Iron-on products have arrived within the last 12 years, but today threaten to sweep the industry off its feet. With a high-pressure steamer a workroom can create almost any window treatment possible without ever touching the sewing machine.
Manufactured predominately in Europe, iron-on products actually don't iron on. A more realistic name for them would be steam-on products, or thermal adhesives and fusion tape as they also are called. Don't let the iron-on misnomer fool you. Window treatments constructed with these adhesive tapes, webbings and coatings can be just as durable as treatments that are sewn together.
If you're like I was initially, you're a little hesitant to embrace this odd-sounding concept. You're saying, "I'm a seamstress, not an ironer." But the truth of the matter is that these products work, and how they work is fascinating.
Robert Döhlemann, of döfix No*Sew Inc., a Sanford, MI-based company that manufactures iron-on products for professional fabricators, explains how his products work. First, the bonding material is situated between the fabrics to be attached. Then the material is placed in a steam press where extremely hot steam shoots onto the fabric and permeates it. The bonding material is a "plastic coating that melts to the fabric," Döhlemann says, and as it heats "it becomes liquid and bonds to the fabric." The resulting bond, he says, "doesn't deteriorate. Like any other item that's plastic, it lasts for hundreds of years until you liquefy it again by steaming it. Then you would be able to separate it and dry it."
Döhlemann compares the adhesive to honey. "It becomes a liquid and the textiles absorb the liquid coating. When it gets cold it gets solid again," he says. "Once the fabric has been affixed you can regard it as you would any other sewn treatment. It is just as durable and just as usable," he adds.
Both Döhlemann and Robert Rowley, R.H. Rowley Co., Gastonia, NC, agree that you can use their thermal adhesives for just about any application. Döhlemann says the only limitation in terms of fabrics is those with waterproof coatings "such as spill-proof fabrics, tablecloths, shower curtains, outdoor treated canvas and so on." So if you are working with a fabric treated with a barrier that prevents the adhesive from penetrating the fiber, you cannot use it with thermal adhesives.
Another consideration, according to Rowley, is the need to apply heat to the products. "If you have something that is vinyl, you wouldn't want to apply much heat to it because it's going to shrivel. Everything has its limits. There is no such thing as something out there that does everything because it depends on what you're applying it to and what's involved with it." The adhesive itself might not be affected by the process. Rowley points out that the first consideration must be the fabric. If it can stand the heat, it can stand the process.
When it comes to discussing the possibilities for their products, Rowley and Döhlemann might remind one of John Lennon's song, "Imagine." A workroom can create anything imaginable with the thermal adhesives, which according to Döhlemann includes "shades, top treatments, soft valances, Austrian shades, just regular panels, pinch pleats -- pretty much anything you can do with sewing and much more."
Rowley agrees. "It's the limits of one's imagination," he says. "Someone can take welt cord and cover it so that there is no flange. Then take the welt cords and brand them. There's no rough edge because it was all turned under and put on with iron-on bonding tape." The message is clear: You can do just about anything with iron-on products.
The companies even manufacturer additional iron-on products to multiply their effectiveness. For example, döfix carries an iron-on lining with a thermal adhesive coating like the iron-on tape that covers its entire surface. To attach it, simply pressure steam the lining to fabric. R.H. Rowley has a webbing that similarly can attach entire pieces of fabric together in only one step. In a two-step process the webbing can be applied to the back of a lace, "then turn the lace over and apply the lace to a fabric," Rowley says.
Herbert Gleinser, Kwik-affix Products, Jacksonville, FL, says his company carries special coatings in addition to thermal adhesives. One of these coatings irons on with dry heat. The lesson here is if you have something you want to do with your sewing machine, you probably could do it just as well with a thermal adhesive.
I can hear you saying it now, "Ironed-on window coverings just can't be as durable as sewn treatments. What happens when we want to wash the treatment? Won't the heat cause the designs to fall apart?" The answer varies depending on who you ask.
Döhlemann guarantees that döfix products are washable and dry cleanable. "This is due to certain ingredients that we have in our coating that are secret, and because the tapes and linings are of highest quality," Döhlemann explains. Rowley sees more variables at play. He says his company's products, for the most part, are dry cleanable, but you also have to take into account "what they're using in the cleaning process, and how it's being done. If somebody is real careless they can make a mess of it." It also is important to consider the type of fabric you want to wash. Rowley points out, "Buckram will never be the same again once it has gone through the tumbling process."
When washing window treatments made with ironed-on products, more or less the same precautions must be taken as with sewn window treatments. The treatment will not fall apart because the heat generated by washing or dry cleaning simply isn't great enough to melt the bonds. But at the same time, we can ruin a fabric just as easily whether it's ironed on or not by washing it improperly. Paying attention will make all the difference.
Applying the Heat
An interesting twist on all of this is that iron-on isn't always a misnomer. Two of the three companies interviewed for this article carry thermal adhesives that can be ironed on with a hand iron. Although döfix stays away from the home-type iron market, both Kwik-affix Products and R.H. Rowley Co. offer products that can be applied with a hand iron. According to Rowley, "Any of these iron-on products will steam as well as heat." It is possible to apply the company's adhesive bond tapes with a regular steam iron. "You don't have to have a special iron," he says.
When applying these products with a home-type hand iron it is essential to move the iron slowly over the fabric. "The most important thing," Gleinser explains, "is to melt the thermal adhesive. In order to do that you have to achieve the right temperature." To do that with a hand iron you have to hold it over the same spot for at least five seconds. Gleinser says doing this may run counter to the natural way of doing things in most workrooms. But in order to sufficiently adhere the thermal adhesive you must move slowly over one area of the fabric then move to the next area. It is a painstaking process to iron-on these materials with a hand iron because every square inch of the fabric must be covered this way.
"The biggest problem with using a hand iron," Gleinser explains, is not that the iron will not get hot enough, it's that "the person will want to rush, and will not be able to heat every inch of the material uniformly." Gleinser recommends using a pressurized steamer to achieve a perfect bond. Once you use a hand iron to attach the materials you introduce the element of human error. However, with a steamer "you can regulate pressure, time and heat."
Another problem with using a hand iron is that all of the heat applied to the fabric comes from the sole of the iron. Holding the iron long enough to adhere the materials can result in scorched fabric, says Gleinser. While the interior of the fabric might be just reaching the proper temperature, the exterior is getting damaged.
"Steam penetrates the fabric, goes to the inside and softens it from the inside. It also reaches the thermal adhesive, which will be on the other side of the fabric, faster." The critical issue is keeping a constant flow of steam. Only with a constant and uniform flow of steam can you achieve a perfect bond between fabric and adhesive.
Even more efficient are boiler irons. These irons produce the steam in a separate boiler resulting in a pressurized, dry steam that releases into the handle of the hand iron. The hand iron only has to maintain the heat of the steam, it doesn't have to produce it. Therefore, it works much better at producing a uniform heat over the surface of the material.
"It's pressurized with 30 to 40 pounds of pressure," Gleinser continues. "It shoots into the fabric, which makes it even more efficient. It really heats the fibers and the thermal adhesive immediately. It's faster and it protects the fabric." The boiler iron can protect the fabric because it has a different type of sole that doesn't heat up as much as other irons. Because the fabric does not come into contact with extremely high temperatures for very long, it isn't subject to the potential scorching that can occur. If you choose to hand-iron thermal adhesives, use a boiler iron for a quicker and more durable products.
Editor's Note: For more on irons and steam irons, see "Workroom Operations," D&WC January 1996 and February 1996.
Whether you hand-iron or use a commercial steamer, iron-on products are revolutionizing our industry. Supporters of iron-on products claim they produce a higher quality, more durable finished product. One example is with double hems. When sewing double hems there is the potential for ending up with bulky areas along the sides. Gleinser notes that products made with thermal adhesives don't need double hems -- you don't get loose fibers along the edges and the whole finished product lays better. Additionally, with thermal adhesives there are no seams, so you never have to worry about puckering.
Döhlemann notes that iron-on products not only cut down on labor, but also improve "the quality of any type of window treatment. Because once you eliminate stitch marks, you eliminate the unsightly effects of sewing." You don't have to worry about the tension you have when sewing two materials together, and when using blackout lining, you avoid having any light shinning through the stitch holes.
For these reasons, insiders predict a bright future for thermal adhesives. Gleinser remarks that it is a "fair assumption that iron-on will make as big an impact in window coverings as it has in the garment and shoe industries." The competition isn't between the different companies that manufacture iron-on products. "Our competitor is not company X, Y or Z," Gleinser says, "Our competitor is the sewing machine."
Just like anything else, the window coverings industry will move forward. "Technology changes everything," Rowley says, "fabric is changing . . . Everything has changed so much and is constantly changing."
The only way to survive is to adapt. Embrace the change as it occurs and the shift to new technology will be easier. I know. Twelve years ago I resisted iron-on products. Now, I have treatments that have been hanging in my customers' windows for 10 years. The shades are still holding together beautifully, and the iron-on craze is only getting stronger. You say you want a revolution? Well, here it comes.
Cheryl Strickland is owner of Professional Drapery Seminars. She is an internationally-acclaimed speaker with more than 20 years experience in the window coverings industry. She is the publisher and editor of Sew WHAT?, an international monthly newsletter for professional drapery workrooms. Strickland also is the author of A Practical Guide to Soft Window Coverings and the Designer's Sketch Pad, which are available through Draperies & Window Coverings magazine.