- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance,” a top-notch exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, gives the viewer a fresh appreciation of so-called low-tech art forms.

One of the aims of the show is to remind people how skills such as knitting and weaving are used in both present-day and projected commercial and industrial products.

Mention the word textiles, and most people think of clothing or bolts of fabric, but we’re not talking here about everyday home furnishings and decorative dress. Instead, think wire and mesh and polymer threads and their deployment as beach balls on Mars, medical implants in the human body, and, yes, even protective devices for riot control. These are textiles that operate as highly engineered materials in high-performance settings.

This is pioneering territory, for sure, although a few potential domestic novelties are included as well, some of them seemingly more playful than essential. Consider a musical rope installation and a touch-on light switch made of fur.

The unusual exhibit, which closes Oct. 30, brings together both current and futuristic applications and relates them to their roots. Included, too, is an introductory display of historic textiles from the museum’s collection that illustrate time-honored structure and technique.

“This hasn’t been done before in a major museum, to my knowledge,” says curator Matilda McQuaid, head of Cooper-Hewitt’s textiles department (www.cooperhewitt.org). “I felt it was important to look at design through the lens of textiles and fibers — to look at what objects around us have textiles at their core. … And why we chose extreme applications was to show people unfamiliar objects that are made of textiles and [also] some not familiar to us.”

She mentions, by way of example, a sailboat hull of fiberglass, which is constructed of tiny filaments of glass yarn woven into a fabric, and the chassis of a Formula One racing car made of carbon fiber that has gone through a heat pressurization process.

“It’s almost like bringing back design to the basics of function alone, without any emphasis on styling — whether bouncing on Mars’ surface or getting from point A to B as fast as possible. Each object has a very particular function,” she says.

Because “function” is key throughout, it made sense to organize the 150 applications under five performance categories: stronger, lighter, faster, smarter, safer.

Electronic textiles slowly are coming into the mainstream, Ms. McQuaid points out. Many consumers already are acquainted with such items as a heated jacket with batteries that can be removed for washing purposes. The jacket is made of polar fleece containing stainless-steel fibers that transmit the heat. It’s well-known, too, how the government’s investment in space has given rise to a number of lifesaving advances on Earth, such as high-tech protective suits and gloves that can be worn in extreme climatic conditions.

The development of textile-based composites that combine strength and rigidity — characteristics of sailboats, skates, bicycles and other sporting equipment — have proved valuable for paralympic athletes who have adopted a “flexfoot” appendage in place of a more conventional prosthetic.

Overall, fewer than 50 percent of the objects on display probably could be considered consumer products because many are prototypes still undergoing research and experimentation. The Army is trying to integrate electronic systems into uniforms that would continuously monitor the vital signs of the wearer.

“One thing I wanted to cover in the exhibit is the full range of possibilities and disciplines that textiles touch,” Ms. McQuaid says. “All areas of science go into textile making, and there are all sorts of interesting collaborations.”

She mentions a woman who led a team of artists, designers and engineers “to think outside the box about why an antenna has to be stiff.” The result was a pliable antenna made of a narrow woven fabric that can conform to a vest instead of protruding outward. The antenna forms what she describes as “a communication conduit for a dataport.”

“Anyone who is a textile curator in the 21st century is interested in making people know that textiles are still extremely important and are not gone with the ethnographic peoples of the 19th century,” comments Rebecca Stevens, consulting curator for contemporary textiles at Washington’s Textile Museum, a privately funded institution in Northwest.

“Maybe the average museum visitor thinks of textiles in those ways. And the question is, ‘Why not?’ A lot of early textiles were woven and then covered with metal for decorative purposes or else to project stature or status. Things like armor or chain mail. All kinds of Japanese armor were sewn together: Textiles underneath serve as padding, which is then covered with protection.

“I think [Ms. McQuaid] was trying to say that textiles can be readapted for their time and place and that structures — interlacings — are very similar but materials and use change. And I think she was interested to let people know there is a huge amount of textile research being done all over this country and abroad.”

What Ms. Stevens found of special interest is the section on medical applications that employ embroidery methods — what Ms. McQuaid sees as bringing textiles full circle in terms of the technique.

A commercial embroidery machine was used to make an implant of polyester thread for a person who had lost much of his shoulder because of a tumor. The implant is a way of connecting the replacement bone, made out of titanium, to existing body tissue. The embroidery, sewn onto the tissue, mimics the array of muscles in the body and acts as a kind of scaffolding upon which new tissue can grow.

Most amazing of all, in Ms. Stevens’ view, is the suggestion that a 40-story skyscraper can be made of carbon fiber and composite materials, woven together in a single structure. A mock-up of the design is included in the exhibit.

Joanne Dolan-Ingersoll, associate curator of the textile collection at the Museum at FIT (New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology), praises the exhibit for “presenting to the public for the first time the idea of textiles as a medium being used in the most cutting-edge technology across all fields — scientific, medical, sports — and the idea of textiles as innovative. It also is, hopefully, speaking to an audience who would never consider textiles as having this potential. The concept of strength emphasized in the exhibit almost defies what we traditionally think of as textiles.”

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