From a technical perspective, textiles are a very old technology, starting with spinning and weaving. Today, though, fabric has reached a whole new level, with the integration of everything from nanotubes to sensors and heating technology. As such, modern clothing offers special protective capabilities in addition to shaping new fashion trends.
One of the most important applications of modern textile technology is as part of workplace safety programs. In Amazon’s warehouses, for example, workers now wear vests with built in sensors that help prevent collisions with the robots that also move about the floor. The sensors provide the robots with the real time position of workers, allowing for quicker detection and improved movement planning.
In another major leap forward in safety technology, Tufts University recently announced that they had engineered a fabric that could detect toxic gases. When exposed to a dangerous gas, the fibers change colors, and the change can be detected visually as well as via smartphone reading, and the fabric is sensitive enough to detect even very low concentrations. The fabric could have applications in industrial settings, as well as military, public health, and emergency services.
Shapewear has been around for centuries, from the girdles worn in ancient Greece to corsets and specialized bras, but while those garments relied on elements like metal and whalebone to create the desired shape, today’s shapewear relies on textile science. It uses specially engineered fabric that applies pressure all around the body to literally compress it into a smaller shape.
Unlike textiles designed for safety, shapewear is primarily aesthetic in nature, and brands like Shapermint emphasize the ways it can make women feel more confident. It’s also worth noting, however, that the same materials used in shapewear are often found in other types of compression garments, like those used to treat lymphedema or prevent blood pooling. Such fabrics serve a function well beyond vanity, then, and provide key health benefits and some patients actually use commercial shapewear products as part of their treatment, rather than paying for more costly, medicalized versions of the same goods.
Scientists and designers have both committed enormous resources to creating garments suited to extreme temperatures, and over the years they’ve developed a number of solutions, including popular moisture wicking garments used by athletes. More recently, though, scientists at the University of Maryland have developed a fabric that not only insulates, but also cools the body as needed. The material is able to assess the environment and the needs of the wearer, and adjusts how much heat can pass in and out of the garment through a process referred to as “gating.” This is the first textile designed for both hot and cold conditions and could revolutionize athletic wear, expedition equipment, and more.
Finally, and perhaps an indicator of just how far textile sciences have come in recent years, a team at the University of Delaware announced the creation of a fabric combining natural fiber and carbon nanotubes that can detect pressure – from a gentle touch to a crushing injury. And much like the vests employed at Amazon and the toxin-detecting fabric, this carbon nanotube hybrid could play a key role in workplace safety. Furthermore, because of its high level of sensitivity, carbon nanotube technology could also provide advanced movement measurements and ergonomic insights.
Textile science and engineering may not get a lot of press, but people benefit from the field’s innovations every day. Whether in the workplace, during athletic activity, or just while getting dressed for a typical day, advanced material sciences shape our lives.
Larry Alton is a professional blogger, writer, and researcher. A graduate of Iowa State University, he's now a full-time freelance writer and business consultant.Currently, Larry writes for Entrepreneur.com, Inc.com, and Forbes.com, among others. In addition to journalism, technical writing and in-depth research, he’s also active in his community and spends weekends volunteering with a local non-profit literacy organization and rock climbing. Follow him on Twitter (@LarryAlton3), at LinkedIn.com/in/larryalton, and on his website, LarryAlton.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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