Textile Selection Takes a Keen Eye

Bruce Beggs |

A raft of variables go into your decisions to select and buy textile items for institutional or rental use, and each purchase you make reboots the process of determining if an item meets your customers’ quality needs and expectations as well as your own.
Laundry operators and linen managers willing to regularly inspect and test the linens and garments they buy, make cost comparisons and try new products from time to time stand to make good purchasing decisions, according to vendors and operators polled by American Laundry News.
Jim Caldwell is an account manager for Superior Linen Supply Co., Kansas City, Mo., and has the unique perspective of working for a distributor that sells linen and apparel but also provides laundry services for healthcare and hospitality clients.
There are four characteristics to keep in mind when judging the quality of a textile, he says. “It looks good,” says Caldwell, a 23-year company veteran. “It feels good to the hand. It’s durable and will maintain during commercial washing. And how much is it costing me to process?”
Customers have more and more textile purchasing options, says Jim Mitchell, principal technical support specialist for laundry chemistry provider Ecolab, but these options also create a slew of questions.
“Not only have we noticed an increase in the new ‘types’ of linens now being offered to our customers,” Mitchell says, “we have also seen an increase in the number of previously unknown linen manufacturers in the U.S. market.
“Questions from our customers in terms of recommended laundry machine wash formulas, drying temperatures, and chemical supplies and dilution rates with these new linens are steadily increasing.”
Chris Arnold is vice president of marketing, purchasing and inventory for Encompass Textiles & Interiors, a manufacturer of staff apparel, patient apparel, bed and bath products, and incontinent care products for the healthcare market.
The number of ounces per square yard of fabric is one indicator of how a product may hold up under use, he says. “A percale sheet with 3.6 ounces per square yard is going to feel like it has more heft to it, that it’s more durable” than a lighter sheet.
“An easy rule of thumb to determine linen quality is through thread count,” says Ed Kirejczyk III, president of EDRO Corp., a manufacturer of washroom equipment. “The thread count is defined as the number of yards in a square inch of fabric. As a general rule of thumb, a higher thread count means a lighter, pliable but stronger fabric. However, the higher the thread count, the more expensive the linen.”
“Physical specifications or measurements, such as thread count, fabric weight, cotton staple length and cotton and/or polyester content by percentage, are all indicators of quality,” says Steven Tinker, director of research and development for laundry chemistry provider Gurtler Industries. “But how that textile that you purchase holds up to the rigors of use and institutional or industrial washing is what determines the long-term quality of your product.”
The nature of a customer’s business and the services they provide strongly influence the types and quality of linens they wish to use.
“A small, local ‘mom and pop’ motel is less likely to purchase the same quality linen as a major ‘high-end’ national chain hotel,” says Mitchell. “A hotel operation that loses or replaces linen as fast as they can order it is less apt to purchase replacements of high expense.”
“Quality is very subjective,” says Richard Warren, general manager of Institutional Services Corp., a commercial laundry in Conway, Ark. “The user of the item will make the final judgment regarding quality.
“If your circumstances permit, you may offer two, three or more ‘qualities’ of the same item and see which one is utilized the most.”
Arnold recommends that textile buyers set specifications to clearly define the type and style of product they wish to buy but leave enough leeway to consider alternatives.
“What’s most frustrating is when a buyer really doesn’t lay down a tight enough spec range to get a sense of what they’re trying to attain,” he says. “Or, it’s so tight, they’re limiting the ability to introduce anything that has any variance.”ONCE DEAL'S DONE, SHIFT TO QUALITY CONTROL
After you’ve made the purchase, it’s time to shift gears to quality control, Mitchell says.
“Every time new linen is purchased, whether the purchase is a reorder from an existing vendor or an order from a new vendor, retain new, unwashed samples of the linen to use as a standard,” he says. “These samples should be taken from storage once or twice per month and compared to the same linens that have been in circulation.
“Look for indications of shrinkage, color loss, pilling, loss of tensile strength, dye transfer or bleeding (crocking), changes in linen density and other signs of damage.”
Most shrinkage, color loss and fiber loss occur within the first five or 10 washings, Arnold says.
Don’t assume that the linen you recently purchased can be laundered the same way as linen purchased in the past. Mitchell says Ecolab customers and field associates are reporting an increasing trend in the linen manufacturing industry of new and unusual laundering ‘care’ recommendations.
Checking lint traps for excessive accumulation is another way to grade linen quality.
“Some operations weigh their accumulated lint on a daily basis and compare it to the pounds of cotton linen washed that day,” Mitchell says. “Although excessive lint can be an indication of a chemical issue (excessive use of chlorine and/or sour), it can also be an indication of a manufacturing issue (short staple cotton fibers).”
He suggests staying in close touch with customers and laundry employees when new linen of unknown quality has been purchased. “They may identify quality issues in short order.”
“If an item is supposed to be square, and it isn’t, you probably have a lesser-quality item,” says Warren. “If the item is hemmed but a lot of stitching is missing, you probably have a lesser-quality item. If a towel has different thicknesses, you probably have a lesser-quality item.
“After being washed several times, a high-quality item will retain much of its original appearance, while lesser-quality items tend to fade quickly, distort quickly and have a thinner appearance. A down side of high quality is that those items tend to ‘disappear’ quicker.”
Sending textiles to an independent testing lab is an excellent way to verify their quality, according to Mitchell.
“Having an independent lab conduct linen quality testing for you can save a lot of money in unanticipated linen replacement costs, and also verify the quality of linen long before the bulk of your order is placed,” he says.COST PER USE COULD BE QUALITY'S BOTTOM LINE
Sue Klein, marketing manager for Shared Service Systems, Omaha, Neb., suggests using a formula to calculate the average cost per washing.
“You buy an item for $10, and it lasts 10 washings,” Klein says. “An alternative item costs $15, and lasts 20 washings. The cost per washing on the first item is $1 ($10 cost divided by 10 washings), however, the cost per washing of the second item is only 75 cents ($15 cost divided by 20 washings. The more economical buy would be the latter.”
“Price comparison doesn’t work well when evaluating goods from different manufacturers,” advises Warren. “Some facilities will use a lesser-quality item for specific reasons. And they are satisfied with their results. By contrast, others have bought the most expensive goods they could, and were not satisfied with the comments received from the users.”
“You’re looking for the best possible mix of price and function,” Arnold says of trying to balance quality with spending.
“Don’t make the short-term mistake of choosing a less costly textile that won’t perform through its expected use-life,” says Tinker. “If the textile underperforms, or if you have to use harsher wash formulas, you may find that your long-term processing and replacement costs consume all the upfront savings, and more.”
“Linen quality is ultimately the responsibility of the linen manufacturer,” Mitchell says. “Maintaining the quality of the linen is the responsibility of the laundry operator.”

About the author

Bruce Beggs

American Trade Magazines LLC

Editorial Director, American Trade Magazines LLC

Bruce Beggs is editorial director of American Trade Magazines LLC, including American Coin-Op, American Drycleaner and American Laundry News. He was the editor of American Laundry News from November 1999 to May 2011. Beggs has worked as a newspaper reporter/editor and magazine editor since graduating from Kansas State University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications. He and his wife, Sandy, have two children.


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