Wool. Cotton. Silk. We live our lives in a world of textiles. From denim to velvet, we are constantly cocooned in fabrics that protect us and allow for self-expression. And, from the earliest Stone Age felts to modern machines, technology has allowed these fabrics to be made more quickly, even as basic techniques of weaving, knitting, lacing and felting remain the same. However, new technologies and materials, from 3D printing to hydrogel based silk, are radically changing the possibilities of textiles, making them more sustainable, strong, and expressive.

This fabric is completely biodegradable and compostable, and doesn’t require large amounts of polluting chemicals to produce. In the future, Lee hopes to bioengineer microbes to create fabrics that can be hydrophobic or directly grown onto a 3D form.

One focus of textile engineering is on decreasing the process’s environmental impact. Currently, textile manufacture is a huge resource sink and source of pollutants. The cotton for a single shirt can use 2,700 liters of water, and production of polyesters alone can produce trillions of pounds of greenhouse gases a year. This problem has also been exacerbated by recent trends towards “fast fashion” and increased clothing consumption. One response to this issue is Biocouture, a movement headed by textile designer Suzanne Lee. Instead of harvesting plant or animal materials with traditional methods, Lee employs microbes to grow fabric. Using a process of fermentation, bacteria are added to a sugary fluid, where they feed, produce cellulose, and stick together in a thick layer of cellulose. When this layer is washed and dried, the result is a leather-like vegetable substance. This fabric is completely biodegradable and compostable, and doesn’t require large amounts of polluting chemicals to produce. In the future, Lee hopes to bioengineer microbes to create fabrics that can be hydrophobic or directly grown onto a 3D form.

Another recent technology that combines sustainability with strength and protection is a new type of artificial spider silk, created by researchers at Cambridge University. Spider silk has always been a holy grail for material engineers to replicate: stronger than steel and Kevlar, and created at room temperatures with a water solvent, it’s a protective material that avoids the chemicals and energy needed for synthetic polyesters. Researchers, led by Darshil Shah, have developed a hydrogel made of water, silica, and cellulose bound together by cucurbiturils molecules. The bound silica and cellulose can then be pulled out and dried, leaving behind a thread. This thread is biodegradable and very strong, and because of its accessible ingredients, has huge potential for uses from protective military clothing to cloth for sails and parachutes.

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2700liters
The environmental impact of traditional clothing.

This rethinking of textile production has also led to more expressive, interactive clothing. One exciting technology is 3D printing, a process where extruded, heated plastic is layered to make objects from synthetic rhino horns to stop-motion puppets. 3D printing is usually associated with rigid, dimensional plastic that is unsuitable for clothing. However, designers have risen to the challenge by using plastic to create fluid, unique silhouettes, as in Studio XO’s 3D printed Anemone dress created for Lady Gaga, where bubbles float out from mechanisms concealed in futuristic curves of white plastic. Articulation is another option to give movement to rigid materials. For example, in 2013, Michael Schmidt, working with 3D printing service Shapeways, created a dress for Dita Von Teese made of jointed, 3D printed parts. The dress contains mathematically precise joints which allow the network of rigid pieces to flex and move like fabric. Perhaps most striking are the creations of Dutch artist and textile engineer Iris von Herpen. Van Herpen uses a 3D printing technique of selective laser sintering, where lasers melt loose particles together to create exactly printed parts. Her dresses, one of which was featured in TIME’s 2011 list of the 50 best inventions, fuse technical precision with organic patterns. They suggest delicate skeletons, falling water, or alien lifeforms, creating beautiful structural intricacies that would be impossible with the limits of traditional textiles.

These developments are just one small part of the potential for technology and science to make textiles more interactive, more sustainable, and more beautiful. Who knows what the future of fabrics might hold: fashion that can change color or form in response to the wearer’s mood? Or clothes that, when ripped, are self-healing? It’s only a matter of time and experimentation for tech-infused textiles to become a part of the clothes we wear every day.

About The Author

Claire Dong