Treat Your Softgoods Right - Flame Retardants

by Lisa Mulcahy

Making sure your curtains are fully flame-retardant is non-negotiable—and easier than you think, when you know exactly how the process should work. Always consult a reputable professional—an expert in theatrical fabric flame retardancy, or your curtain manufacturer—to get started safely.

What’s the basic info you need to have handy? “For us to help our customers, we need to know what they have that they want us to treat to be flame retardant,” says Tom Andrews, president of Turning Star, Inc. in Leonia, NJ (www.turningstar.com). “The information we need for each curtain is what are its dimensions? What’s the fullness? Are the curtains lined, and are they double faced? What kind of fabric are both the face and lining made from, and what are the curtain’s colors? Also, when was the last time each curtain was flame retardant treated? Were they EVER treated, and if so, do you have the old flame retardant (FR) certificates?”  

Bob Bertrand, general manager of Rose Brand in Secaucus, NJ, and Sun Valley, CA (www.rosebrand.com), stresses knowing the condition of your fabric. “Are your curtains treated, in which case we call them flame retardant (FR) or not treated, in which case we call them “NFR” or non-flame retardant? What are the curtains’ age?” There is a category for Inherently Flame Retardant (IFR) fabrics, which are woven with threads that yield a product that meets fire code standards, without being subject to any special processing or addition of chemicals. IFR fabrics are expected to remain flame retardant for their lifetime, even after repeated washings. 

How should you maintain your curtains once they’re properly treated for flame retardancy? “In addition to the usual good housekeeping practices of keeping things clean and storing drapes properly, a planned schedule of testing and treatment is important,” advises Andrews. “Putting the cost for this into an annual budget is important. Keep the drapes clean, and don’t get them wet. The guidelines for IFR fabrics are similar. Accumulated dust adds organic material to the curtains, which overpowers the flame retardant-to-flammable material ratio, as well as interrupting the flame-retardant process as the material burns. If your IFR drapes fail an FR test, the way to restore the flame retardancy is to clean them.”

There are certain fabrics that hold flame retardant treatment longer than others. “Lightweight fabrics (chiffon, silks, voiles) are unable to hold much of the FR chemical to begin with and over time the loss of the chemical has a bigger effect,” says Bertrand. “There are a number of factors to consider, but generally, natural fiber fabrics like cotton show better results than treated polyester fabrics. On the other hand, thicker and heavier fabrics show better results over time than thin fabrics. Steer away from nylon, acetate, and stretch fabrics with high Lycra content—nearly everything else can be treated. Also remember, maintain cleanliness of your material. Dust and grime are your flame-retardant drapes’ worst enemies. Periodically, vigorously shake out dust or sweep down the draperies using clean bristle brooms.”

Regarding flame retardancy testing, how often does it need to be done, and how often should curtains, in general, be re-treated—and how should you arrange for the testing? “Fire codes across the U.S. specify that the flame retardancy of materials must be maintained,” says Andrews. “The frequency of testing and re-treatment will depend on your local fire code. Suggested frequency will also depend on use. The more drapes are used, the more the flame-retardant chemical is likely to come off. Touring shows are ​hard on drapes. In most circumstances, we at Turning Star recommend annual testing with treatment no more than three years apart. If your curtains are IFR, these should be tested at least every three years.”