Some have called him a quack. But
George Scott might also be labeled a pioneer in electric textiles. In the late
1800s, Scott, a physician, purported to combine technology, fashion, and health
care into “Dr. Scott’s Electropathic Corsets and Belts.” The purpose of
these high-tech undergarments was “to promote the circulation, to stimulate the
organic action, to renew vital energy, and assist digestion,” according to an advertisement
preserved in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington,
D.C. The ad does not explain how the garments work. It does claim, however,
“Scientists are daily making known to the world the indisputably beneficial
effects of Electro-Magnetism, when properly and scientifically applied to the
human body in this manner; and it is also affirmed by professional men that there
is hardly a disease which electricity and magnetism will not benefit or cure. . .”
|THE ART AND SCIENCE OF EXTREME TEXTILES|
For the last three years, Matilda McQuaid has been on a quest to
gather a collection of the most innovative and interesting textiles
available for a museum exhibit. The problem was, the technology of
textiles was changing so rapidly that new possibilities kept cropping
up. Only because a deadline loomed did McQuaid
stop collecting. “It was imposed on me,” she said
of the deadline. “Otherwise I could have gone on
The result of her search was an exhibit called “Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance” which opened at the Cooper-Hewitt
National Design Museum in New York in April
and runs through October 30. McQuaid, curator
of the exhibit and head of the museum’s textiles
department, looked for textiles that had to meet
unusual demands. Her collection ranged from
high-performance fibers used on a massive scale,
such as in bridge-building, to a striking example of
nanoscale fibers used to enhance fabric (as shown
on the cover of this issue). The exhibit focused on
what she called “technical textiles” often used for
applications far beyond the everyday demands of consumer clothing.
“We were interested in extreme applications,” McQuaid said. She
divided the exhibit into five categories:
- Stronger: Includes a prototype space tether made of Zylon;
numerous items made of high-performance carbon fiber and
aramids—high-strength, fire-resistant polyamide fibers—such as
Kevlar for protective clothing; a polyester multifilament yarn bag
used to support an enlarged heart.
- Faster: Includes a sail made of a molded laminate of carbon and
aramid fibers; a bicycle wheel made of a variety of woven and press-molded carbon
fibers; a prosthetic sprinting foot of woven carbon-fiber epoxy resin.
- Lighter: Includes composite parafoils used for parachutes; a flexible wing suit (for
human flight) made of composite, non-woven laminate of polyethylene and Spectra
fiber; knotless fishing net of interconnected twisted polyester threads with a heat treatment
finish (Figure A).
- Smarter: Includes a space-suit glove equipped with pressure-sensitive
textile switches to control a rover (Figure B); a vest with a
textile cable switching system that allows rescue workers to access
communication buttons with gloved hands; a bandage-like device
made of multi-sensor conductive textile that collects, processes,
and stores physiological data.
- Safer: Includes zippers with thermoplastic
teeth that form a waterproof
seal when joined (Figure C); space suits
made of a variety of materials including
Teflon-coated cloth, Dacron, and Kapton
fabrics and films; a Mars Pathfinder
lander airbag of plain-woven Vectran
fabric (Figure D), developed to be strong
yet light, impact resistant, and abrasion
resistant, and able to perform at extreme
Numerous advances in textile technology
have origins in U.S. military or space
programs, both of which sponsor and
conduct textile research. “Historically, there’s always been that
link,” McQuaid said.
Looking to the future, the U.S. Army is
now sponsoring research into an “antenna vest,” integrating soft
antenna materials into a vest. The garment would be lightweight and breathable, McQuaid
said, and would reduce the amount of equipment a soldier would have to carry.
also sponsored research that resulted in soft and pliable textile cables capable of transmitting
high-speed data, to enable remote monitoring of a soldier in the field. (For details on
advances in military uniforms and equipment see “Nanotechnology: What Next-Generation
Warriors Will Wear,” by Kelly Roncone, in the January 2004 issue of JOM.) Examples of
both products are in the Cooper-Hewitt exhibit.
All this and a waspish waist, too.
Today, Scott’s corsets have gone the way of his electric hairbrushes, electric
flesh brushes, and other technological marvels. But if he were alive today, Scott
might feel vindicated to know that textile R&D has advanced in diverse directions,
including combinations of electrical devices and clothing. Indeed, electronic
devices are being woven into clothing to provide health benefits such as continuous
heart-rate monitoring. Progress is being reported on conductive fibers
woven into clothing to transmit information or create wearable antennas, ensuring
lightweight, reliable communication for soldiers in the field. Materials science
and technology is also being combined with clothing in ways that do not require
electricity but are dramatic nonetheless. For example, fibers are being changed on
a nano-level to provide benefits such as self-cleaning trousers or odor-resistant
by adding desirable properties to fabrics will the U.S. industry
No one is promising the array of benefits Scott proposed so long ago, but
in the next few years, researchers and textile scientists could introduce high-tech
textiles to make life simpler, safer, and perhaps a bit more fun.
INNOVATING TO SAVE AN INDUSTRY
The primary function of clothing has
always been fairly simple, said Yasser Gowayed, director of the National Textile
Center at Auburn University in Texas: providing protection and comfort. Once
those challenges are well under control, Gowayed said, the question arises: “Can
I use it further?” And today, the answer is yes. Changes are occurring at the most
basic level of textile manufacturing: in the fibers that are wound into yarns that
are woven into fabrics that are dyed and made into clothing.
“The focus is now on new developments
in fiber, fiber style, fiber components—elements that can give added
benefit to the user,” Gowayed said. Many of these developments are
coming from the United States in an effort to revive a floundering textile industry,
“The U.S. is losing its grip on traditional textile manufacturing,” he said.
The National Textile Center is a consortium of eight universities that support
research to improve the U.S. fiber/textile industries. Gowayed attributed the
decline in U.S. textile manufacturing to free trade agreements that allow clothing
to be produced more cheaply outside the United States and then imported.
The U.S. manufacturers cannot compete in ordinary fabric production,
Gowayed said. So they must reach for the extraordinary.
“By creating new niche markets, they can still maintain superiority,” he said of
the U.S. textile industry. Karl Spilhaus, president of the
National Textile Association, a trade association for U.S. textile manufacturers,
agreed that only by adding unique, desirable properties to fabrics will the
U.S. industry survive.
“That’s what manufacturers in this country can do,” Spilhaus said. “They
certainly can’t compete on commodity fabric, but they ought to be able to
compete on these higher-value-added goods.” The competition for new textile markets
has clothing manufacturers working harder than ever to find their niche, and
consumers are beginning to benefit. “There’s a lot of interesting, innovative
things going on,” Spilhaus said.
ADD A LITTLE NANO TO YOUR PANTS
Philip J. Brown, a textile chemist at Clemson University in South Carolina,
remembers some niche markets that did not last. Scratch-and-sniff clothing is
one example. Pleasantly scented, tiny polymer beads were added to clothing,
such as within a strawberry appliqué on a shirt.
“If you saw a girl wearing a top with a strawberry on it, you could scratch
it and you would smell strawberry,” Brown said. Those clothes were a fad
in his home country of England at one time. Then there were menthol pajamas,
scented to open the nasal passages of people suffering from colds, ensuring a
good night’s sleep. “I didn’t see that go too big in the
market,” he said.
A clothing niche being explored on
many fronts, with perhaps more staying
power than scratch-and-sniff shirts,
involves the nanoscale improvement of
fabrics and fibers. Already, consumers
are encountering nanotechnology’s influence
in the form of Nano-Tex products.
Nano-Tex, a California company, is
adding its labels to popular clothing
brands with four products: Resists
Spills, Resists Static, Coolest Comfort,
and Repels and Releases Stains. The
company’s officials say its name will one
day be associated with clothing as universally
as “Intel Inside” is with personal
computers. Like the Intel computer chip,
Nano-Tex is not visible to consumers
or available to them as a separate, retail
product. By embedding nanowhiskers
within traditional materials such as
cotton, Nano-Tex can add new properties
to fabrics used in popular clothing
brands. Lands’ End, for example, has
introduced a women’s trench coat and
hat featuring the spill-sloughing Resists
Spills. Another clothing manufacturer,
Eddie Bauer, has begun to offer a jacket
with Coolest Comfort, which wicks
moisture away from the wearer, according
to Nano-Tex. Other clothiers that
will have Nano-Tex tags hanging from
their products include Gap, Old Navy,
The Nano-Tex process alters fibers to
improve them, while at Clemson, Brown
is hoping to create care-free fabrics with
a coating instead. Brown said the work
of his research group focused on the
lotus. That plant, which lives in muddy
environments, always has clean leaves
because the leaves are covered with
microscopic bumps that prevent water
or dirt from sticking to the surface, he
Using silver nanoparticles, Brown’s
group added “bumps” to common fibers
and achieved a lotus-like repellent effect.
Water and dirt, instead of sticking to the
fibers, easily run off. And, as a bonus,
silver is antibacterial, Brown said, so the
treated fibers are odor-resistant, too.
Interest has been high since the work
was discussed at the November 2004
meeting of the American Chemical Society.
That’s to be expected, Brown said,
based on the seemingly universal need
for low-maintenance clothes. “Consumers
appreciate comfort, fashion, looks,
and wearability, and all those things
that make it easy to look after,” he said.
“Self-cleaning falls into that—you may
have to wash it, but not as often.”
If he had a finished product, Brown
has no doubt people would buy it. But,
unlike the Nano-Tex products, commercial
marketing of the coating is probably
years away. “We’re still investigating the
properties of the material we’re making,”
New Value in Silver and Gold
Somewhat farther along in the development
process is the work of NanoHorizons
in State College, Pennsylvania.
That company, founded by a group of
Penn State University professors and
alumni, has found a way to add silver and
gold nanoparticles to clothing fibers to
improve their properties. Daniel Hayes,
director of operations for the company,
said the nanoparticle treatment can
either be a coating or incorporated into
a fiber, depending on the properties
being targeted and the type of fiber being
used (Figure 1). Fabric manufacturing
processes are little affected by which
method is used, he said.
NanoHorizons in State College, Pennsylvania . . . has found a way to add silver and gold nanoparticles to clothing fibers to improve their properties.
“In my mind it’s actually easier to
incorporate into the polymer itself in
terms of streamlined production flow, but
they both have their advantages,” Hayes
said. For instance, if a company wanted to
alter the optical properties of a material,
the nanomaterials would probably best be
incorporated into the fiber itself, Hayes
said. Regardless of the intended effect, it
does not take many of the nanoparticles
to have an impact. “Depending on what
specific properties you’re trying to get
out of a material you’re adding, you can
generally get a massive advantage using
a nanoscale material in terms of efficacy,”
he said. “When you take materials to the
nanoscale you get a lot of interesting
properties to them,” Hayes said.
In April, NanoHorizons announced a
joint venture with ARC Outdoors/ArcticShield,
an outdoor clothing manufacturer.
Among the interests of ARC
Outdoors/ArcticShield are warmth,
water proofing, odor control, moisture
permeability, and comfort. Hayes did not
want to discuss specifics of that venture,
but said commercial products would be
NanoHorizons is currently selling its
gold and silver nanoparticles in bulk,
but the group is studying other materials,
too, to see what benefits they could
provide. “We’re looking at all sorts of
metal additives and polymer additives,
inorganic, organic—we’re addressing
most of the issues we can think of for
the textile industry,” Hayes said.
He predicted that the incorporation
of nanotechnology into clothing manufacturing
would mark the beginning of
a significant shift in the textile industry
that is long overdue. “In the U.S., I think
the textile market has traditionally been
underserved by technology, certainly
nanotechnology,” Hayes said. “People
are beginning to see that we can make
an impact on textile companies.”
POWER UP YOUR WARDROBE: e-TEXTILES
For another sign of things to come in
the world of textiles, one needs to look
no further than Maggie Orth’s fuzzy
pom-pom light switch (Figure 2)—
just squeeze the tufts of conductive
yarn and the lights come on. Or Sean
Clearkin’s conductive jacket—press on
a keypad on the sleeve, and the wearer
can control an MP3 player without ever
touching it (Figure 3). The technology,
called electronic textiles or e-textiles,
is in its infancy, but Orth expects it to
eventually expand the role of clothing
in everyday life.
Only one true example of e-textile clothing is available to consumers now . . . a jacket made by Burton Snowboards. The jacket is made of conductive fabric that enables the control of an MP3 player by pressing a keypad on the sleeve.
“I think there will be very specific
applications for electronic textiles,” she
Orth, chief executive officer of International
Fashion Machines in Seattle,
Washington, ought to know: she is considered
to be a pioneer in the field of
electronic textiles, which behave as an
electronic circuit or device. One of her
original e-textile ventures was called
a Firefly dress (Figure 4), which she
helped design while she was working
toward her Ph.D. in media arts and sciences
at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. The skirt of that dress was
made of two layers of conductive organza,
one acting as power and other
as ground plane. Small light-emitting
diodes (LEDs) were attached randomly
to the skirt, with Velcro brushes
on their ends. When both ends of the
LEDs brushed against the power and
ground planes, such as when the person wearing the dress walked, the circuit
was complete and the dress lit up.
It was stunning, but hand-made and not
Orth has since developed what she
calls Electric Plaid—plaid fabrics of
thermochromic colors that change
when heated (Figure 5). Those fabrics
are now sold as decorator items, but
since they need a heat source, they are
not suitable for use in clothing, Orth
said. The pom-poms, available for sale
on Orth’s web site and, later this year,
in boutiques, are Orth’s first attempt to
commercialize e-textiles. The conductive
yarns use capacitive sensing technology.
Pressing on the yarn completes
the circuit needed to turn on the lights.
More work needs to be done to find
mainstream adaptations of the technology,
but Orth expects it to cross over to
“I think the big win for e-textiles is
going to a color-changing textile—an
electrochromic textile that changes
color under electronic control, whether
it’s bi-state or fully addressable,” she
said. Such clothing would be fun to
wear and could be functional, as well.
“You’ll have ways to get information
out, and you’ll have a display mechanism.
My work is beginning to show
what that would look like,” she said.
For example, a backpack might have a
patch that shows if snow is falling in
the mountains, or running shoes could
have displays of the wearer’s speed.
Only one true example of e-textile
clothing is available to consumers now,
Orth said: a jacket made by Burton
Snowboards. The jacket, marketed for
several years to snowboarders, is made
of conductive fabric that enables the
control of an MP3 player by pressing a
keypad on the sleeve.
“Our technology involves a synergistic
combination of conductive yarns,
fabrics, and polymers that together provide
the functionality of switching and
pressure sensing,” said Sean Clearkin,
chief executive of Softswitch Ltd., the
U.K.-based company that developed
the product. The fabrics are designed
to carry signals, such as to control
an Apple iPod, when pressed, while
maintaining their comfort and flexibility.
“The conductive yarns, principally
metal-coated nylons and conductive
fabrics form part of the overall system
for carrying the signal,” he said.
The Softswitch e-textiles will soon
be available in a similarly equipped
business suit, Clearkin said, for when
the snowboarders move off the slopes
and into the office. “They are taking an
everyday fashion or clothing garment
into a new realm of functionality—it is
not just another suit but a convergence
of fashion and the latest consumer electronics,”
In The Man in the White Suit, Sidney Stratton invents a wonder fabric —indestructible and impervious to dirt. . . . Fifty years later, the world seems to be teeming with Sidney Strattons looking for ways to create the perfect fabric.
Orth noted that, aside from the Softswitch
products, numerous items are
making their way to the market that
unite electronic devices and textiles.
Because the textiles are not actually the
devices, these do not qualify, technically,
as e-textiles. “There’s tons of activities
putting electronics into clothing,”
Orth said. “It ranges from putting in an
existing consumer device, to heating, to
trying to cool clothing, to trying to get
simple forms of information into clothing.
There’s lots and lots of interest
in body monitoring for health reasons
(Figure 6), and just for fashion and fun
reasons just to let things change color
or give you more information. There’s
a broad range of activity in the area.”
Could the researchers be too good?
What would become of textile profits if they create fabrics so invincible that
clothes never wear out?
Sidney Stratton got a taste of the consequences
of too much progress in the 1951 movie, The Man in the White Suit.
In that satire, Alec Guinness as Stratton invents a wonder fabric—indestructible
and impervious to dirt. Good news for consumers, but bad for the employees at
the textile factory where Stratton works.
His genius goes unappreciated and Stratton
is chased down by a mob of angry
textile workers and bosses.
Fifty years later, the world seems to be
teeming with Sidney Strattons looking
for ways to create the perfect fabric. For
example, Brown at Clemson hopes to see
his self-cleaning fibers change the clothing
market one day. Other researchers
are looking for ways to make clothing
more durable, even self-healing.
Will the progress mark the end of
clothing manufacturing as we know it?
Brown has his doubts. “The reality is, if
you use the right dye and the right finishes,
clothes will last probably longer
than you want the clothes for,” he said.
“But from what I can tell from my wife,
she needs new clothes all the time, so I
don’t think wearing them out is a big
Maureen Byko is managing editor of JOM.