High-tech fabrics add a new range of possibilities and consumer value to the traditional textile industry. These innovative fabrics have the ability to enhance the industry in a variety of ways, whether they provide a more eco-friendly solution or increase performance for the end consumer, or increase efficiency and reduce waste in textiles production. In recent years advances in the “smart clothing” industry has gained world-wide attention as companies eagerly pursue the latest breakthrough in active wear, work wear, military, and protective wear. Although this area of concentration continues to blossom, sci-fi fabrics of the future have come into their own and are thirsty to share the spotlight.
Innovative developments in the textiles field aim to answer the question: How can technology create fabrics that will perform in ways we have not been able to demand before from traditional fabrics?
Technology to address sustainability concerns
The negative environmental impacts of the clothing industry are not unknown. The fast-fashion world that we are so captivated by leaves a large pollution footprint. Each step of our clothing life cycle embodies potential environmental and occupational hazards. Polyester, the most commonly used fabric in the world, is made from petroleum and the ways in which its low price benefits the fashion industry comes at the expense of our environment. But polyester does not stand alone; all of our most commonly used textiles today have the potential to negatively impact our ecosystem whether through greenhouse gases emitted, energy or water wasted, hazardous post-production waste, or direct land use. Though many eco-friendly fiber alternatives such as bamboo, soy silk, and hemp are already in use within the industry, these changes are not enough. Ground-breaking innovators are determined to reverse some of the negative environmental impact of the fashion textile industry with the use of new technology. Professionals within the textile industry have spent the past several years working with scientist and specialists to create more hi-tech, eco-friendly fabrics that do not sacrifice performance or aesthetic appearance.
There has got to be a better way: below is an image depicting just how wasteful and toxic the fast fashion industry is.
Today you can find textiles made up of unique recycled materials such as coffee filters, coffee beans, tea bags, plastic bottles, plastic bags and more. Inventors are finding new ways of creating fabrics that do not require as much water or pesticide use. A prime example is Pinatex, a new fabric that requires no additional water or pesticides, but rather is produced entirely from leftover pineapple leaves. MycoTEX is a revolutionary fabric that is grown from mushroom mycelium. Also, a new form of Tencel or Lyocell is now available, but instead of being made from bamboo, this variation derives from eucalyptus trees. Synthetic Spider silk is another textile of the future; this strong fiber requires significantly less water, and no petroleum, but is created in a lab out of protein inspired by the DNA of actual spiders' silk. Bolt Threads is the company at the forefront of this elusive material obsession; they manufacture synthetic materials out of protein fibers with the intention of duplicating some of the desirable properties of various materials produced by living organisms. In addition to being eco-friendly throughout its production cycle, spider silk is as soft as traditional silk, durable, breathable, and has forgiving stretch. There is potential for textiles such as these to replace current performance materials such as polyester and nylon, which take a greater toll on the environment. In upcoming years spider silk could be taking over the fashion industry and is predicted to be used in medical applications as well.
Click through the gallery below for images of breakthrough fabrics already in the market.
The innovation does not stop there, some hi-tech companies are pushing the boundaries even further. 3D printers for textiles are in their infancy, but have the potential to reinvent the manufacturing process for clothing. Ministry of Supply is a Boston based company that is using this technology to fully knit a blazer right before your eyes in less than two hours. With the press of a button clothing can now be customized and knitted on the spot. The machine by Shima Seiki is the first of its kind in the industry, capable of producing each garment in one continuous piece without any seams. This technology radically reduces fabric waste that is inevitable when garment pieces are cut from yardage of fabric. In fact, there are even some machines in production that could put this kind of technology within reach for the individual home knitter: the Kniterate machine is computer controlled just like an industrial machine, but has been created to fit the budgets and needs of a home knitter.
Many traditional processes of textile production are being rethought with new and innovate solutions for some of the more toxic treatments of fabrics. New methods of dyeing and finishing fabrics are being developed, such as air dyeing, which on average use 95% less water than traditional methods, waterless stonewashing, and also laser-whiskering of denim.
Digital printing is also a newer technological advance that allows manufacturers to directly transfer the print onto the fabric. This method saves both water and energy, as well as cutting down on dyestuff waste and use of various production materials like the screens and rollers used in traditional printing methods.
Technology fueling a Fabric Revolution
Textiles are now beginning to be analyzed as a technology rather than a commodity. Professors at major universities are studying ways in which they can reinvent the textile industry. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has spent recent years creating "smart fabrics". These fabrics have the ability to send messages, tune in audio signals, and even change color on command. In fact a public-private partnership, Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, has received over 300 million dollars in funding to create innovative fibers, fabrics, and clothing items. This organization aims to change public perception to enable the transformation of textiles from a basic commodity to a high technology on par with computers, handheld devices, and even AI.
Already companies have been able to integrate unique features into their products and new advances in textiles technology are allowing some of this functionality to be woven right into the fabric. Modern technology allows wearers to scan each others bags which have a digital code woven into them; this code can contain anything from the owners basic information to the product's designer and description. Silicon circuitry has also been woven into baseball caps, allowing the wearer to hear as if they are wearing headphones. These circuit systems can even produce beats by processing the pulse of lamps and turning them into audio signals. Some advances in fabrics have paved the way for the new frontier in the world of fashion known as "smart clothing", where apparel has the ability to monitor body functions such as heart rate, MPH, and calorie burn.
The way in which textiles are woven greatly affects its characteristics. As advances are made in weaving methods, the medical industry is exploring ways that it can be leveraged to better tend to injuries, monitor patients, and even provide comfort. Features that are already in development such as cooling, heating, breathability, durability, drainage, and moisture retention can be customized through the weaving construction of these medical textiles. Some smart textiles can be woven with electrodes that have the ability to monitor important health factors such as body fluid distribution so patients not longer have to alter their lifestyle to to accommodate for monitoring.
Technology has dramatically changed the landscape for textiles and fashion in recent years, how do you think they are going to continue to develop into the future? Let us know your thoughts!
Sources: Forbes | One Green Planet | Tree Hugger | Ethical Fashion Forum | Boston Globe | EcoSalon | Denims&Jeans | Digital Trends
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