Retractable Awnings – The Long-Standing Question of Cotton and Solution – Dyed Acrylic

The fabric is the first visual element in a retractable awning. It’s both the most dramatic and most fragile element in retractable awnings. Any wear, tearing, fading, or rot on the fabric immediately diminishes the overall suitability of a retractable awning, even if the frame and accessories of the awning are sound.

Because the fabric of the awning is so important, a lot of research and technology is geared toward improving retractable awning fabrics. There are basically two major camps for fabrics: natural cotton and solution-dyed acrylic. The key to understanding the best retractable awning fabrics lies in knowing both the history of awning fabrics and the technology of modern fabrics.

The Demand of Outdoor Fabrics

Fabrics on retractable awnings have to withstand a lot of environmental abuse. Outdoor fabrics of every type – cotton duck to vinyl to acrylic – face significant wear and demanding conditions. Mechanical damage, such as tearing and fraying, can come from heavy winds or the weight from rain, snow, ice, or debris. (This is one advantage of retractable awnings; closing the awning protects it from those kinds of loads.)

The true grinding wear on awning fabrics, though, comes from standard weather:

Sun and UV damage

Heat and cool



Debris and dust

This causes fading, tearing, and discoloring. Outdoor fabrics, then, have to find a way to resist these environmental factors.

Cotton and Early Awnings

Awnings are an old architectural convention, dating back to the Greeks and Egyptians. In the beginning, awnings were made with woven leaves, which segued into linen. In the 19th century, awnings had a bit of a renaissance in Europe as both a stylish and practical window dressing. At that time, awning fabrics were usually cotton duck, an oiled canvas that was heavy and somewhat water repellent and used for ships’ sails.

Cotton canvas remained popular well into the mid-20th century. Even now, canvas is still a common (though decreasingly popular) awning fabric. It has a few advantages as a retractable awning fabric, namely that it is breathable and has a pleasing visual texture. New scientific advances in the latter 20th century introduced additional treatments to both cotton plants and processed cotton to make it more durable and mildew-resistant.

Another advantage for cotton is piece dyeing. Piece-dyeing cotton – the most common method for outdoor uses – creates vibrant color, some of the most beautiful in fabrics. In piece-dyeing, the cotton is immersed in hot liquid dyes, then forced through rollers to even out the color and remove the excess.

Piece dyeing isn’t without drawbacks. It is done on full bolts of cloth, not individual threads, so it is only good for solid colors. To get stripes or other patterns, the contrasting colors have to be painted on, which is not particularly durable and creates a flat, one-sided visual effect. Piece-dyeing is also susceptible to environmental wear from sun, UV rays, and even humidity and salt water.

Despite the breeding enhancements, cotton has significant weaknesses for outdoor use. Despite the treatments, it is still prone to mildew and rot. According to one cotton mill site, after only two weeks in the sun, cotton is less than half as strong and increasingly brittle, losing its elasticity and becoming prone to tear or fray.

The Evolution to Solution-Dyed Acrylic

Acrylic fabric was born in 1944, as part of the flurry of research for World War II because of the military demand for quick, cheap, and highly durable materials. Acrylics are much better for outdoor uses than their manmade cousins like vinyl because acrylic is a fiber rather than a sheet; it can be woven, it’s lightweight, and it’s breathable. Acrylic fabrics dry quickly, have flexibility and elasticity, and have the pleasing texture and softness of natural fibers like cotton. Unlike cotton and linen, acrylics cannot support mildew growth, so they are innately mildew resistant.

From a color standpoint, acrylics have another advantage over natural fibers. Acrylics are made in a lab. All of the components to make the acrylic yarn is mixed in that lab – including the color. This is called solution-dyeing, which means that the pigments are added to the acrylic solution. The color is part of the fabric. This leads acrylic fabrics to have very long-lived colors, better pattern quality, and both stain and fade resistance.

Because solution-dyed acrylics are so good in rough conditions – like tangy salt air and water and prolonged sun exposure – acrylics were quickly adopted for maritime fabrics like sails. From there, it was a smooth transition for acrylics to be used for retractable awnings and other outdoor applications.

Contemporary Choices

Most retractable awning lines now depend exclusively on solution-dyed acrylics for five reasons:

Simple care (just an occasional rinse with the hose)

Durability(with some manufacturers offering a 10-year warranty)

Amazing color and pattern selection

Effective fade resistance

Innate mildew resistance

Natural fabrics like heavy cotton duck and chunky linens have a nostalgic panache for awnings. The technology behind solution-dyed acrylics enables acrylic fabrics to have the best virtues of natural fibers – softness, texture, breathability – combined with the durability, vibrancy, and resistance of manmade materials.