Fashion-conscious futurists should be prepared for this disappointing truth: the most technically advanced fabrics in your life are more likely to be found under your roof than on your back. For true innovation, designers are looking to industrial fibres and fabrics developed for use in unglamorous applications – such as insulating membranes, ducting and protective workwear for the offshore and aeronautical industries.
Thanks to the narrowing gap between aesthetics and technology, these engineered fabrics are now filtering through to the design mainstream, although the process has been frustratingly slow. Textiles consultant, curator and author of Techno Textiles, Marie O’Mahony estimates that the “visible” use of these fabrics, such as those used in fashion design, has lagged behind the industrial sector by about 15 years.
This gradual shift is largely due to the closed nature of the research that is being carried out. Textiles companies invest vast sums in the research and development of new fibres, but often struggle to see the diverse applications that could benefit from the different fabrics they produce, and so fail to see their wider potential. For real change to happen, close collaboration between the worlds of industry, laboratory and design consultancy is essential.
Textiles designer Frances Geesin compares the process to a jigsaw puzzle. “One person is holding the corner bits, another person is holding the sky. If everyone could pool their ideas it would move so much faster,” she says.
As a student at the Royal College of Art in the early 1990s, Geesin experimented with conductive fibres and electroplated industrial fabrics, originally developed for use in water filtration. She went on to act as a consultant to Philips Design, which was interested in developing electronically responsive textiles. The result of this collaboration was the Levi Strauss & Co ICD “wearable electronics” range of clothing.
Performance fabrics and sportswear remain the areas where most innovation and progress has been made, but the tendency towards gimmickry has proved irresistible for some. Magician David Copperfield’s latest death-defying stunt – to withstand a 1093ºC Tornado of Fire – was facilitated by wearing a suit made from Nomex, a heat-resistant fabric formulated by DuPont for use in space. Nomex has also been used by the Japanese division of underwear manufacturer Triumph, which spent six months developing a “space bra”.
The company insists that, while this was a publicity stunt, it is currently investigating how other innovative textiles could be put into production. For instance, the super-strong, lightweight fabric that was used for the sails of a yacht in last year’s America’s Cup race and a “smart fabric” for a sports bra which absorbs sweat while keeping the wearer cool and dry.
One technique, developed for use in space, that has met with considerable success in the mainstream fashion industry is microencapsulation – a finishing process where microcapsules (tiny gelatine or polymer film sacs) are filled with dyes, vitamins, cosmetics or perfumes, mixed with a binder and then sprayed on to fabrics. The chemical contents are released gradually, with long-lasting effects that can survive several washes before fading.
French designer Elisabeth de Senneville has experimented with microencapsulation for the past two years, designing garments which release moisturisers on to the skin, and others with heat sensitive dyes that react with body temperature. For her current home collection, she has designed a blind using a patented version of the technique to create a moisture-sensitive fabric that slowly reacts to humidity levels in the air and changes colour accordingly – blue for fine weather, grey on cloudy days and pink when it is raining.
But the serious health benefits of “smart fabrics” are increasingly being recognised. De Senneville has also developed a range of garments with an anti-magnetic, carbon fibre backing that keeps out high frequency electromagnetic radiation, and so claims to offer the wearer some protection from mobile phones.
Thanks to a commitment to long-term investment, Japan is leading the field in “smart fabrics” technology and is developing ideas that may seem far fetched today, but are likely to sound sensible in the not too distant future.
Fabrics that protect against ultraviolet rays may have sounded crazy ten years ago, but are harder to scoff at today. Soon it may be possible, almost literally, to wear your heart on your sleeve, as materials are being developed to monitor heart rates and blood pressure.
But some designers believe that in the quest for innovation, fundamental issues have taken a back seat to technology. They insist that current questions still apply. How comfortable is it? How does it feel? And even, how does it look?
Designer Sophie Roet says, “Smart fabrics are interesting in performance terms, but aesthetically – that’s a different story. There may be perfumed fabrics, but the perfume is usually hideous and the ‘handle’ is often not great.” Roet’s tactile approach relies on experimenting with industrial techniques and contemporary yarns, mixing the natural and the synthetic, to create delicate woven fabrics. Her latest project incorporates phosphorescent yarns into ghostly woven fabrics that, once “charged” with daylight, are capable of glowing in the dark. The luminescent ingredient, phosphorous, is derived from a natural source. Her work is heavily influenced by the craft traditions of the past, but the results are sharply contemporary.
The line between traditional and futuristic, natural and man-made textiles has blurred, and for technology to be relevant in today’s world, it cannot work at the expense of the environment. The race is now on to develop fibres that satisfy both the call for sustainability and innovation, and the resulting fabrics are being dubbed “new synthetics”.
Japanese manufacturer Kanebo has launched Lactron, a “corn fibre” fabric made entirely from lactic acid, obtained by the fermentation of corn starch. Since the fibre is derived from a plant, not from petroleum, it decomposes safely. Similar fabrics are also being developed from milk protein, soya bean, pineapple and banana fibres.
Lactron has been further developed by Nuno Corporation, a Japanese textile design company. Its latest collection – currently at test sample stage and due to be launched in July – is a departure from the hi-tech, metallised fabrics of the mid-1990s, and presents a shift towards more environmentally conscious materials. Under the working title “Body-friendly fabric”, the woven fabrics incorporate natural fibres chosen for their unique aesthetics and properties of well-being. These include charcoal fibre, which is reputed for its air-filtering, purifying and insulating qualities, and recycled bamboo fibres, which are naturally anti-bacterial and offer protection from infrared light. “I don’t really care about new techniques,” insists Nuno Corporation director and co-founder Reiko Sudo. “The aesthetics are the most important thing. We just keep producing experimental work, and sometimes use primitive techniques. Traditional and hi-tech skills – everything has the same value for me,” she says.
Japan’s re-discovery of its rich history of traditional craft techniques is being celebrated in Textural Space (www.texturalspace.com), a touring exhibition running until April 2002.
Among the 13 artists exhibiting their work are Shihoko Fukumoto, who has devised a contemporary method of “shibori”, the traditional indigo dyeing technique, which was picked up on by Donna Karan last year; and Chiyoko Tanaka, who weaves very fine linen cloth and grinds Jurakadai – earth used for the walls of traditional Japanese tea houses – into the finished fabric to create a unique patina.
But ecological concerns are not just for art pieces or the frothy world of high fashion, and to prove it, Swiss textiles manufacturer Rohner Textil walked off with the Design Museum’s Design Sense Award 2000 for its environmentally friendly upholstery fabric. The company has since developed the idea further: its latest launch – Climatex LifeguardFR, woven from a mix of wool cellulose fibres and a viscose derived from beech wood – is the first ecologically sound, flame retardant fabric of its kind.
As the textiles industry is one of the biggest global polluters, such pioneering, yet highly commercial fabrics address a serious issue, and investment is likely to focus on ecological issues rather than headline-grabbing gimmickry.
It seems the key to the future of advanced textiles lies less in realising a science fiction utopia of talking jackets that cook you dinner, and more in the successful marriage of performance and aesthetics.
Nuno Corporation will host a show at the Livingstone Studios, London NW3, from 6 October until 3 November. Sophie Roet will be exhibiting her work at the Canadian Museum for Textiles in Toronto from 1 June until 15 October