B.C. company takes on cotton industry with high-tech flax

After years in R, Crailar Technologies has landed the backing it needs to launch commercial sales of an environmentally friendly alternative to cotton

Crailar Technologies CFO Guy Prevost: “it’s an important stage for the company”

Crailar Technologies (TSX-V:CL) is moving beyond research and development and into full production of its flax fibre, an alternative to water-intensive cotton.

On December 17, the B.C. company is set to open its first commercial manufacturing facility in Pamplico, South Carolina, a flax-growing region.

“We really think it’s an important stage for the company,” said Guy Prevost, Crailar’s CFO. “We’re going to be able to turn on the commercial sales as opposed to just being in R&D mode.”

Crailar, which was founded in Vancouver, has also signed an agreement with Toronto-based Difference Capital. The merchant bank will provide Crailar with financial advice, marketing and regulatory support services.

“It will allow us to gain additional access to capital, if we need it,” said Prevost. “They have a team there that has extensive experience in the public market.”

Difference Capital sees potential in the company’s patented technology.

Crailar, which is now based in Victoria, has been working on its Crailar Flax product since 2006. The company collaborated with the National Research Council Canada to develop a process that makes flax fibre softer so it can be made into a knit fabric similar to cotton. Crailar now owns global worldwide rights to the patent for the technology.

“We’re backing the management team,” said Neil Johnson, Difference Capital’s CEO. “Ken Barker [Crailar’s CEO], is a long-time executive in the textiles industry. We believe that with his background and this revolutionary fabric that it becomes a household name like Gortex and Lycra, but that people will associate it with an ecological alternative to cotton.”

Crailar maintains that flax requires 99% less water than cotton. Because flax is prone to fewer insects attacks than other crops, its cultivation requires fewer herbicides and pesticides. Cloth that includes the fibre also requires less dye.

The fibre’s lighter environmental footprint goes well with an increasing awareness of the ecological impacts of cloth production.

“There’s a movement toward reducing water and chemical usage in just about every global retailer,” said Ryan Leverenz, Crailar’s director of communications.

Crailar has focused on getting its product into the hands of major brands like Hanes and Target, which are now using Crailar Flax in their products.

Levi Strauss, Carhartts and uniform maker Cintas are currently testing the fibre.

“We’re looking to validate our product and our technology with leaders in each category, so that we can then cascade out into those individual industries from there” said Leverenz.

That means getting clothing manufacturers to make the items associated with their brand – socks and T-shirts for Hanes, towels and draperies for Target, denim for Levi Strauss – with Crailar’s fibre.

Crailar must work with each company to ensure that the flax fibre can be introduced to production facilities attuned to producing cotton. The flax fibre is usually blended with cotton and goes through rigorous wear, dye and performance tests. •

The facts on flax

Flax is among the oldest textile crops in recorded history. More than 7,000 years ago, the Egyptians used flax linen to wrap their mummies and, by 4000 B.C., it was already being cultivated in India, China, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Spurred by a booming Irish linen industry, American farmers began cultivating flax in the late 18th century. Although flax has continued to be farmed throughout North America since then, its applications have been limited to seed, coarse fibre for rope and paper for cigarettes.

As a crop, flax is a robust annual plant that grows to an average height of about one metre and is ready to harvest 90 to 120 days after planting. It can be grown throughout North America and flourishes in areas with heavy textured, fertile soil. It also requires fewer inputs than cotton to thrive.

Flax grows best in cool weather, such as the summers on the Canadian plains and in the southern U.S. during winter, potentially generating off-season income for growers. It’s also considered an excellent rotational complement to wheat, peanuts and cotton. It can also be harvested using standard farm machinery, so no technical upgrades are needed. Flax farming is low-intensity, reducing the amount of chemical and water inputs required for the plant to flourish.

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