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Fabric Science: Cutting Edge Threads

There is a notion that traditional fabric is always better than a synthetic variety. The idea stems in part from conservatism in fashion, that older is somehow inherently better, and that a jacket or a pant made sixty years ago, vintage, is more organic, humane, and of higher quality than varieties produced today.

The problem with this view is that it ignores that all vintage fabrics were at one time an innovation, a breaking away from traditional methods and materials. To develop a cloth means to modify the source of the cloth to produce qualities that weren’t available in previous yields. So to use the word synthetic is something of a misnomer.

To suggest a synthetic material isn’t natural is to ignore how unnatural it is to develop a piece of fabric from a plant growing out of the ground. That in itself is a synthesis, a synthetic material. Recently there has been talk of new smart fabrics, fabrics designed in conjunction with the latest developments in technology. These fabrics are made for more than protection from the elements and fashion statements. They have a utility aspect and an evolutionary bent. They are made to evolve. There are two broad categories of smart fabrics, aesthetic and performative.

Aesthetic fabrics are capable of changing color and of providing illumination. Performative fabrics host a range of athletic enhancements such as decreasing wind resistant and providing temperature regulation. Imagine a track suit that cooled the body during a 10k run. This would enable the athletic to increase performance while avoiding heat exhaustion.

Fabrics are also being designed with moisturizing capabilities and with anti-aging properties. Perhaps one of the more interesting developments is in integration of fabric with tech devices. Tech engineers tend to have zero fashion sense and no concern for the comfort of the user. But many designers are beginning to develop fabrics and outfits with a mind for form and function. It is to be lamented that Google Glass did not outsource design to Dior or to Tom Ford. The idea of a visual display has been around for decades. Yet the design of the glasses was so obtuse and clunky that it was immediately met with well-earned derision.

But there is hope that in the coming decades designers will pick up where engineers left off and provide patrons high quality tech that looks runway ready. This future of smart fabric is an exciting one and is the major innovation in clothing for our age, clothing with aesthetic, performative and health functions is at times mindboggling yet all the same very exciting.

Michael Snell

Loving father and husband