Bold strokes

14th March 2003 at 00:00
The appliance of science is reinventing our lives. Tracey Henderson looks at intelligent textiles

Most people view textiles strictly as clothing, upholstery, drapery and carpeting. Very few realise that textiles are also an engineering material. But technical textiles (or "smart materials") are all around us. They are not always visible, but they are a part of many products. They are used for insulating homes, strengthening tyres on cars, repairing damaged organs or tissues in people, protecting emergency service workers, purifying the air we breath, providing the right bounce in tennis ballsI Smart or interactive textiles are developed by textile designers, scientists and technologists. They are described as fibres, yarns or fabrics that have been manufactured to provide protection or assistance to our bodies or our environment. They can incorporate anything from electronics or protein fibres to encapsulated scents and moisturisers.

Here are some examples which show the ingenious ways these materials can be used.

Industry, construction and agriculture

Geotextiles are permeable membranes to be used in conjunction with other materials in civil engineering. They are used in roads between the base soil and the first road-layer, as drainage filters in highway embankments and as liners for landfill sites. When made impermeable, the fabrics can also be used as liners in canals and channels or to prevent coastal erosion.

Transportation is the largest single market for technical textiles, which are used in vehicles, aircraft and ships. In addition to visible applications such as seating and carpeting, there are also hidden uses, such as reinforcements for tyres, belts, hoses, air and fuel filtration, noise and vibration dampening and body panel reinforcements.

Smart materials are also used in crop protection, soil cultivation, textile-based irrigation systems, greenhouses and agricultural construction and farm machinery. Temporary and permanent constructions made from textile membranes have opened up new possibilities in a variety of buildings and are widely used all over the world. Protection against the weather can be achieved quickly using simple construction methods. Structures that have incorporated technical textiles in their construction include the Millennium Dome in London, Leicester's National Space Centre and the Eden Project in Cornwall.


By combining conductive structures with microchip technology, companies are striving for the ultimate solution that will allow them to integrate devices within the clothes we wear. For example, Gorix has pioneered the use of electroconductive textiles and has developed the most advanced temperature-control system for clothing. This technology has been used in heated horse blankets, heated car seats, tyre heating systems, in the gloves of space suits and in deep-sea diving suits. Elec Tex - a switching and sensing company - has developed soft products, such as a TVremote-control, computer keyboards and telephones (including a wrist phone).

Health-care and clothing

Non-woven fabrics are widely used in disposable products such as nappies, sanitary towels, incontinence pads and wound dressings, while woven materials are developed as barrier fabrics. There is also a rapid growth in textiles for other medical applications, such as the manufacture of artificial ligaments, arteries and organs. Of all these advancements, the knitted artery is probably one of the most beneficial technical textile products available.

These textiles are used for the protection of people and property from various environmental hazards. They include protective clothing, crash helmets and bulletproof vests .

Sense-and-react materials have been developed to respond to the wearer's demands. Some that are currently available include the Harley designer pillow - based on material designed by NASA to reduce pressure in spacesuits - and Bodysensor tights, made with a material that can respond to changes in temperature and keep the wearer comfortable at all times Science and technology have also come together to design products, such as a communications jacket developed by Philips and Levi, incorporating concealed wires that link to a mobile phone, an MP3 player, a remote-control unit and headphones. The Speedo Fastskin body suit was developed to allow the wearer to move through water faster. The fabric was inspired by research on shark skin carried out by designers and marine biologists.

Goats have recently been bred with a spider gene. The unique spider's silk protein can be extracted from the goat's milk to produce Biosteel fibres.

The company that developed the idea has now progressed to the commercial development of medical sutures, biodegradable fishing lines, soft body armour and material composites.

In the classroom

As smart materials are now becoming readily available to purchase a bank of resources can be created for pupils to see and touch. This might include scented clothing, Bodysensor tights and encapsulated tights, which can be purchased from high-street stores. Geoagricultural textiles such as weed control sheets and fleeces can be purchased from garden centres.

Thermochromic paints, which change colour with temperature change, are readily available for the classroom.

Some companies also sell electronic components which can easily be incorporated into textile products. Due to the nature and availability of these textiles there are obviously restrictions on how these can be incorporated into classroom projects. Many of the fabrics cannot be purchased for classroom use, so alternatives have to be found. When a design brief is set, pupils should be encouraged first to explore the resources bank and then gain further knowledge by researching the companies who specialise in smart textiles before embarking on developing a new product.

The East Midlands Textile Association (EMTEX) provides support and services to the clothing and textile industry throughout the East Midlands.For information about smarttechnical textiles or teacherpupil workshops contact EMTEX Educational Resource Centre Tel: 01623 440088

Tracey Henderson is education officer at EMTEX



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