PROVIDENCE, RI – Metlon's product is everywhere -you just need to know how to look for it.
Wayne Etchells, executive vice president of Metlon Corporation, turns off the lights in his office to show off Retroglo, the company's trademark product. It's a reflective yarn that's sewn into socks, headbands, dog leashes, and other products. Invisible in the light of day, it's a white thread that blends with the surrounding fabric. But add some darkness and direct light and the millions of tiny glass beads embedded in the yarn give off a metallic silver glow.
"It was designed to work with automobile headlights," Etchells says. "People frequently say this would be great for disco."
This isn't the product Metlon started out to make. When the company was founded in 1947, the plant was churning out decorative metallic yarn like that used in prom dresses and wigs.
"Michael Jackson, when he did the thriller video back in the mid-to-late eighties, he had silver metallic in his socks. We sold thousands of pounds of silver metallic to sock manufacturers for three months after that video," he says.
Two decades ago, Metlon's metallic yarn sales totaled more than a million dollars, but Etchells says today it's down to 400 thousand.
The Metlon plant is in a brick building, tucked into the corner of Frances Street in Cranston off of I-95. It's 38 thousand square feet, filled with rows of machines designed and built on site. They are known as slitting machines; each has a series of blades that cut a spool of material into progressively narrower widths.
"We have a very unique type of cutting that we use which gives us the ability to cut narrower than most people in the industry, and much more accurately. This particular material," Etchells says, pointing to a roll mounted on a machine in front of him, "the accuracy on the cut width is plus or minus a thousandth of an inch."
That's a third the width of a strand of hair.
Etchells says when he started at Metlon in 1977 there were eight metallic yarn manufacturers in the United States. Now Metlon is one of three left. "Disco was big for us. Back in 81-82, with disco, we were running full production and quoting 3-month deliveries business was so good. But with the fads, it comes and goes," he says.
Metlon started using its special cutting technique on different materials, slitting the magnetic tape on credit cards, for example, or the temperature resistant coating for aircraft wiring.
"We still manufacture metallic yarns, but metallic yarns like all textiles in the US have diminished over the years, and has become a very small part of our business," he says.
In the early 80s, the US conglomerate 3M asked Metlon to slit their reflective material. You've probably seen it on safety vests for construction workers. "We take that same material that goes on the vest, laminate it to polyester film to give it some extra strength, and then using the same techniques we use for metallic yarns, slit it into a yarn that can be woven or knit directly into fabrics," he says.
Retroglo has been used by big labels like Donna Karen, Eddie Bauer, and by L.L. Bean in their wool caps and gloves.
To stay competitive, Melton caters to customers who need specialized manufacturing too. There's a cornered off a section of the factory just for one customer whose material required special handling conditions that no other manufacturer could guarantee. Metlon installed UV filtering windows to protect the material while it's being slit and packaged, modified a machine, and have a fulltime employee running it.
The customer has been with them since 2005.
"This slitter was up in the front corner of the factory, it was inactive. This back area that we're in, this was just an inventory storage area back here. [Now] we actually have something running here for a change," Etchells says.
Whether it's Michael Jackson's socks, worker safety or the latest fashion trend "cycle chic," new demand for unique textiles keeps Metlon on the cutting edge.
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