Expert Insight: Weaving protection into the fabric of firefighting

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IFSJ sat down with Amanda McLaren, Managing Director at Hainsworth Protective Fabrics to find out about the technical side of its flame-resistant fabrics

Let’s start at the beginning: can you tell me about the history of Hainsworth?

Hainsworth Protective Fabrics is a leading manufacturer of PPE fabrics, based at our Mill in West Yorkshire. Its parent company AW Hainsworth & Sons was established in 1783 as a manufacturer of protective woollen uniform cloth for the British army. Hainsworth cloth is synonymous with UK military history, and the iconic scarlet fabric is still worn by the Queen’s Guards outside Buckingham Palace today. Hainsworth now manufactures premium woollen textiles for a wide range of markets, including fashion, leisure and transport interiors, but it is through our Protective Fabrics brand that we continue to develop our expertise designing and developing world-class flame-retardant textiles for emergency services professionals.

At what point during its extensive history did Hainsworth become involved with the fire industry?

Hainsworth has been supplying fabric for firefighter uniforms since the earliest days of the fire service. In the 19th century, the most flame-retardant fabric on the market was Wool Melton, which was manufactured by Hainsworth for the British army. Naturally, when Eyre Massey Shaw established the London Fire Brigade in the late 1800s he selected Wool Melton to be used for the firefighters’ protective uniforms.

We continued to supply Wool Melton to UK fire brigades throughout the early 20th century up until the 1970s, when we introduced PPE textiles woven using man-made flame-resistant fibres to the market. From there we continued to develop fabrics that delivered greater and greater levels of flame protection, working closely with firefighters to make sure we understood the changing requirements of their role. Today Hainsworth Protective Fabrics are worn by firefighters around the World, and our amazing Product Development Team continue to push the boundaries of innovative fabric technology.

What are the main uses for Hainsworth fabrics in the fire market?

We have designed and developed fabrics for use across multiple firefighting scenarios, including: structural; wildland; electric arc; urban search and rescue; water rescue; and road traffic collisions.

Our hero product is our TITAN fabric system. TITAN is a fibre structure from which we have developed a range of outer shell fabrics for garments across the emergency services. TITAN fabrics range from TITAN 1241 – a lightweight textile for use in technical rescue and riot police coveralls, where flexibility is paramount – to TITAN 1220, a highly breathable yet strong fabric designed to reduce the risk of heat stress for structural firefighters. Our TITAN 1260 is a premium outer shell fabric woven using Aramids and PBI fibres, increasing thermal integrity while remaining flexible and wearable, and is worn by today’s London Fire Brigade – a far cry from the Wool Melton they started out with.

We also offer a pioneering fabric solution for wildland firefighting PPE – ECO-DRY Shield. The fabric was developed following the introduction of new wildland standards in Australia, and is designed to provide the high mobility and flexibility needed for prolonged call-outs in external environments. ECO-DRY Shield is now the fabric of choice for wildland firefighters in South Australia, which sees some of the harshest firefighting conditions in the World. We recently also started supplying the fabric to firefighters in the UK for the first time.

All of our fabrics are created with the specific needs of the end user in mind and we take the time to listen to firefighters when developing any new products. For example, our AGILE fabric structure was developed in response to firefighter concerns about chemical contamination and exposure to carcinogens. AGILE weaves together protective fibres in a tight structure that provides maximum resistance to liquid penetration and prevents harmful particles from being absorbed into the garment. It is also incredibly strong and durable, allowing for the firefighter to wash their kit over 100 times and still have it perform as well as if it were new.

Can you talk a little about the technical aspects of Hainsworth fabrics?

At Hainsworth we have an unrivalled knowledge of the unique qualities of different fibres and how they can be woven together to maximise their benefits, built up over 250 years of textile manufacturing.

An example of this would be the AGILE fabric structure I described above. We used our long history of fabric knowledge to weave together flame-retardant fibres in a structure inspired by the twill used in classic raincoats, resulting in a fabric that allows for maximum water runoff and protects from harmful liquid chemicals.

We call our approach to textile development Fibre Positioning Technology – the unique placement of fibres resulting in fabric greater than the sum of its parts.

This methodology applies to every product we develop. TITAN was designed as an open and breathable structure that allows for the flow of perspiration moisture, helping the wearer to stay cool and clear-headed. The insulating pockets of air created as a result of this process also increase the wearer’s protection from heat and flame.

In addition to knowing where to position fibres, we also have an innate understanding of how to combine different materials to meet the specific requirements of the wearer. ECO-DRY Shield, for example, is a unique mixture of synthetic flame-resistant fibres and premium merino wool. Nomex and Lenzing FR provide thermal stability, keeping the wearer protected, while wool wicks away moisture and allows for a consistent body temperature. The different fibres combine to create a flexible, comfortable, yet flame retardant textile perfect for the modern wildland firefighter.

Finally: tell me little about your own background and your future plans for Hainsworth?

Since 1989, I have been working within the Engineering Sector; focusing on my chosen career path – Operations and Supply Chain Management. During 1999, I took my first step into the Textile Sector, working as a Supply Chain Manager and subsequently as the Operations Director, for James Heal & Company – a Global Leader of Textile Testing Equipment.

In 2008, I left the Business in to explore Directorship positions within larger Manufacturing environments – covering both the Automotive and Leisure Sectors., each one of them a leading UK Brand. However, I missed Textiles and returned to James Heal in 2014, to support the Owner to complete a Business Sale – subsequently succeeding him as the new Managing Director of James Heal in 2014, under the ownership of Battery Ventures – a VC Company based in Boston, USA. During the following 6 years’, I was fortunate enough to travel to many Countries, visiting our Agents and end Customers’ – which of course, were often Textile Mills. The top and bottom line grew to plan and I learned a lot about running a successful Business.

In late 2020, I noted AW Hainsworth were looking for a new Managing Director for their Business – AWH was actually a Customer and Supplier to James Heal, so I was more than familiar with the Mill and the amazing Products produced. It was ‘hand in glove’ as a fit and as such, given the challenging post-pandemic and Brexit environment, I was thrilled to be appointed into this exciting role, in April 2021.

Since then, with the support of both the shareholders and a highly competent and experienced Team, I have been able to redefine our growth strategy and determine a number of new opportunities for the Business. We exceeded last year’s Business Plan and have set out a new 3-year plan, which demonstrates growth through an ongoing investment programme. We have already invested in a state-of-the-art R&D and Quality Control Laboratory and have placed orders for new Raising & Cropping Machinery, along with a new Loom for our Leisure Business. We have full commitment to a Sustainable Business Model; putting our people at the centre of investment strategy – this includes a newly defined Apprenticeship Model and investment in existing skills, to ensure a multi-skilled workforce for the future. All in all, it is a very exciting time for the company and I am thoroughly enjoying steering the ship.

This article was originally published in the September edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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