- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Remember when polyester was the miracle fabric — a whole new fashion concept that promised to revolutionize wardrobes and save countless hours spent on personal care?

That was 50 years ago — the dark ages as far as fabrics and consumer products go. Today’s clothing and home accessories often come loaded with an assortment of strange-sounding scientific words that read like a chemistry text and trail a tiny trademark symbol.

Imagine items of clothing that clean themselves, fabrics that change colors and glow in the dark, or an anti-bacterial bedsheet containing silver fibers. The future holds more of the same inventive gear, much of which builds on familiar materials. Creators and developers are driven by the thrill of turning out something new that has both practical and aesthetic benefits and often is ecologically sound.

So accustomed has today’s consumer become to high-tech language for items of everyday use that Alex Tilley, founder of a travel clothing company bearing his name, felt he could just make up a word — a slightly fancy and hard-to-pronounce one: Nylamtium — for the reinforced nylon he uses for one of his firm’s signature hats.

Made of DuPont’s Supplex, the Nylamtium hat is covered with a polyurethane laminate. “A lot of Supplex has a wrinkly appearance that I don’t like,” he says. “The laminate aspect seems to reduce wrinkling so it looks pristine and retains its shape.”

The same hat also is available in a preshrunk cotton duck fabric. Both hats have a Hydrofil nylon band that can wick moisture away from the head to the band, and both hats are imprinted with the words “guaranteed for life.”

His firm’s latest experiments are with hemp.

“Hemp is so wonderful for the planet because it doesn’t require pesticides [to grow], doesn’t shrink and is much stronger than cotton. It also is elegant,” an enthusiastic Mr. Tilley says by telephone from Toronto, his company’s base, adding that he is at that moment “wearing special socks made mostly of wool that are guaranteed to last for three years.”

Cotton, hemp and wool are familiar materials taken to new levels where they become known as “engineered” designs.

A similar but more unusual material for clothing and household items is silver combined with a textile such as cotton to create a fiber called X-Static. Made by Noble Fiber Technologies in Clarks Summit, Pa., it can be found in bedsheets, socks, bras, T-shirts, bandages, hats, active wear and sports apparel. A finished product contains about 15 percent pure silver irreversibly bound to the surface of a fabric.

“You never hear silver mentioned as a negative; it’s always a positive,” says Noble Fiber President and Chief Executive Bill McNally. “Sixty countries will wear us in the next Olympics.

“Silver is naturally anti-microbial,” he says. It’s also, in his words, anti-odor. That is, it helps kill germs.

The company’s promotional booklet outlines various other virtues of the element, including keeping the wearer warm in cool weather and cool in warmer weather by distributing the body’s heat evenly through the fabric. X-Static also is said to eliminate static electricity by dissipating the static electric charges.

“Silver is a natural product. This is using Mother Nature and finding natural solutions to human problems. We take pure silver and metalize the polymer fiber,” Mr. McNally explains. “That then allows us to create a universally coded pure silver fiber — as high as 99 percent — so it is very thin and retains its traditional characteristics. Generally speaking, the fiber feels like silk.

“Silver is the most thermally conductive product in that it conducts heat. The same reason why the military uses us in their boot sock is the reason it works in sheets: It equalizes temperature. It will take body heat from the shoulder and distribute it across the body.”

Another new product with a science-fiction sound is Luminex, a battery-powered fabric that glows in the dark, thanks to an LED — light-emitting diode — energy source. Promoted and distributed in this country by the New York designer Zuzka and her private label, Fabricology, the revolutionary optical fiber was made first in Italy and was used to startling effect for several of the costumes in the Washington Opera’s February production of Verdi’s “Aida.”

The Italian Embassy previewed the event with a fashion display that showed the fabric made into a bridal gown, handbags and cocktail dresses. The items resembled normal brightly colored textiles under ordinary light but had a remarkable shine when room lights were turned off.

“Low-voltage LED is cool, as opposed to incandescent light,” explains Zuzka spokesman Christopher Berger. “Essentially, the energy is from a chemical reaction into the diode — tiny little batteries — flat cards — that are plugged in and turned on with a flick of a switch. Most jackets and dresses use one switch. You have light throughout the fabric, so it is completely illuminated.”

The optical fiber is bound into the selvage ends of fabric and bundled into the seams of a garment, which currently can be produced in five colors, he says.

“By day, the fabric used on a jersey dress looks bright red, but the color can be changed in a dark environment,” he says. “People who are outdoors at night or subway workers who now wear reflective signals will be visible without any light source present.”

Eddie Bauer’s Nano-Care stain-resistant khakis are made with fabric produced using nanotechnology, which involves manipulating molecules to create useful materials. Dockers’ Go Khaki line boasts a similar stain-fighting quality, attributed to a coating of DuPont’s Teflon, which allows spilled liquids to bead and roll off fabric without staining.

New fiber innovations coming soon from DuPont, the behemoth of textile inventors and manipulators, include Outlast, which can store and release heat. Now found in socks and ski gloves, Outlast will appear next in bedding, according to Steven McCracken of Dupont Textiles and Interiors.

Textile and development specialist Ingrid Johnson at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology foresees a day when fabrics will be imbedded with scent or perfume “so you always will feel fresh like a lime and not feel the need of putting the fabric into a washing machine with detergent.”

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