Since the dawn of coated fabrics, our team has witnessed many changes to the industry and to the products we make. Concentrated in three manufacturing sites across Britain, they were part of the great advances the industry witnessed in the twentieth century, and the international expansion that followed. As one retired employee, now in his 85th year recalled:
"In the early days the picture houses, that’s to say the film stock from the cinemas, provided us with our most prized raw material, namely nitrocellulose. On the first Monday in the month there would be a steady stream of trucks piled high with round metal cases housing reel upon reel of negatives imprinted with the images of our favourite Hollywood stars, and unsurprisingly that was the day everyone wanted to volunteer to work in the ‘kitchen’, where our raw materials were prepared. It was a chance to glimpse again the faces we loved of Grace Kelly, Bergman and stars like Brando. At the end of a day we could be spotted in the pubs, swapping streams of film stock we pulled from our pockets and holding them to the light and chatting about some of the epic scenes we had paid to see the month before."
In the 1950s the use of plastic coatings in the textile industry was purely practical, and often referred to as ‘oil cloth’. It was prized for its durability and waterproof qualities, but its colours tended to fade in the sun and in time the material became brittle. The machines that processed the coating resembled giant steam engines, with parts that were oiled, cleaned and shone, and that if treated well seemed destined to outlive all their human operators.
By the 1960s, however, scientific advance led to new types of polymers, new types of machines, and new names such as faux leather and leatherette. These became standard in the automotive industry for door panels and seating. But the advances did not end there. New technology meant that instead of stiff, solid coatings, the polymer coatings were ‘blown’ in ovens the length of sprint tracks to give a softness that could rival the most highly prized leather.
In the 1970s and 1980s with continued innovation, PVC-coated textiles came to be used in ever more upmarket environments, and increasing importance began to be placed on design as well as quality. Initially the focus continued to be on achieving the perfect replacement for leather, and a patented process even allowed our fabrics to be impregnated with the smell of real leather. In time, however, rather than being seen as simply a leather substitute, coated textiles became prized products in their own right. The CMI group was at the forefront of many of these changes, as one former director noted:
"In the eighties and nineties we were at the forefront of R&D, and in a joint research project with a Swedish polymer producer, a German machine producer, and one of the automotive giants, we were in a race against the Japanese to produce more environmentally and recyclable products such as polyolefins."
Although the insatiable push for improvement often came from the powerful automotive sector, any technological improvement was also incorporated into the contract fabrics we produced for the hospitality, health and retail sectors. In addition to the highest quality, our aim was to create fine designs and styles that would enhance the products of our customers, and that is the endeavour we continue to uphold today. As our technical director recently remarked after looking at the work of one young designer:
"I have to admit their ideas and skills are brilliant, which comes as a relief because the rest of the time they have the knack of making the rest of us feel underdressed, out of touch, and in need of a makeover, a feeling I’ve since concluded is proof they’re doing their job well."
With innovative new techniques and patented processes, prototype designs are already being created and tested to make sure the future of Expression remains as fresh and creative as its inception.