Management & Operations

Transit Fabrics: Limited Only By Your Imagination

Posted on March 1, 2005 by Lane Roberts

Choosing the right fabric for your needs may be one of the most overlooked aspects of outfitting a transit vehicle. Whether in a large public transit authority or a small, privately owned business, the choice of fabric is worthy of consideration.

There are dozens of fabric types for the bus and rail transit markets, and operators must choose from among a range of features to find the product that best fits their needs. Material options, durability, longevity and maintenance needs are the most important considerations when purchasing fabric.

However, fabrics must do more than protect the vehicle interior and last for a long time. Whether for seating or upholstery, a fabric should also project an aesthetically pleasing image to the riding public. Innovations in fabric weave and composition, as well as advances in vinyl, have made more stylish and practical options available.

“You walk into a coach and look for visual impact the same way you would when you walk into a house,” says Len Allard, North American sales director for Lantal Textiles, a Rural Hall, N.C.-based distributor of CSTrevira fabrics. “More and more people are beginning to realize this and see that it is required because people are sitting on coaches for hours and even weeks at a time, and they want a nice interior.”

The trick to a successful fabric choice is weighing all of the practicalities against the need for aesthetics and finding a happy medium. That may seem overwhelming, but the good news is fabric manufacturers and wholesalers understand the need for balance and can provide fabrics to fit multiple needs and budgets.

Each material has pros, cons
Advances in fabric composition, computerized looms and fabric and vinyl finishes have created an array of fabric materials and coated fabric choices that can meet any need. For example, Sandusky Athol’s Infinity stain-resistant vinyl topcoat is designed to protect against fire, graffiti and other intense elements.

Customers can choose from wool, polyester and wool-poly blends. Coated fabrics such as vinyl are also common. Each option has its own set of advantages and disadvantages that must be weighed against an operator’s greatest needs and concerns. Fortunately, numerous suppliers and fabric options, coupled with an array of products designed to treat fabrics, result in very competitive prices. The basic differences between fabric options are, for the most part, clear-cut. Vinyl is durable and easily cleaned. Polyester can easily be treated to be stain resistant and antibacterial and also holds color well. Wool is a durable fabric option that also provides a luxurious look. A wool-poly blend allows for the best of both fabric options to be combined.

However, despite each fabric’s outstanding qualities, each also has its shortcomings. Few fabrics can ever meet all the needs of the customer. Vinyl, for example, is easily damaged by vandals, while polyester doesn’t last as long as wool or vinyl. Wool, on the other hand, is not as easily cleaned, and wool-poly blends may lose color after some use.

The good news is that whatever material you choose, the prices for outfitting your vehicle haven’t skyrocketed simply because the options have expanded. According to Joseph Brinkmeyer at La France Industries in Cincinnati, advanced fabrics are better quality and allow for more customization and shorter turnaround time. Although it always seems that something better or more modern costs more, Brinkmeyer says this is not necessarily the case. “We do all our fabric finishing in-house and, even though we can meet the higher quality standards of our clients, the technological advances result in a cost savings for the customer,” he says.

Stylish designs abound
Thinking about the sheer number of fabric choices could make your head spin, but if that doesn’t seem challenging, then one look at the number of design options available should do the trick. Chicago’s Freedman Seating offers six levels of fabric choices, each with multiple color and design options. The “build your own seat” option on its Website allows you to visualize how the various styles will look on your coach.

Dan Ellis,, transit market sales manager at Fabric Services in Bristol, Ind., says that the selection of a pattern is very important. Not only does the fabric choice “give the flavor of the city,” he says, but it can also function as a camouflage for vandalism in places where “you need a fabric that can be cut with a knife but a cut that is not visible.”

Advances in loom technology have allowed for the ability to customize fabrics for public agencies and private operations. Company logos or color schemes can easily be incorporated into a fabric weave, while adding very little to the final cost, according to La France’s Brinkmeyer.

Understanding the need to maintain a modern and appealing look is why the Indianapolis-based fabric maker Holdsworth North America keeps an eye on changes in aesthetic standards in the transit fabric market, as well as those in other industries, too.

According to Dan Wagner of Daniel Wagner and Associates, which represents Holdsworth fabrics, “Holdsworth looks at industry trends, monitors color trends in other industries and consults the international wool secretariat for market changes.” This ensures that the transportation fabric market isn’t caught in the past and will certainly do much to improve the appeal and image of riding on private motorcoaches and public transit vehicles.

Maintenance and lifecycle
Once you’ve chosen a fabric and a design, what other considerations are there? Depending on the choice you’ve made, the lifespan of your fabric, as well as its maintenance needs, will vary.

Coated fabrics such as vinyl require the least amount of continuous maintenance. Aside from a wash and spot removal every few days — or even once a week — these fabrics resist staining and dirt build-up fairly well. The durability of vinyl gives it an impressive life expectancy.

However, those who maintain transit fabrics must keep an eye out for vandals who cut and mangle upholstery. When it comes to vinyl, a vandal is your biggest enemy and one who can be hard to deter.

Fabric choices such as blends and straight wool and poly options provide better protection from vandals if patterns are used properly, but they can be difficult to clean.

“Dirt basically acts like sandpaper and should be removed,” says Dan Cohen, sales manager at Freedman Seating. “Spots and stains should be removed as soon as possible because the longer you wait, the harder it becomes to get them out.”

Upholstery lifespan will vary depending on the fabric. According to Ellis of Fabric Services, wools can last anywhere from seven to 10 years and polyesters five to seven years. A blended fabric would likely last somewhere in between. Fabric and upholstery manufacturers can also add life to their products through extensive testing. Says Terry Leedy, vice president of sales, marketing and service for Irwin Transportation Seating, “Our own ISO-certified testing lab conducts a variety of strength, durability and cycle testing to ensure high standards.”

Compliance is consideration
Meeting standards for fire and smoke and keeping riders safe from germs and dirt are further considerations when shopping for a vehicle fabric.

Regulatory compliance can be a concern when choosing a fabric. Companies have tried many ways to make their fabric products compliant with smoke and fire safety standards, including using treatments that are applied to reduce flammability and smoke.

In Holdsworth’s case, all its fabric options are federally compliant with smoke and fire standards set forth in Docket 90. According to Wagner, Holdsworth’s wool products are “nonflammable and nontoxic.”

Antimicrobial and antibacterial treatments for fabrics are also becoming more popular, and an increasing number of operations are outfitted with options that use these chemical enhancements.

Purchasing an antimicrobial, antibacterial fabric can be beneficial in several ways. According to La France’s Brinkmeyer, “It’s an important consideration for state agencies that are contracting to buy vehicles and then reselling those vehicles.” By purchasing an antimicrobial, antibacterial fabric you get a level of insurance if you decide to resell the vehicle. It will be as clean as possible when it comes to germs, he says.

Another consideration is how clean a fabric looks. Newer fabric blends and polyester fabrics resist pilling. Additionally, as long as the surface is kept clean of marks and stains, vinyl fabrics should always appear to be clean.

Looking ahead
As fabrics advance, their options will continue to grow. New treatments and designs for fabrics are on the horizon. For instance, Tee Harris of Sandusky Athol predicts a big change in the vinyl market. “We’re doing new things all the time,” he says. “What we want vinyl to do is be more like leather as far as look and feel. We want the look and feel at a lesser cost, and this is the wave of the future.”

Regardless of what fabric you need at your operation, the treatments, maintenance, lifecycle and appearance options are all customizable.

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