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Revisiting vinyl-coated cotton

Fabric Basics | January 1, 2001 | By:

Some 50 years ago, vinyl-coated cotton was the trendy new awning fabric. Fast forward to today, though, and the awning market is dominated by acrylics and vinyl laminates. But just like a plant that flourishes in the shade of towering trees, vinyl-coated cotton still has strong roots in the awning industry, where it’s well-adapted to its niche. “[Vinyl-coated cotton] is an underestimated, underutilized awning fabric,” says Edward Burak, president of Hudson Awning & Sign Co. Inc. in Bayonne, N.J. He says the fabric is favored by many of his colleagues in the Northeast, who admire the way the fabric fits snugly on its frame within about one month of installation. Vinyl-coated cotton (the U.S. market is dominated by Avondale Mills Inc.’s Calabana®) has a roughly 2- to 5-percent shrinkage factor, conferred by its cotton/synthetic underside.

And though many in the awning industry still consider vinyl-coated cotton to be suitable only for cool-climate applications, many fabricators in steamier portions of the country have warmed up to the material. “We think it’s a fabulous product,” says Linda Coleman, co-owner of West Coast Awning in Clearwater, Fla. She particularly likes the neat appearance of vinyl-coated awnings once they’re installed.

The fabric’s shrink-to-fit characteristic also appeals to Wesley Creighton, MFC, president of Creighton Brothers Awnings in Tampa, Fla., who specifies vinyl-coated cotton for bubble awnings and “awnings with lots of angles.” And while Florida’s humidity is capable of causing this fabric’s cotton component to mildew, Creighton says he instructs customers to combat mildew by regularly brushing off their awning’s underside with a broom. He says one of his clients keeps her awning’s underside in top shape with a vacuum cleaner.

Coleman offers yet another cleaning tip: Regularly treat the surface with a long-handled mop and a solution containing mild detergent, one cup of bleach, and one gallon of water, followed by a water rinse. You won’t scrub off the fabric’s mill-applied fungicide during the cleaning process, assures Kevin Kelly, MFC, IFM, CPP, president of Yeadon, Penn.-based Globe Canvas Products Co. According to Coleman, “most residential awnings (made with vinyl-coated cotton) last an average of 10 to 12 years,” despite that the fabric is warrantied for five years from the original installation date. Coleman expects that the shopping-center exterior awnings that she recently installed, for example, will last eight to 10 years with a wash every few years. That shopping center’s owner, in fact, chose vinyl-coated cotton over a less-expensive alternative.

Miami Awning Co. sales coordinator Joan Garvey offers another testimonial. One of the firm’s residential clients once replaced a vinyl-coated-cotton awning—which had outlasted its warranty—with an awning made of a different fabric. When that awning failed prematurely, the customer commissioned another vinyl-coated creation, missing its durability and aesthetic appeal. Vinyl-coated cotton “doesn’t have that slick, cheap look,” notes Burak. The pearl gray underside adds to its visual appeal. Unlike other awning fabrics, whose outer color is the same underneath, the material’s gray underbelly is a neutral tone that doesn’t clash with its surroundings.

What’s more, vinyl doesn’t crack or peel with age, says John Caporaso, branch manager for Cleveland-based distributor The Astrup Co. Inc. That’s an important quality to fabricators at Phoenix [Arizona] Tent and Awning, whose production manager, Dave Fillhouer, contends that the vinyl in this fabric ”holds up better in sun than other vinyls.” For example, he says a restaurant awning he installed about eight years ago ”still looks like new.“ And while rainfall isn’t a significant concern in Phoenix, Caporaso notes that vinyl-coated cotton is water repellent, while woven acrylic can admit water after a hard rain and may need to be waterproofed during its lifetime.

Sewing strategies

To sew vinyl-coated cotton, Globe Canvas’ Kelly suggests unrolling the fabric 24 hours before cutting. Hudson Awning’s Burak notes that significant shrinkage occurs during this step as the material absorbs ambient moisture, so omitting this step could cause the finished awning to pucker. Seams can be stitched or welded. The manufacturer of Astrup’s 1.9cm (3⁄4-in.)-wide welding tape claims that this tape lasts the life of the awning under all environmental conditions. A welded seam is less visible than a stitched one, and is theoretically more water-repellent than either a plain stitched seam or a stitched seam incorporating seaming tape. (Astrup sells 1.59cm and 1.9cm [5⁄8-in. and 3⁄4-in.]-wide seam tape.)

Stitching with heavy thread and a small needle helps to maximize water repellency, especially since the cotton-blend underside swells (upon exposure to moisture) to fill up the needle hole. “You don’t get a leak” with stitched seams, says Creighton. West Coast Awning’s Coleman prefers the look of stitched seams, using a 125-by-17 needle and size 138 Dabond anti-wick bonded-polyester thread. Phoenix Tent and Awning and Miami Awning both use 135-by-17 needles with 138 bonded-polyester thread. Meanwhile, Hudson Awning uses a 135-by-17 needle and size 92 bonded-polyester thread for interior applications, and switches to a heartier, costlier thread for exterior applications, when the client is willing to pay the extra material costs.

Applying ink

Graphically, fabricators have a few options when it comes to printing on an awning made of vinyl-coated cotton. Though pressure-sensitive letters won’t stick to the fabric, silkscreen ink will. “Don’t plan on it coming off,” says Frank Blanco, Jr., Nazdar’s senior vice president, of his company’s ink. What’s more, Blanco says that fabricators can paint over the silkscreen ink, as long as the vinyl surface is clean. Nazdar technical service recommends washing the material with one capful of mild dish soap in five gallons of water. Fabricators are also warned not to apply paint to the material until it has completely shrunk on the frame. Otherwise, the letters will be distorted during the shrinking process.

Janet Cass is a freelance writer based in North Oaks, Minn.

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