fabrics used for clothes are created with the aim of providing warmth or offering certain sensations, for example lightness, without having a specific purpose,” said Paolo Canonico, global technical and R&D director at textiles producer Saati Spa. “Each field of application has its own rules and standards. The technical fabric sector covers all types of manufacturing, from yarn to fabric, and other related chemical processes,” he added.
“The applications are so numerous, and technical fabrics have so many niche segments, that it is really hard to define and measure the sector’s boundaries. But it is surely booming. China, the world’s largest producer, has seen its volumes soar by 110% over the past five years. China exports as much as Europe, but Europe’s unit value per product is double that of China, because European products have a much higher added value,” said Aldo Tempesti, head of SMI-TexClubTec's technical textile division. He also emphasised that Europe leads all other regions in terms of patents. Germany is the country that has invested most in this respect, and holds the most patents.
Yet, despite their fast-growing results, top Italian technical textiles producers have struggled to assert themselves. “During the pandemic, Italy built an industry that specialised in technical garments for the medical sector. But as soon as the crisis was over, public health services once again started sourcing in China, for cost reasons. Far from being discouraged, we redoubled our innovation efforts and started producing eco-sustainable protective suits, for example using a mono-material that is easy to recycle,” said Chiara Ferraris, head of communications at Bergamo-based textiles group Radici, which specialises in polyamides and polymers.
The push for sustainable development, a major innovation driver, will undoubtedly accelerate demand for technical textiles, especially by the fashion sector, as indicated by Luca Sburlati, CEO of Pattern, a stock market-listed Italian group with a revenue in excess of €100 million, specialised in developing and manufacturing garments for leading labels. “Major luxury groups are re-orienting their strategies towards sustainability. Especially through materials. They are also increasingly demanding in terms of performance. The demand for high-tech fabrics is sustained and increasingly significant,” said Sburlati. “In the past, the world’s best cashmere was produced in Italy, in Biella. Nowadays, we are asked [for cashmere] that is also waterproof, and endowed with other functional characteristics,” he added.
Pattern began working on 3D fabrics only a few years ago. It was one of the first manufacturers to venture in this direction. 3D technology is now used by all leading labels. “At the time, no label wanted to hear about it,” said Sburlati, who describes himself as a “technological artisan.” “Our role is, essentially, that of translating a designer’s ideas into realistic prototypes. But technical applications are so many, that of course labels cannot be familiar with all of them. It’s up to us to play the role of cultural mediators, explaining to [labels], and to end-consumers, the various types of innovation they can exploit. The more we realise the value that can be generated through these innovative textiles, the more it must be communicated,” he said.
“Italian technical textiles output increased by between 3% and 4% in 2022. Given the potential there is, we should be aiming to grow by at least 15-20%,” concluded Sburlati, calling on Italian producers to unite.
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