Made in the triad

Here Comes the Sun . . .

As in, Sunbrella performance fabrics

By Waynette Goodson

Ask almost anyone if they’ve heard of “Sunbrella,” and you’ll find that they light up when they talk about the umbrella on their back patio. The name is a household word. Where does Sunbrella come from? Our own backyard, the Tar Heel State.

Sure, parent company Glen Raven Inc. has plants in Europe and China, but it’s actually headquartered in Glen Raven, North Carolina, just three miles north of Burlington. Other locations include Altamahaw, Burlington, Burnsville, High Point, Mebane and Norlina. The total N.C. workforce comprises 967 employees. (Of note, the main manufacturing location is a 1-million-square-foot facility in Anderson, South Carolina.)

That’s right, the world’s largest, most innovative performance fabric company is a family-run business stitched into the land of the longleaf pine. And that’s the way it should be, according to Allen Gant III, casual market manager, Glen Raven Custom Fabrics. In 1880, his great-grandfather, John Quintin Gant, founded the company, which is now headed by his father, Allen Erwin Gant Jr.

“We started in the 1800s in North Carolina with our cotton mills, and we’ve kept them going,” Gant III says. “The key is not to move these mills to offshore countries. The key is to innovate and change the products and services each mill provides over time.”

For example, the company is now renovating the first mill built in 1901 to house its new Sunbrella headquarters, and has repurposed a plant into a new spinning facility just down the street.

“We’ve always had a business model in which we make product where it’s needed,” Gant III says. “Our model doesn’t allow for centralized manufacturing. We have our facilities in locations that best serve those parts of the world.”

And the rest of North Carolina. The furniture industry here is thriving at companies like Miles Talbott, Century, Hickory Chair, Lee Industries and Lexington/Tommy Bahama — all partners with Sunbrella.

“There’s no reason to add time and complexity to our supply chain when we can make it right here,” Gant III says. “The state of North Carolina is pro-business, and for that, we are grateful.”

His great-grandfather, John Quintin Gant, found the state ripe for business in 1908, when he started making cotton-duck awning fabrics. At that time Glen Raven and the eastern part of North Carolina was a highly profitable cotton hub.

During World War II, the company made a name for itself producing parachute fabrics, which it still makes today. In a eureka moment in 1958, Glen Raven invented pantyhose. Just three years later, the breakthroughs continued with the first acrylic-based fabrics — and Sunbrella was born.

Since then, the revolutionary cloth has evolved from the original awning fabric (made of cotton and prone to mildew) to a durable material used for shade, furniture, drapery, convertible car tops and marine applications (think: boat covers).

Besides its consistent family ownership, the other constant in the life of Glen Raven is . . . change. Innovation has kept the company on the forefront of the furniture industry.

The most recent Sunbrella success story is its partnership with Pendleton Woolen Mills, another century-old American company based in Portland, Oregon. The new collection marks two major firsts: Sunbrella had never done a licensing program, and Pendleton had never allowed its wools to be translated into solution-dyed acrylics.

It meant that the Sunbrella designers had their work cut out for them researching all the Pendleton fabrics and narrowing them down to five hero patterns: Lahaina Wave, Eagle Rock, Canyon Lands, Zapotec and Mountain Majesty — all inspired by Pendleton’s Native American trade blankets.

“They were a wonderful company to work with, and I just love all their patterns,” says Esther Chang, senior designer for Sunbrella. “We developed the collection together, and they were just as involved as we were. We wanted to keep it looking authentic. It’s been a really fun process.”

At the High Point Market in April, Century Furniture displayed the new fabrics in all their glory on both indoor and outdoor collections, including their line by another famous North Carolinian, Bob Timberlake.

“We’re excited by two great American brands coming together, their heritage and design aesthetic, and extending it to the outdoors,” says Haynes King, director of outdoor products for Century. “The Pendleton pattern is impactful, and we like how livable the pieces turned out to be.”

Of course, it’s only fitting that Sunbrella find inspiration in North Carolina. Design Manager Tracy Greene was driving through Wilson, N.C., when she spied the Whirligig Park created by the late folk artist Vollis Simpson.

“I decided to stop by the farm and peek over the fence,” Green recalls. “If you could bottle up childhood and put sparkle and color and light and nature inside the bottle, that’s what it was like; it’s just magic.”

In the 1970s, Vollis began collecting spare machinery, appliances, bicycles, road signs and scrap metal, and then transforming them into oversized sculptures that move and spin with the wind.

Green was so inspired by what she saw that she created a new contract line of fabrics in six designs: Metal Strips, referencing the salvage pieces; Reflector, with small geometric patterns; Signs, recalling Simpson’s use of road signs; Spokes, featuring an interpretation of the wheels in the sculptures; Wilson, an abstract stripe pattern; and Whirligig, a kind of modern toile.

“We’ve partnered with Mayer Fabrics, and now they’re selling this to children’s hospitals and birthing centers, just anywhere that whimsy and fun make sense,” Gant III says. “It’s a huge home run.”

It’s also a huge home run for the Whirligig Park, as proceeds from the sale of the new fabric will go toward the park’s preservation.

Gant III put it best: “There’s more to fabric than just the yard.”

Waynette Goodson is the editor-in-chief of Casual Living and Exterior Design magazines. Always on deadline, she yearns to relax under a Sunbrella umbrella with a fruity drink and a good magazine, of course.

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