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Belgium Van Maele Weavers Closes, Even After Reorganization, as European Linen Weavers Struggle

Only Five European Linen Mills Remain

October 18, 2018


Thierry Van Damme, B T Textiles, (left) discusses business with collegues at Mood 2018.
Thierry Van Damme, B T Textiles, (left) discusses business with collegues at Mood 2018.

By Gerard Poirot

BRUSSELS—Van Maele Weavers, a linen weaver since 1906, has closed.

The storied company got an infusion in 2015 with the sale of 60 percent of the company to Garnell-Lake, LLC, a group that also operated three company-owned showrooms in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, known as Dessin Fournir.

The recent Van Maele closing is another example of how European linen weavers have struggled against Chinese competition. Still, two European weavers exhibiting at the 2018 Mood conference last month, B&T Textilia and French Lemaître-Demesteere, stressed the crucial importance of creativity and innovation in remaining competitive. The question remains if it will be enough, but there are a host of recent programs to shore up the industry.

Thierry Van Damme, managing director of B&T Textilia and fifth-generation heir of the family-owned business, said that his key asset is a team of six in-house creative stylists. Deltracon, another successful Belgian linen weaver, employs three stylists. Van Damme said he believes high-end products to be the only segment where European companies can survive, as the Chinese weavers continue to dominate the volume markets.

The Chinese have dominated linen spinning for a few years, with only five spinning mills now active in Europe (two in Poland, one in Hungary, one in Italy and one in France). To remain successful, said Van Damme, Belgians must keep in tune with fashion leaders, who demand custom-made, small-size deliveries. To resume innovating, B&T Textilia has invested in new production machines that can deliver complicated weaving, and has a large outdoors collection using more technical fabrics with synthetic fibers, such as polyolefin. B&T Textilia has grown around 10 percent annually in recent years and the company is expected to continue at that pace, officials said.

According to Olivier Ducatillion, CEO of Lemaître Demesteere, one of the oldest French linen weavers, comparable linen products are 30 to 40 percent cheaper when woven in China. Typical prices for quality linen vary from 7 to 15 euros/meter (for a 50-meter piece, 1.5 meters wide) when bought from Libeco, a major Belgian exhibitor at Mood. But he said Chinese manufacturers’ core markets can only reach 500 grammes/square meter from 100 grammes/square meter. Lemaître Demesteere can go up to 1.5 kilogramms/square meter, a performance achieved by only a handful of other weavers, all European, according to Ducatillion. He said Mood buyers were impressed by “our wide palette of colors and special finishing.”

European weavers also rely on certification from CELC, the European Federation for Linen and Hemp, which gathers around 10,000 members, including 9,000 small-size flax producers. CELC launched a 3 million euros public relations campaign in 2015 to promote linen to consumers in France, Italy, and the UK. The campaign was supported and partially financed by the European Union. Another important role of CELC is to encourage mutual research and development, as well as innovation through forums reserved for its members.

Marie Demaegdt, CELC innovation and sustainability manager, said that about 15 percent of linen is now used for furnishings, particularly wet-spinned linen, a process especially favored by Chinese weavers, as opposed to dry. Demand for linen in all segments (textile for clothes particularly) has grown in the past years. However, data on the respective market shares of European, Chinese, or Indian, and weavers from countries such as Portugal or Poland, are not available, Demaegdt said. CELC plans to commission a consulting company to produce independent market research on linen.

Alix Pollet Dalle, managing director of Saneco, a 20 million euros French linen trader, confirmed that all European quality linen fabrics are certified for traceability and its durability by the European label of the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp. She said the largest Chinese weaver has not yet been certified due to a lack of traceability in the fibers it uses, while a lot of Chinese weavers still lack transparency. But Dalle said Chinese yarn is getting better, and European flax farmers should pay attention to Chinese competitors. As Chinese spinning mills and weavers have gained the lion’s share, they have direct access to flax producers around the world.

Accordingly, fiber and yarn traders such as Saneco have had to reinvent their business models and diversify. Sanelin, a linen collection created by Saneco two years ago, is marketed worldwide through e-commerce and e-boutique for pieces as short as one meter. Saneco has a Chinese subsidiary to address Asian consumers. Dalle, a fourth-generation heir, now targets Asian consumers who are keen on French products, just as they have started to appreciate French wine in recent years. Fashion and glamour are also strong selling points for French linen, while Belgian linen weavers are often seen as more traditional and less trendy.

When sourcing linen for major brands, Dalle said she will select Chinese suppliers for price and volume, Indian suppliers for their craftsmanship, and consider alternative suppliers in Portugal and Poland, but deal only with Lemaître-Demesteere for high-end, “heavy” linen with the ability to deliver quickly for restocking. According to Dalle, high-quality linen can cost five times the price of linen made with lesser-quality fibers. Belgian weavers, she said, have only a limited production capability.

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