Technical textiles, also known as smart textiles, are made from a variety of fibers and filaments based on the goal of the end product. Manufacturers use both natural and manmade raw materials. Natural fibers are predominant, including cotton, jute, silk and coir. Manmade materials account for 40% of total fiber consumption across the entire textile industry, including items like viscose, nylon, acrylic and polypropylene.
Unlike materials made from traditional textiles, technical textiles offer value to the wearer. They can do several things traditional fabrics can’t. Technical textiles can be antibacterial, insect-proof, flame retardant, odorless and much more, allowing the wearer to reduce risks and bodily harm. Other materials can communicate, conduct energy, regulate body heat, display visuals and provide cosmetic effects.
The technical textile industry is rapidly advancing, with 60% of all products worldwide made with fibers not marketed 50 years ago. In fact, back then 30% of the products sold today weren’t yet invented.
The Most Popular Technical Textiles
Experts in the industry are taking materials and making them smart, allowing them to interact, sense and communicate in innovative ways. Technical textiles go beyond a fashion statement — they’re soon to become a standard way of life.
To understand the future of wearable tech, discover the five technical textiles growing in popularity below.
1. Protective Textiles
One of the most prominent applications of technical textiles is to prevent bodily injury and harm. In general, this type of clothing focuses on four areas — contamination, impact, temperature and ultraviolet.
In industrial and disaster areas, workers often operate in toxic environments. A biohazard suit made from impermeable materials can prevent contamination. Certain impact protection fabrics, typically used by police and armed forces, can counter the risk of an explosion, shooting, stabbing or blunt impact. The once-popular material, Kevlar, has now been replaced by a durable ballistic fabric made of HPPE (high-performance polyethylene).
The field of temperature-resistant clothing has recently seen rapid innovation. Nomex, made by Du Pont, is a material that can withstand temperatures of up to 400 degrees Celsius without charring. Laminate synthetic materials, designed by Lamination Technologies Inc., can withstand temperatures over 1,000 degrees Celsius for up to 12 seconds.
Similar advancements have been made in ultraviolet-resistant clothing, mainly swimwear. One fiber made from coconut waste, Cocona, contains UV and odor-absorbent properties.
2. Sports Textiles
Sports and fitness are other popular areas where technical textiles are promising. At present, user comfort and safety are the primary goals. One innovative example is Velcro, which makes it easy to secure shoes in seconds.
Schoeller Textil AG, located in Switzerland, recently launched Nanosphere, a fabric with a rough micro-texture that repels water like a lotus leaf. The same brand has also addressed the issue of sweat with a membrane that reacts to temperature and moisture change and allows heat and water vapor to escape.
Garments made with smart textiles can incorporate several functions, including anti-chafing and heating elements. You can also find sports clothing that includes vital statistic monitoring, including heart rate, breathing, body temperature, steps taken, muscles stimulated and more. This record of performance can help you track achievements and protect against injury.
Technical textiles can also be used to detect head injury in real-time. Some protective equipment, such as mouth guards and helmets, come equipped with sensors to identify bruising and anomalies in blood flow. When an athlete is injured, paramedics will already have the data and can determine the best possible treatment.
3. Medical Textiles
Medtech includes all medical fabrics used in health and hygiene applications. Standard fibers used include silk, cotton, polyester and polyamide. One example is sutures and wound dressings, which use nanoparticles to deliver drugs to a specific part of the body.
The simple bandage has also been transformed with technical textiles. Alginate fibers derived from seaweed, for example, encourage a moist healing process when in contact with the wound. At the Indian Institute of Technology, plasma coatings are used to affect the surface behavior of textiles, rendering them hydrophilic or hydrophobic based on the patient’s needs.
In a hospital where nurses are in charge of several patients at once, vitals monitoring can be a challenge. Smart hospital gowns make an extended stay easier. Smart fabric can wirelessly transmit vital signs, including cardiac patterns and heart rate anomalies. Gowns can even be worn during operations to free up space and provide the surgeon with more room to work.
Another new textile is the wearable tricorder for babies. This device, which goes above and beyond the standard monitor, tracks a baby’s vitals and body temperature. The wearable tech can be disguised in smart fabric and can track activity without discomfort to the child.
4. Electronic Textiles
E-textiles incorporate electronics such as sensors, batteries, LEDs and computing devices into fabrics. These materials are made by combining textiles with conductive materials — for example, weaving a silver thread into cloth.
Electronic textiles are most commonly used for smart clothing and interior design. Fabrics can light up and change color, and embedded sensors can monitor and regulate body temperature. These smart textiles are also booming in the medical field, with e-patches that can track medication in blood levels and deliver a dose when necessary.
Fabrics with wearable computers can open the doors to many applications across a variety of industries, including the health and beauty sector. Consumers and businesses alike can purchase biometric yoga pants embedded with sensors that can teach you the practice step-by-step. Wearers receive gentle guidance in the form of vibration and accelerometers near the hips, knees and ankles.
Another example of wearable e-textiles is the smart bikini, equipped with waterproof sensors that prevent you from staying in the sun too long. Compatible with an iOS or Android app, the tech monitors temperature in real-time and sends out warnings for shade and sunscreen.
5. Mobile Textiles
In 2013, the transportation industry held a 38% share of the smart textiles market. The idea of using technical textiles to protect people and products during transportation is not a new one. For example, ships have been using ropes and sails to power across the ocean for centuries. Textiles were also used in other forms of aviation, including balloons, zeppelins and early airplanes.
There is a lot of demand for technical textiles in automobiles, used for parts like:
- Air bags
- Sun visors
- Belts and hoses
- Molded fuel tanks
PCMs (phase change materials), which protect components against extreme temperatures, are commonly used. They are applied during the fiber spinning or chemical finishing process. These materials are prevalent in the automotive industry, but are also found in products like socks, shoes, apparel, bedding, sleeping bags and ballistic vests.
In the automotive industry, PCMs manage the temperature in basically all electronic components. They absorb excessive heat and reduce peaks, including from outside sources. For example, PCMs protect a car’s battery from direct sunshine on metal. They’re also utilized in air conditioning systems to prevent hot air from getting inside the passenger cabin.
The goal of technical textiles is to provide added value to the wearer — something they can’t get with traditional textiles. There’s no doubt the industry will rapidly advance along with technology. What products do you think will come next?
[Keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Schooled By Science.]