Material wealth

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Modern textiles can turn up in surprising places and give rise to fascinating stories, says Simon Smith

Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance

By Matilda McQuaid; Thames and Hudson pound;24.95

This substantial book throws a bright and penetrating light on the leading edge of textiles technology. Although conceived as an explanatory guide to an exhibition, Extreme Textiles is best seen as a thorough but accessible introduction to a specialised range of textile materials and their associated processing techniques.

The materials are analysed in five sections - stronger, faster, lighter, safer, smarter - according to their principal properties, and there are contributions from specialists in each area. All the writers have first-hand experience of the products they describe and they take time to explain the science behind them or to consider the influences and the research that led to their development.

Sean Hanna provides an interesting commentary on the way textiles technology is making buildings lighter. The example he uses is the Swiss Re's London headquarters, otherwise known as "the gherkin" (right). He compares it with a number of other buildings, and shows how the concept of very thin cylindrical structures can become extremely strong with the addition of a helical matrix of fibre reinforcement. Computer graphics show the layout of the office tower's net of strengthening ribs, as well as further examples of this technique being used in civil engineering and vehicle design.

In the section on textiles for safety, Cara McCarty gives examples of materials that were developed by Nasa for use by astronauts, but which now have widespread use, for example in firefighters' suits, cooling vests for sports injuries and the sculptured roofs of airports and stadiums.

The detailed descriptions of products such as Gore-Tex fabric and the carbon-fibre nets used on space vehicles give this book a technical depth that takes it far beyond what is required by ASA2 specifications. The book has a hard textile cover and is illustrated with fascinating photographs.

Clearly a resource for the reference shelves, it will probably be valued only by sixth-formers, but it should be essential for all serious design teachers. We are already seeing a dramatic broadening of our concept of materials, even in everyday products, so it is vital that we develop an understanding of why they were developed and how they are made.

Simon Smith is head of design technology at Colfe's School, London

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