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Fabric architecture’s material origins

Features | November 1, 2012 | By:

The fascinating and often surprising histories of today’s fabric manufacturers.

Many of today’s leaders in industrial fabric began their corporate lives by making something else—mirrors, chemicals, conveyor belt and metal cables. Yet if we consider how these companies grew over the last several centuries, we soon discover that the manufacturing histories of glass, fabric and metal show fascinating connections.

For example, Saint-Gobain International was chartered in 1665 by Louis XIV as a mirror workshop. By the 19th century, Saint-Gobain, with the technical requirements of glass making, would branch out into chemicals. Today the company creates a full range of building materials.

Industrial products often found surprising new applications bridging industries and embracing the growing technical needs of architecture. In the mid-20th century, the stainless steel wire fabric developed by Cambridge International proved to be an ideal belt conveyor for glass manufacture and its metal mesh later adorned elevator walls in modernist skyscrapers.

Today’s oldest fabric companies proved resilient and flexible to change and opportunity. In many cases, the industry’s greatest inventors, often not trained in fabric technologies, were adaptable too. The legendary Walter Bird, inventor of air-supported structures, was trained as an aeronautical engineer at MIT. It was only because the American military desperately needed a way to protect its new radar facilities in the Arctic that Bird hit upon a fabric and air solution. Metal structures interfered with the radar operation.

Today, with the rise of new fields such as nanotechnology, first applied to breathable ePTFE fabric by Bob Gore, the strands of chemistry, engineering and function are weaving back together. The old boundaries between materials and their traditional uses are falling away. For example, architectural glass now offers photovoltaic properties and industrial fabrics can illuminate and carry data display.

The timeline that follows documents how we have come to this convergence of technology, materials and design through the progress of many of today’s most innovative fabric manufacturers. Theirs is a story of innovation, risk, collaborations and surprising new directions.

Editor’s note: This timeline is not meant to be the definitive account. Many companies that do not appear here also have contributed to the industry’s history.


Today’s Saint-Gobain is created when Louis XIV signs the letters patent establishing the Manufacture des Glaces de Miroirs in Paris. This and other new glass companies grew out of Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s economic agenda to challenge Venice’s supremacy in Europe’s glassmaking industry.


The Manufacture des Glaces de Miroirs (as Saint-Gobain was first known) receives a historic order for 357 mirrors for the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

Figure 1


The Manufacture’s new factory opens at Saint-Gobain (Aisne, France).

Figure 2


Saint Gobain establishes a subsidiary to make the sodium carbonate (soda) that it needed to make glass, using the then revolutionary Leblanc process. This was its first venture into the chemical industry.


Joshuah Purdy Brown of New York state becomes the first circus entrepreneur to replace the traditional wooden constructions with a full canvas tent, a system that had become commonplace by the mid-1830s.


The Pont-à-Mousson company begins as a modest foundry in Lorraine, where iron ore had been discovered. Soon this enterprise would become a world leader in iron water and gas pipes—both essential to rapidly growing industrial cities.


The glass industry grows rapidly in the second half of the 19th century. Saint-Gobain strives to fend off foreign competition by merging with its main domestic rival, Saint-Quirin.


Saint-Gobain holds 37% of France’s mineral-chemical capacity. It branches out into nitrogen, petroleum, wood and paper between the wars.


Estey Wire Works expands their wire cloth weaving division to Cambridge, MD.


The Cambridge Wire Cloth Company (predecessor of today’s Cambridge International) is formed with the provision that Cambridge Wire Cloth would only manufacture and sell to Estey Wire Works.


Automobile ownership expands nationwide. Roadside tent camping leads to “Tourist Parks” and later hotel courts and motels.

Figure 3


Taiyo Kogyo begins as the Nohmura Tent Company in Osaka, Japan.


Cambridge Wire Cloth begins production of its second product line—spiral woven wire belt—with a request from a Baltimore customer, which would be the first of the metal conveyor belt line of products.


“Allegheny Metal” is introduced at Cambridge International. This alloy of nickel, chrome and iron—now known as “Stainless Steel”—pened whole new markets for wire fabric because it is rustless, corrosion resistant and able to be used in extreme temperatures.


Walter Bird graduates from MIT with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He would go on to design fighter planes during WW2. In 1946, he would design a prototype air-supported dome constructed of Neoprene-coated fiberglass fabric to protect radar installations in the Arctic.

Figure 4


Nylon is introduced in 1935 at a DuPont research facility. Its first commercial use is a 1938 nylon-bristle toothbrush. Nylon was subsequently used as a replacement for silk in women’s stockings in 1940.

Figure 5


Equipped with two sewing machines and the dedication to create fabrics with high standards of performance, Norm Seaman starts his business in a basement workshop in Canal Fulton, Ohio. The Seaman Corp., is incorporated in Ohio in 1950.


GM develops a novel steel-framed “Aer-o-Dome” tent that seats 1,500 and is air-conditioned. The tent was part of GM’s Parade of Progress that traveled to small towns and cities across the United States. A press release from the time stated: The Parade of Progress ‘big top’ is unique…mammoth girders supporting the tent are on the outside, machine-erected, while the tent material, a new synthetic ‘skin,’ is suspended inside from the metal framework. Photo: The GM Futurliner Resoration Project

Figure 6


Nohmura Tent Company is completely destroyed by air raid fire.


Nohmura Sewing Factory is established in Osaka, Japan.


Nohmura company name changed to Taiyo Kogyo Co., Ltd.


Seaman Corp., maker of structural fabric, incorporated in Ohio.


Dacron suits go on sale in New York City on May 8. The new material, produced by DuPont, is the first polyester fiber sold commercially and will later be used in medical devices and artificial hearts.


Ronstan is founded in Australia when Ron Allatt and Stan Lenepveu open a manufacturing facility for wooden-hulled boats and their stainless steel fittings.


Walter Bird and associates form Birdair Structures Inc. to create air structures for military applications along with pools and tennis courts. In November 1957, Bird’s own pool with its “bubble” top makes the cover of Life Magazine. By the 1960s, Birdair was creating huge “Radomes” to protect satellite tracking stations around the world.

Figure 7


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s office specifies woven metal mesh by Cambridge International for the elevator interiors in New York’s Seagram Building.

Figure 8


Bill and Vieve Gore found W.L. Gore & Associates in the basement of their Delaware home. Having left DuPont, Bill explores the potential of the polymer polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE. Their first product is an insulated wire cable.


The first Ronstan catalog is published listing over 50 products.


The 1964 New York World’s Fair features 160 temporary buildings and pavilions and strongly represents the American textile industry. Cooley Inc., a long-time IFAI member, provided the canvas for many of the Fair’s pavilions and umbrellas, joining Glen Raven and Graniteville in coloring the scene with brightly colored textile structures and awnings.

Frei Otto founds the famous Institute for Lightweight Structures at the University of Stuttgart.


Stephanie Kwolek develops Kevlar® while working as a research scientist for DuPont. Made by spinning fiber from liquid crystalline solutions, Kevlar is almost five times stronger than steel but has half the density of fiberglass.


Frei Otto completes the West Germany Pavilion at Expo 67 Montreal.

Figure 9


Bill and Vieve Gore’s son, Bob Gore discovers ePTFE thereby opening an entirely new line of medical and fabric products for the company. The first ePTFE products to be commercialized are Gore-Tex® Pipe Thread Tape and Gore-Tex® Joint Sealant for industrial pipes.


Taiyo Kogyo constructs membrane structures at Expo ’70 World Fair in Osaka with engineering by Birdair Structures Inc.

Figure 14

Frei Otto completes the Tuwaiq Palace, Saudi Arabia, with Buro Happold.

Saint-Gobain and Pont-à-Mousson merge to offer complementary products in the building, automotive and service markets.


Walter W. Bird, president of Birdair, claims he is helping to build “a new and better America.” During this time, Bird shifts his focus away from air-supported domes and onto more permanent membrane structures. Yet, Birdair continues to build air-supported stadiums throughout the 1970s and 80s. Since its founding in 1956, the company has completed more than 1,200 installations, utilizing more than 30 million sq. ft. of architectural fabric membrane.


Frei Otto completes the roof for Olympic Stadium, Munich.

Figure 13


University of LaVerne, LaVerne, Calif. completes the Student Activities Center, the first permanent glass fiber fabric structure in the U.S. Constructed by Birdair, the PTFE-coated fiberglass roof is manufactured by ChemFab with fibers provided by Owens-Corning and PTFE from DuPont.

Ferrari Textiles (now called Serge Ferrari Group) invents a process of weaving with prestressed yarns in both weft and fill directions (Précontraint) of its PVC-coated polyester structural fabric.


Ronstan increases its catalog range to over a thousand sailing-related products ranging from cam cleats to cables. By 1977, Ronstan was exporting to 29 countries.


Gore & Associates fiber is used in space suits designed for astronauts on the Columbia, NASA’s inaugural space shuttle mission.

Figure 12


Ronstan’s international profile is boosted when it fits out the America’s Cup winner, Australia II.


Taiyo Kogyo completes the Tokyo Dome, Japan’s first permanent air-supported structure.

Figure 10


Taiyo Kogyo acquires majority interest in Birdair, Inc. of Amherst, New York. Balance of interest is held by Chemfab Corp.
DuPont gives a Plunkett Award to Gore for the Gore-Tex® Radome Laminate, which protects radar antennae from harsh chemical and environmental conditions while minimizing microwave transmission loss.


Ronstan branches outside the marine industries with stainless steel rigging components for the architectural and construction applications.


Taiyo Kogyo acquires all stock in Birdair, Inc.


Ronstan produces its first architect-specific lecture. Major architectural projects using Ronstan products include the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the Darling Harbour project in Sydney showcasing the use of wire balustrading previously used only in boats.

Figure 15


Birdair, Inc. acquires Stromeyer & Wagner to serve European market.


Frei Otto consults on the roof structure design of the Japanese Pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover Germany collaborating with Buro Happold and architect Shigeru Ban.

Figure 16


Cambridge International opens Cambridge Architectural devoted to building applications of metal fabrics.


Serge Ferrari creates Texyloop™ with JV Solvay to recycle PVC-PE fabrics.


Designed by Herzog & de Meuron and ArupSport, the Allianz Arena opens in Munich. It is constructed with 2,874 ETFE-foil air panels that can be illuminated with a range of colors.

Figure 11


Saint-Gobain focuses its significant R & D resources on: Solar power, lighting, intelligent glass, high-performance insulation systems, external wall insulation systems, applying green chemistry to their materials, solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), energy efficient manufacturing processes with a smaller environmental footing.

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