Corn Being Used to Produce Clothing and Other Textiles

Eric Heisler
Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record
July 17, 2001

U.S. textile manufacturers are exploring an innovative way of making clothing, furniture upholstery, and other products from corn.

The idea is more than a novelty for a wide range of groups who have an interest. For environmentalists, the process is more eco-friendly than making polyester from oil. For textile companies such as Unifi Inc. of Yadkinville, North Carolina, it will mean less dependence on foreign oil companies for raw materials. And for farmers, the product will offer a new end use for a large domestic crop.

"There's great benefits to this," said Jan Pegram of North Carolina State University's College of Textiles. "It's a way of making a synthetic product from natural, renewable resources, instead of having to use a byproduct of the oil industry."

The product, which has been named Natureworks, is the brainchild of Minnesota-based Cargill Dow. Last year, researchers there found that the starch in corn could be used to form a fiber that's very similar to conventional polyester. Unifi's role in the process will be to texture the raw yarn so that it's suitable to knit or weave into fabric.

Along with the environmental and economic benefits of the substance, Cargill Dow has found that Natureworks can be used in an array of products, from clothing and carpets to non-textile items such as plastics. What's more, the company has found that such products have properties that make them appealing to consumers.

"Consumers have said that they find the product interesting and unique," said Michael O'Brien, a spokesman for Cargill Dow. What's not to like, he said, about upholstery fabric that is less flammable and more resilient? Or shirts that help disperse sweat into the air?

Similar to Polyester

For Unifi and other companies, producing Natureworks yarn will cost twice as much as producing traditional polyester. But company officials see benefits down the road.

Although oil prices have fluctuated wildly in recent years, the price of corn has been stable, noted Lee Gordon, a senior vice president at Unifi. And oil prices are expected to increase over the next decade, he added. Shifting the company's production mix toward Natureworks would mean buying less oil products.

"We hope it means we will be less dependent on foreign oil," Gordon said. "The price of corn has not changed in years."

Gordon is impressed with how similar Natureworks is to polyester and the features it offers. "It looks, acts, and feels like polyester," he said. "There's a few subtle differences, but it behaves almost exactly the same."

Unifi also hopes the production of Natureworks could help make the company more competitive with foreign producers in the years ahead. The company lost $28.5 million during the first three months of 2001, and in March it was forced cut 750 jobs under pressure from low-cost Asian imports and poor retail sales.

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