In 2021, Rökona received a Focus Open Gold award for a new collection of textiles that delivers metallic effects without the need for a metallic coating. But the Tübingen-based SME is also working on other products that cleverly link mono-materials, new solutions and recyclability.

We spoke to managing director Arved H. Westerkamp, Katharina Schäfer from marketing and Carsten Springer, who holds the dual roles of designer and technical developer.
With your Wirkungsvoll collection, you manage to produce a metallic surface effect without metal. How is that possible?
Arved H. Westerkamp: Through a clever combination of technical expertise, knowledge and physics. Ultimately, it’s the refraction that results from the positioning of the threads, their surfaces and cross-sections that plays the crucial role.

Carsten Springer: If we vary those factors, it produces completely different optical effects, like different metal effects for instance. Another fascinating aspect is that identical fabrics can look matt or shiny, depending on the angle they’re seen from.
What was your goal when you started on the development?
Katharina Schäfer: Traditionally, metallic effects are achieved by metallising the yarn. But because surfaces produced that way tend to oxidise and are very susceptible to fingerprints, which makes them challenging for the downstream users of our products as well, we’ve been thinking about alternatives for a long time – with the focus on fabrics based on polyester filament yarns, i.e. the basic material for all our products.

Carsten Springer: The solution was the result of targeted research and coincidence. Because our minds are always on several topics at the same time, we can transfer insights from one project to another. That way of thinking is characteristic of design in general.
In 2021, the collection won a Focus Open Gold award – partly also because the product is made of a mono-material.
Arved H. Westerkamp: Yes, that was our main objective. Products that consist of a single material – in our case polyester – are more straightforward to recycle and easier to make. In principle, the mono-material approach is nothing new for us, we’ve been acquiring the relevant expertise for a long time. And now the time is ripe for new products.

Why now?
Katharina Schäfer: We don’t just work for ourselves; we always keep our customers in mind as well – and the majority of them are active in the automotive sector. Right now, those customers are looking for new options that will make their products more future-proof. And we’re delivering the materials for that.

Arved H. Westerkamp: We’re operating in a global market that’s extremely cost-driven. On the other hand there’s a lot of pressure to innovate, which isn’t exactly compatible with price pressure. So that means we have to keep balancing our portfolio accordingly and make sure we’re present at the right time.
You mentioned recycling – but that calls for the corresponding return systems. How do your textile materials return to the loop?
Arved H. Westerkamp: In general it’s true to say that the recycling of textiles is still very much in its infancy. Clothing is a particularly serious problem for the environment because more and more goods are being produced and thrown away at ever shorter intervals. But we don’t make clothing fabrics; we make technical textiles that follow different cycles. When our products are built into vehicles, they’re in use for just as long as the cars themselves, i.e. about eight years. When we talk about recyclability, we have to talk about that kind of time period and look at the car as an overall product – which includes aspects like how our product was incorporated, for example.
What do you mean?
Arved H. Westerkamp: Although you can recycle a headliner made of our material, you can only do so once it’s been removed from the vehicle. And that’s where we run up against limitations. That’s why we’ve joined forces with our yarn suppliers to see up to what point in the chain it’s feasible for us to take the material back. As a rule, that point is reached with delivery to the carmaker. So we have to work with our customers on developing concepts – including with respect to Germany’s Circular Economy Act as well. And the positive effect of that will be that the return flows available for recycling purposes will grow. First and foremost, that will be chemical recycling, i.e. depolymerisation. Right now, however, there’s global overcapacity in polyester production, which makes new materials too cheap as compared to recyclates.
Let’s go back to the Focus Open award. How has it benefited you?
Katharina Schäfer: The Focus Open has resulted in some totally new contacts – in the interiors sector, for instance. The interest at the award ceremony was overwhelming, our network has grown. What’s more, the prize makes new customers aware of our internal dynamic too, which helps us evolve our portfolio.

Arved H. Westerkamp: A design award has an internal impact as well, within the company. It enables us to show that it pays to change attitudes and ways of thinking. Ultimately, the Focus Open also helps us initiate other change processes in the interests of the environment. Because we can’t just carry on as before. SMEs like us have an excellent chance of mastering this shift – without greenwashing, by the way. The expertise is already there, all that’s needed now are the right signals to bring it to the fore.

As an automotive supplier, are there any other industries that are of interest to you?
Katharina Schäfer: The interiors sector is one example. Our warp knits can be used for things like solar shading products or for privacy and acoustic screening. We also believe there’s potential in the home care sector, because the combination of weaving and knitting means we’re able to create very specific product innovations.
What kind of innovations do you mean?
Arved H. Westerkamp: Our strength lies in the combination of technology, design and processes. We’ll continue to build on that. The Wirkungsvoll collection is part of the Re:Space concept that we’re implementing to advance sustainability.

Katharina Schäfer: We’ve been working on a surface with the same character as wool for a long time: we’re trying to reproduce its visual and tactile qualities in polyester. Now we’ve come up with a solution that has a very warm look, is made of recycled yarn and doesn’t require any additional dyeing process.

Carsten Springer: There’s another long-term innovation mission that we’ve been able to accomplish. We can dispense with the layer of foam in car headliners, which has been a must up until now. The polyurethane foam behind the textile is made of problematic basic substances and tends to hydrolyse over the years; it disintegrates and turns yellow, which has a negative impact on the appearance of the textile. Now we’ve got a material that works without foam and is based on the principle of spacer fabrics: two textile layers are connected with each other by means of perpendicular spacer threads. And this product comes straight out of the knitting machine like that. It’s fantastic, if you ask me! And if you use a polyester adhesive to fix it in place, you end up with a perfect mono-material.

Katharina Schäfer: We also have fabrics with the same look and feel as leather that are made entirely of pure, recycled polyester fibres. So we’re able to make this imitation leather in a totally different way as compared to the processes used in the past. In this case too, we’re able to dispense with subsequent dyeing and all the problems that brings with it.

How do you move forward with innovation projects like that in an established company?
Arved H. Westerkamp: We think modularly – we can’t address all the different topics at once, after all. And we think beyond the product level, because that’s something we’ve always done as a matter of principle. Ultimately, a company isn’t purely a production machine, our founder stipulated that right from the start. We want to generate new attitudes as well. And we want to have a local impact too. Our waste heat, for instance, is fed into the municipal district heating network in Tübingen, and our roofs produce photovoltaic electricity.

Katharina Schäfer: Obviously you could say that, as a company, we carry a certain amount of tradition baggage, we realise that. But experience helps us to link lots of individual aspects in such a way that innovations are generated – innovations that appeal to our customers.

Carsten Springer: It’s great when customers are so enthusiastic that they contribute their own ideas. It creates a kind of knock-on effect.

Rökona Textilwerk GmbH & Co.

Rökona Textilwerk was founded in 1963 as a spin-off of the owner-managed firm Gerhard Rösch GmbH. While its sister company Rösch Fashion is consumer-oriented, Rökona operates in the technical textiles market with a focus on the car industry. Besides development and design, Rökona’s Tübingen headquarters are also home to a fully integrated production facility, including finishing and distribution.