Textiles offer limitless possibilities in creating the environment and performance qualities the marketplace desires.
By Maureen MacGillivray, Ph.D.
What are the most exciting or intriguing developments in the industry in advanced textiles?
There are no longer any limits on how textiles can be developed to meet the needs of consumers, whether those needs are medical, occupational, military, recreational, architectural or even aesthetic. Not even the sky limits our ability to think about the various ways that textiles are used to solve problems—in fact, textiles have been used in outer space for decades. Who would have thought that we would have stadiums, marketplaces, greenhouses, and mobile military units comprised primarily of textiles? The idea of raising a building to house hundreds of people (or things), then taking it down the next day and transporting it in a box to another location to be raised again … this is a reality today.
Who is driving new developments, the researchers or the market?
Both. Consumers and researchers alike are continually searching for new solutions to everyday problems. Those who can free themselves to think in new ways are the ones most likely to find innovative ways to fabricate textile products. We have witnessed the amalgamation of textiles and electronics, for example, and the dawning of a host of new product ideas from wearable physiological monitoring devices to GPS navigational tools. What is next? What else can we integrate into the same textiles that provide an intimate environment for our bodies and our beds, or the same textiles that provide a portable environment for us as we work, play and go about our daily lives? Our ability to expand our thinking in ways that break the boundaries of traditional use is what is going to drive new developments in fibers, yarns, fabrics and finishes.
What is the market demanding and how is your research team responding?
The market is demanding evidence that products deliver the performance that they promise under the conditions in which they are utilized. If a fabric is moisture wicking, does it perform for NFL players on a field where the ambient conditions are 95 degrees F, 85 percent relative humidity and with the athlete sweating profusely? If the fabric is supposed to release heat when the microclimate reaches a particular temperature, does it?
In the highly competitive market of wearable multifunctional textiles, it is imperative that manufacturers provide evidence that their products work. Testing facilities are now available with the ability to simulate the conditions of the playing field, the battlefield or the occupational environment. Whether using a human subject or a thermal manikin, an examination of the user experience under simulated environmental conditions provides a company with the evidence to demonstrate the attributes of their product.
Companies rarely have the luxury of selling their products with a thousand words in print. Telling the story of the user experience with a picture of the heat transfer properties of a shirt being worn by an exercising athlete, however, trumps words every time. For example, infrared thermography can be used effectively to inform the sales force and the ultimate consumer of how the product performs while worn under specific environmental and metabolic conditions.
Are new technologies finding their applications and markets? If so, where is the most robust growth occurring or likely to occur in the near future? If not, what’s holding up the implementation of new technologies?
As companies endeavor to integrate a multitude of functions seamlessly into textiles including—and most importantly—electronics, the need to evaluate the user experience increases. The Center for Merchandising and Design Technology (CMDT) at Central Michigan University explores the user experience using quantitative systems to examine the wearer-clothing-environment interaction.
Real-time monitoring of human data such as skin temperature and conductivity, blood volume pulse, respiration and heart rate, combined with visual and verbal feedback tools are currently being used to examine how the user responds to wearing or using new textile products under given environmental conditions. Biofeedback technology systems are built on three components consisting of 1) sensors, 2) data acquisition and 3) software application. Biofeedback systems will enable companies to refine the design of new products by carefully evaluating the user-product interface.
Recently, the effects of essential oils on textiles were examined using biofeedback to determine their ability to relieve stress. As more functions become integrated into textiles, biofeedback may provide a rich source of user data that can be utilized to not only evaluate the product, but also improve future design iterations.
What new products and/or processes are being developed now that will have the most profound impact on the way in which end product manufacturers do business tomorrow?
The sensory aspects of textiles are important to the wearer. Not only do we want textiles that perform well for us and look good, we also want them to “feel” good. Fabrics that warm us, cool us, moisturize us and monitor our vital signs are now a reality. Consumers will continue to demand not only that these functions exist, but that they be seamlessly integrated into the textiles that serve as our second skin, or most intimate environment.
There is no limit to the functions that textiles can serve for us and it is important that designers, product developers, and consumers at all levels have access to reliable information about how these products are expected to perform.