UK firm weaves around natural-fiber difficulties

 - August 11, 2008, 8:52 AM

There’s usually more than a little one-upmanship to business aircraft interiors. Why settle for those so-last-year man-made or leather furnishings when you can have natural mohair or Alpaca fibers provided by rare breeds of goat?

Well that’s fine and dandy, but your completions or refurbishment center is still going to have to contend with the FAA and its safety requirements. This means, for example, proving that each and every custom-woven fabric can pass the FAA’s OSU (Ohio State University) 65/65 heat-release tests–a tall order for a product that, unlike man-made fibers, is highly irregular in composition.

Joyce Dalton, proprietor of the UK’s Dalton Lucerne Rare Fibres, has determined that business aircraft owners should be able to choose any combination of fibers they desire. In fact, she has expended enormous amounts of time to ensure that her fabrics can consistently pass the safety tests. She first realized that goat hair has inherently good fire-resistant qualities when tending to her animals on her wind-swept farm in the Peak District in northern England. One night when she was using a traditional heat lamp to keep the newborn kids warm, she noticed that the Angora fur did not burn when it got too close to the flame.

The trouble was that while many of Dalton Lucerne’s fabrics would pass the OSU 65/65 test, others would not. And it was proving far from straightforward to ascertain what the key variables were between the various fibers. Frustratingly, just a slight change in the design or fabric structure could cause a previously acceptable material to fail. To have any future in aircraft completions, the firm needed a way of finding the right combinations of rare fibers to meet the requirements of both style and safety.

Using an OSU calori-meter meeting FAR 25.853 Appendix F standards, the scientists at Britain’s Bolton Institute have helped Dalton Lucerne to overcome this problem with research that has identified the critical textile structural and finishing variables that affect the fire resistance of fabrics. This has allowed the company to chose the correct combinations of exotic animal hair fibers for the weft yarn and to go with the polyester or silk warp yarns. The weft is the horizontal yarn on a loom and the warp runs vertically.

The OSU test used by the FAA sets out to prove that a six-ounce fabric’s average heat release does not exceed 65 kW per min/per square meter and that the peak heat release is not greater than 65 kW per square meter. Dalton Lucerne has now found that while a combination of silk and mohair or Alpaca weft will pass comfortably, a combination of polyester and Alpaca will not.

Using OSU 65/65-compliant fabrics for cabin interiors adds to the standard aircraft evacuation requirement of 30 seconds. Apart from the fire-resistant qualities of goat hair, Dalton Lucerne has established that it also gives off very little smoke and noxious fumes compared with man-made fibers.

The company has been invited to sit on the fire-safety branch of the FAA’s materials working group, which is due to meet in Seattle next month. It is also now working on a design for a goat-hair aircraft fire blanket that will meet the latest
requirements for a four-minute burn- through endurance. This standard was set in the wake of the 1999 Swissair MD-11 crash off the coast of Canada, and it is anticipated that natural-fiber fire blankets could replace those currently made of fiberglass.

So with the safety concerns substantially resolved, the sky is the limit for the variety of highly bespoke fibers that Dalton Lucerne can supply to cabin designers and completions/refurbishment houses. Its goat fibers have helped adorn the interiors of several Raytheon, Boeing and Bombardier aircraft, and the company is now seeking to have its designs more commonly specified for newer models, such as the Premier I and Hawker Horizon.

The fibers are hand-woven on traditional Jacquard looms, some of which date back to the mid-19th century. Dalton Lucerne can match virtually any color that a designer or client may want to see in the cabin. Depending on the complexity of the fibers used and the design, the fabrics vary in price from around £65 to £90 per square meter (roughly $10 to $14 per square foot).

Dalton Lucerne is based on a farm near Macclesfield, UK. Demand for its fabrics, which are also used for yachts and other luxury items, now exceed the supply of its own goat hair and so it routinely buys raw materials from around the world.