Wearable technology, as defined by Wikipedia to the right, integrates electronics into a wearable item, often into conventional apparel. There is often an electronic device, housed in hard plastic shell, that is then combined with conventional fabrics to achieve its function. Classic examples include; (i) calculator watch, (ii) a chest-strap heart rate monitor integrated with a watch, (iii) Google Glass, and (iv) an electrically powered warming jacket.
Most of the products which catch popular attention involve either ; (i) making the intelligence of the device less noticeable – such that it isn’t in a bulky plastic housing, or (ii) using the existing clothing form factors to deliver new performance. Fabric technology is a likely method of delivering on these desires. There are three main rolled-good fabric types; traditional wovens & knits, nonwovens, and membranes. These can be used on their own or combined to form composites – composites have been a significant area of innovation in apparel and they are the likely source of future innovation in fabric technology.
Traditional Wovens & Knits
The seating fabric on an Aeron chair or the Nike Flyknit shoe are great example of the state of the art in traditional wovens and knits. These technologies take base yarns (which can have quite elaborate origin stories of its own), and then mechanically integrate them to create a fabric. Woven carbon fiber is an example of how new performance was brought to this field. Given many yarns have biological origins (cotton, wool, hemp, etc.), wovens and knits tend to the baseline for ‘environmentally friendly’ measures in this industry.
From an innovation standpoint, novel yarns can be a source of significant improvement – as woven carbon fiber, and the revolution brought on by nylon and other synthetic fibers, has demonstrated. Combining that capability with continued improvement in the complexity that can be achieved in weaving and knitting, and there is a roadmap for continued improved performance. For example, take N advanced technology yarns, and then combine them with a novel knitting or weaving process, and the sum of the parts could easily be greater than they were individually.
Nonwovens aren’t well known in the general population, but serve as the basis for the explosion in demand of consumer wipes, diapers, and other inexpensive polymer based materials. Historically, nonwovens haven’t fared well when launched as the true basis of apparel – they have lacked the hand and drape (textile-speak for ‘feel’) that is needed to succeed.
- Nonwovens are already widely used as ‘B’ surfaces in many sophisticated garments – high end suits, cold-weather jackets, gloves and
- Those inexpensive wipes, diapers and hygiene products are very sophisticated and have dramatically improved in performance since their introduction.
- Because of the many ways nonwovens are made, there are many points of insertion for new technology.
- Nonwovens manufacturers have a history of technical innovation and engineering.
Gore defined and pioneered the use of membranes in apparel with their high water barrier PTFE membrane Gore-Tex branded composite fabrics, which were made most popular through their end customer, The North Face. Membranes are largely developed for materials science applications first, then cross-applied into apparel where volumes (measured in area) can be higher, but more fickle.
Advanced membranes can provide performance in many ways – their primary use so far has been to provide a degree of breath-ability while preventing the wearer from getting wet. Membranes are crucial to battery technology – they form the separator that prevents the anode and cathode from reacting together too quickly. It could be here that they bring the quickest benefits to wearable technology.
Gore-Tex doesn’t sell just a fabric – it sells a fabric composite consisting of two membranes (one PTFE, one polyurethane) that are laminated between an outer layer, which is often a woven, and an inner layer, which can be a tricot (fancy knit) or even a nonwoven. Creating this composite requires significant art and manufacturing experience – it also enables the manufacturer and user to get the best of all the individual layers.
Rather than having the performance of a single fabric, a portfolio of characteristics is brought to the user. This makes the composite the most likely enabler of advanced performance: Take a woven with an advanced yarn, brought together with a purposely designed weave, attach a high performance membrane and combine with a novel nonwoven and you should be the right technology to bare.