Innovation in the world of fabric: new attributes and more focus on the environment

Tendersetter

11:21 am

12 March 2019

Layering might soon become a thing of the past. A few weeks ago, news emerged of a new textiles material developed by the University of Maryland that is capable of “feeling” whether the person wearing it is cold or hot and adapting as a consequence, providing more or less warmth depending on the requirement.

Imagine being right in the middle of a training session yet feeling just as fresh as you would if you had only just started. Or working in an office and not having to worriy about shifts in temperature caused by air condition. No shivering, no sweating, no purple cheeks. But how imminent is the revolution? What can we expect from the fabrics of the future? Let’s take a look at the latest developments and trends from start-ups, established names and the world of research.

The University of Maryland’s fabric made from nanomaterials

How can a material understand whether the person wearing it is comfortable with the temperature or not? Well, a group of chemists and scientists working in the field of advanced materials at the University of Maryland has found the answer by combining synthetic materials with nanomaterials. More specifically, the researchers have created a hybrid material made from lab-created polymers and carbon nano-tubes, which allows the fabric to expand or contract in response to variations in temperature and humidity.

When the wearers get too hot and starts sweating, the fibres twist and activate the function of the nano-tubes, which is to let heat out and promote transpiration, so that the body cools down. Conversely, when the temperature drops below a certain point, the fabric changes to trap as much heat as possible inside. The fibres are also sensitive and reactive to humidity and can trap this in or release it as required.

The fabric might still be in the research lab, but the people behind the study are planning to make the product available in the next few months, at least for sportswear and those with special requirements.

The textiles sector goes electronic

This is not the only new development in the sector, however. Plenty of research is being done in the field of e-textiles, or electronic textiles, which integrates digital components from the world of IT and communication into fabrics. We’re talking about increasingly complex sensors which are able to monitor body functions, interfaces which display information and even LEDs or sound systems which operate independently. Basically, it’s anything that makes a garment smart.

The sector has been active for at least 20 years now, but initially the focus was primarily on products for use in the health or military sectors or even space exploration, with NASA and DARPA leading the way. Over time, advanced research has become more start-up driven and oriented towards more accessible, consumer-oriented garments, with a range of applications designed to fit with our habits and everyday lives. It’s little wonder that giants of IT and electronics such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM are now taking more of an interest in this next generation of materials.

Clothing and the circular economy

This might seem like the most artificial of industries, yet green principles, recycling and the circular economy have been big factors in the textiles industry in recent years too. Many research groups and start-ups have been trying to produce fabrics and clothing made from industry by-products or used objects, with the aim of reducing waste and pollution.

Examples include fabrics made from grape waste products, banana skins and orange peel, faux leather made from coconut shells and pineapple leaves and – one of the newest and, if possible, greenest trends – materials made from marine algae.

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