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High-Tech, Nanotech and Smart Fabrics Proliferate, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

With the advent of Rayon in the 1920s, high-tech fabrics were born. Rayon, introduced by DuPont as a “continuous filament viscose fiber,” is durable and silky-soft, and costs much less than organic fabrics made of silk. Today’s high-tech fabrics are either treated with chemicals, polymers or combinations thereof, or specially engineered for durability, stain-proofing, wrinkle-resistance or weather protection. In addition to these wonders, scientists are producing “smart fabrics,” which are engineered for wearability advantages as well as an astounding array of potential protective and clinical abilities. Through the use of special fabrics capable of conducting data flow, telecommunications and computing abilities may also be enabled in apparel.
The abilities of synthetic fabrics and high-tech materials to keep athletes dry and comfortable have sparked a multi-billion dollar market for high-performance outdoor apparel. An excellent example of the power of this niche is the wildly successful Gore-Tex fabric produced by W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc. The fabric is a fluoropolymer, a manufactured fiber that forms a barrier to wind and water but still allows air to pass through it. Body heat and moisture can evaporate through Gore-Tex even while it protects from wind, rain, sleet or snow. It's used in everything from jackets to shoes to backpacks, and it generates impressive sales since apparel treated with Gore-Tex often costs three times as much as non-treated pieces. W.L. Gore’s annual revenues are about $3 billion, and it employs more than 9,500 people.
Under Armour is another firm scoring great success by recognizing that many consumers want leisure and sports clothing made from synthetic or enhanced materials, rather than cotton. Under Armour’s moisture-wicking t-shirts helped it launch what is now a major business. In fact, synthetics have taken a significant amount of market share away from cotton, which was traditionally the material relied on in the manufacture of casual clothing.
A surprising material found in some apparel is silver. Long known to fight bacteria and odors, silver has been used historically to store foodstuffs. However, many manufacturers are finding new ways to use the metal. In 2006, Samsung Electronics launched a household clothes washer that utilizes silver ions to sanitize laundry without using hot water. Today, Adidas, Brooks Sports, Victoria’s Secret and Polartec are using a silver-coated nylon fiber called X-Static (which is produced by Noble Biomaterials, Inc.). The fibers, which are used in shirts, pants, caps and socks, protect against odor and promote thermal regulation, since silver is a natural energy conductor. A company called NanoHorizons, Inc. (www.nanohorizons.com) furthered the cause of silver for use in apparel by developing an engineering process that disperses silver pellets uniformly through the materials used for textile applications. The process, which is marketed under the SmartSilver brand, prolongs the silver’s presence in fabric even through repeated washings.
Coffee grounds treated with chemicals are being used to absorb body odor and other aromas in clothing manufactured by Ministry of Supply (www.ministryofsupply.com), a startup in Boston, Massachusetts. The company began selling a $278, machine washable men’s blazer made of a flexible blend of polyester and elastane lined with the treated coffee grounds in late 2014. Moisture is expelled through microscopic vents. The company is targeting young consumers who are interested in sustainable and recycled materials and likely walk or cycle to work. The firm also makes dress shirts made of Phase Change Material (PCM) that reacts to changes in body temperature, absorbing heat when the wearer is hot and releasing it when the wearer is cold.
Swimwear maker Speedo International launched its LZR Racer suit in 2008. The $550 LZR Racer is a seamless suit made of fabric tested in NASA wind tunnels for its ability to reduce surface friction. In addition, the suit covers the torso, gluteal and upper hamstring muscles with panels that reduce muscle and skin vibration. The result was a staggering number of new world records set by swimmers wearing the new suits. Speedo was inundated with orders, despite the suit’s high price tag. NCAA swim teams were spending as much as $20,000 for a season’s supply. Rival manufacturers are producing their own versions of the suit, including Tyr’s Racer Light and BlueSeventy’s Nero.  However, in mid-2009, FINA, the international governing body of swimming, banned the suits from official competition. The ban left Speedo with approximately 18,000 units and no market among competitive swimmers. The company donated them to fashion design students at three schools in the UK, where they were recycled into fashions for men and women.
Manufacturers are hoping to take high-tech fabrics to everyday clothing by applying new technology to fabrics used in suits, sweaters, ties and more. They believe that consumers will buy into clothing that can't be crushed when packed and is stain-proof as well as waterproof. Retailers such as Eddie Bauer are already stocking casual cotton pants made of nanotextiles—materials constructed at the molecular level of particles so tiny that moisture cannot penetrate them. Even spills of coffee or red wine will not stain these fabrics.
Another nanotech company, Schoeller Textil of Switzerland, produces a nanofinish called NanoSphere which repels liquids without affecting the feel and drape of the underlying fabric. Clothing manufacturers such as Beyond of Eugene, Oregon, and Contourwear of Alameda, California, use NanoSphere to coat everything from pants to jackets. The coating is also used for a line of luggage under the Victorinox brand, made by a division of TRG Group.
High-tech and nanotech fabrics are increasingly used in uniforms where durability, comfort and stain resistance are key selling points. Cintas Corp., a uniform manufacturer, is using a process in which water bottles are recycled into tiny flakes woven into yarn. The yarn is used in tailored suits that are washable for hotel, transportation and food service workers. Cintas also manufactures sport shirts made of recycled polyester and charcoal to eliminate odors.
Specialized fabrics can be sensitive to a wide variety of external substances, including harmful toxins or chemical agents. The U.S. military has already incorporated patches worn on uniform cuffs that change color when harmful agents are detected in the surrounding air. Scientists at MIT have created smart fabrics that filter or shield wearers from radiation by combining synthetic fibers with an optical device called a dielectric mirror.
Wake Forest University’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials developed a fabric called Power Felt that can generate electricity from body heat. For example, the fabric can be utilized to recharge a cell phone. It is manufactured by imprinting carbon nanotubes onto a woven textile made of plastic fibers. Placing such a fabric under a roof, where it could capture the power of the very high heat that resides in most attics, could conceivably provide part of a household’s electricity needs. Worn on a person’s body, it might power personal health monitoring systems. What remains to be seen is how consumers respond to such innovations and how much they will be willing to pay for them.
 


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