Future of textiles


Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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Even currently, intelligent textiles stretch the limits of the imagination and seem to border on science fiction – moving tattoos that crawl across the skin of the wearer, appearing and disappearing as they record stress; sensors in shirt sleeves that can register a wound and lead the fabric to tighten, forming a tourniquet; polymers that can be added to manufactured fibers, protecting the wearer from infection and disease; technologically enhanced military uniforms that can communicate with satellites.

These high-tech and often mobile structures are part of a much wider application that Bradley Quinn calls ‘textile futures’ — faster, lighter, stronger textiles that can stop bullets, hoist satellites into orbit and withstand temperatures hot enough to melt steel. Tiny fibres, writes Quinn, will rebuild the world.

Truly exciting projects are currently being imagined that cross the boundaries between art, experimentation and architecture, and offer endless unfettered possibilities – in 40 years time many of these might have come to fruition.

Clothing that registers and displays emotion, changes pattern according to the wearer’s wants, creates heated or cooling microclimates, absorbs smell or communicates with other similar items of clothing are just some of the items currently in prototype that, in 40 years, may be the norm. Flexible and provisional housing proposals (imagine inflatable, multi-storey tents) that can be easily transported and quickly assembled in post-disaster scenarios may be easily available.

High-tech fabric may also, in the future, offer solutions to environmental catastrophe and questions of sustainability (for example, sophisticated, technologically enhanced awnings that provide natural shade instead of air conditioning). We might also expect to see medical textiles such as thermochromatic bedding to monitor the temperature of premature babies or the elderly, textile environments wired with ‘ambient intelligence,’ or actuators and computers that can adapt environments, manipulating devices or calling emergency services.

In all, smart textiles respond dynamically to a variety of situations, and in these scenarios, the infinite potential of smart textiles is writ large.

But there is another, darker side here.

While in 40 years’ time, intelligent textiles might offer solutions to certain problems, currently textiles are creating problems of their own.

As Luz Claudio writes in an article on waste and the fashion industry, the demand for polyester alone doubled between 1992 and 2007 and “the manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease. Volatile monomers, solvents, and other by-products of polyester production are emitted in the wastewater from polyester manufacturing plants.”

Fast fashion, or the vast increase in the sheer amount of cheap clothing produced and available, has had significant detrimental environmental impacts, as have the chemical by-products of dyes used in the colouring of clothing. Every aspect of apparel manufacture, from pesticides used in the production of cotton, to the huge amounts of water and phosphates used in washing clothes, to vast amounts of textile garbage produced when clothing is discarded have significant accumulatory effects.

Even seemingly environmentally friendly textiles, such as polar fleece, have significant and devastating impacts – fleece, for example, sheds thousands of tiny plastic particles with each wash, eventually ending up in the ocean and other bodies of water.

Forty years from now, we will likely all be familiar with the impact of the clothing we are currently wearing, and may be looking for other solutions that will parallel the intelligent textiles described above.

Kirsty Màiri Robertson is a professor in the Department of Visual Arts in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.