Tufting a Carpet, Carving a Niche

posted on 15th May 2019
Tufting a Carpet, Carving a Niche

Employing a modern take on traditional techniques, Scott Group Studio creates custom carpets for the VIP and business aviation community. The possibilities are virtually unlimited, as co-CEO John Hart explains

The frequency with which it blends centuries-old craft and ultra-high technology is among the enduring fascinations of the business aviation industry. Ancient craftsmanship is echoed everywhere in the modern bizjet cabin, from the stitching of the leather upholstery to the sweeping curve of a veneered table top and never more so than on the floor.

If F/LIST is the master of bringing eons-old stone into the cabin, then Scott Group Studio’s brilliance is in combining old-school carpet weaving expertise with the exacting requirements of its VIP aviation customers. Headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Scott Group Studio celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, as well as its new aviation collection, Turas, inspired by an Old Irish word meaning ‘journey’.

John Hart, co-CEO at the company, came to it from the interiors products sector just a couple of years ago. He explains his reaction on hearing about Scott Group’s business aviation custom carpets range: “They have been a significant part of the business for some years, but when I found out I thought ‘Wow, that’s an amazing niche, what a cool thing to do; it’s been really fun so far!’.”

Hand-tufting is among the company’s specialisations, based on an old method of threading yarn offcuts, tufts, through a backing material to create a mat, or carpet. The process became industrialised in the US from the 1930s and Hart reckons that while a 19th-century craftsman might understand the basic process, its execution would be entirely alien.

“We have skilled tufters in our mill using what amounts to a hand-held sewing gun, fed with yarn. They use it to ‘paint’ a picture or pattern onto a backing. It means the design is completely flexible and that’s one of the attractions of our product.” Aesthetic design is but one aspect though, since a carpet’s constitution may also be adapted for durability and, since it offers both tactile and visual experience, feel.

“We have the ability to manipulate a carpet’s density and pile height, both of which affect its rate of wear – generally the shorter the pile the harder wearing it will be. So, we can completely customise the design to how it needs to lay in the aircraft cabin.”

Wool, a primary yarn in Scott Group’s palette, is naturally suited to meet aircraft flame and toxicity requirements. “Wool is naturally flame resistant,” Hart notes. “Our backing, or scrim – we call it monks’ cloth – is a very thin cotton that forms a very small fraction of the finished product. We bind the back of the finished carpet with a natural latex and while cotton is flammable, there’s a natural component in the latex that keeps it from burning.” Nonetheless, FAA rules stipulate that every carpet Scott Group makes is accompanied by a burn sample proving it passes flammability requirements.

While cabin designers are bound only by the extent of their vision, aerospace engineers typically look to more prosaic restrictions on their creativity, weight taking a leading role among them. Anyone who’s attempted to move a rolled carpet or even a large rug will know that such things are not, by nature, lightweight. “We have the same weight issues with a wool carpet whether it’s going into an aircraft or a home. It’s one of the reasons aviation normally prefers lower-pile carpets, it helps manage weight.”

Escala Collection

A team of 18 Grand Rapids-based designers creates Scott Group’s custom carpets. “A designer takes care of every carpet we make, from concept all the way through production, quality control and inspection before it goes out of the door. They’ll speak with the cabin designer or one of our account executives working on behalf of the cabin designer, easing that back-and-forth discussion from the outset.

“There’s an amazing mix of talent within the group. They come from a variety of backgrounds, from textile design to the visual arts. They take their inspiration from what goes on in the wider world of art, fashion and design, then generate concepts that ideally fit into the sweet spot of what people are looking forward to, but which also have a degree of permanence, because few people are likely to go ultra-trendy in their aircraft.

“The Escala Collection embraces the ideas of organic, free-form design, which really work well in the aviation environment; they aren’t so specific in terms of their patterns and repeats.” And yet a customer looking to carpet their ACJ or BBJ is perhaps unlikely to choose directly from a collection or catalogue so, with designers individually assigned to specific carpets, why bother with a collection at all?

“Our collections are often just starting points, although we do frequently have customers choose from them. If you give a customer every option or say to them, ‘You can do whatever you want’, they can be lost. They need that starting point, as do interior designers. Producing a custom carpet can be very difficult without it.

“Carpets from our collections are often featured on OEM aircraft and their customers will see that and want to replicate it. They might choose different colours or change the pattern a little; I see slight revisions on a collection we launched a couple of years ago going through the mill quite frequently, but instead of the neutral tones and golden silk we launched it with, the designers have added a purple thread or something else that works with their individual scheme. Something is almost always customised, but based on a collection. We don’t hold inventory of product, we hold inventory of yarn and we dye it to order too. It makes us completely flexible.”

Flexibility in design is a Scott Group trademark, but with no inventory in stock, are customers left to make their final decisions based on computer renderings, their chosen colour yarn and a spot of imagination? Of course not. “Something that’s amazing within the industry is that we’ll turn around custom 1212in samples for our aviation customers in around seven business days. They can include a selection of colours – right now we carry around 17,000 different coloured yarns in stock – although, depending on the project, we may also produce renderings. We have one project with a layout including custom logos and for that we produced samples and a rendering showing how we might translate the customer’s specific requirements into a layout for the aircraft.

“Once everything’s been approved, the same designer that began the concept at our end takes it through to production, ensuring that when we stamp out the design it’s as intended, and then, when it’s up on the tufting racks, checking it’s being executed as envisioned. That process continues until the carpet is complete.”

Mustard Stains?

A golden thread of customer service runs through the business aviation community, through the concept and design stages of an acquisition and then afterwards, in terms of customer support and an ability to fix problems should there be a mishap or if things just go wrong. What happens if, six months down the line, mustard (a particularly tenacious stain) is dropped on a beautiful Scott Group carpet?

“Wool is naturally very cleanable. Tended to promptly, those kind of stains are almost always readily removed. And when that doesn’t happen, we offer a service where the carpet can be sent back to us and we’ll clean it. Cleary an aircraft can’t be used without its carpet so, depending on the customer, we very often supply two sets, one as a spare. The same applies if the carpet is damaged – if it’s repairable, we’ll fix it.”

An aircraft floor poses particular wear problems for a carpet, with the entrance area in particular experiencing heavy traffic, while other positions in the cabin will seldom ever be trod. For that reason, Hart says: “It’s preferable to have a darker colour or pattern upfront to hide some of that wear, although with wool, the key is frequent cleaning. Without that, dirt moves deeper into the fibres and the area darkens over time.”

With a heavily used aircraft, Hart expects carpets to be changed around every six years, but in more typical use a Scott Group carpet will provide many more years of quality service. Whatever the use, he says: “One of our carpets will never be taken out because it’s worn through.”

Tufting Future?

Scott Group may employ modern equipment and techniques, but tufting remains a craft-like skill of a type not immediately attractive to a new generation of young people growing up with the instant gratification of the online world. “It takes several years for somebody to become an effective tufter – we assign projects to our more or less experienced tufters depending on how complex the project is; it’s all part of the training process.

“We’re very fortunate to have a local Vietnamese community. They’re particularly suited to tufting for whatever reason, and they’ve stuck with the company over a long period of time. Our longest tenured associate has been with us around 45 years and he’s only just beginning to pare his hours back! He supervises the finishing process, which is particularly demanding.”

For those who’ve only discovered in the last few paragraphs that tufting is a career, the notion of carpet finishing probably comes as another eye opener. What’s involved? “It takes almost as much time as the tufting. First a carpet is sheared in a process akin to shearing a sheep but more finely accomplished. Other techniques might also be applied depending upon the design, carving, for example. Then we bind it with the latex and complete a number of other processes. The aim is to perfect every carpet before we ship it out.”