Opening the door of a future wardrobe reveals some exciting news. Vitamin-rich, skin nourishing shirts, jackets and dresses rest on hangers next to t-shirts, pullovers and trousers that support us with energy, cool us and optimize our oxygen consumption while we exercise. They also ease our recovery in case of ill health or injuries. When we are preparing for a party, we can set our eyes on 3D-printed, made-to-measure dresses, and if we need protection from harsh, stormy climates we can lay our hands on our spider silk parka, bioengineered for our comfort.
The future’s new clothes detox us, support us, grow with us, change their colours, shapes and functions to meet our needs. And what’s best, they may do it without harming the environment. Who said fashion has lost its innovativeness? The glimpse inside our future wardrobe is thrilling.
Daily functionality and delight: Bio-based textiles
Future textiles as they are developed now can be divided in bio-based, synthetic/ technical and hybrid forms. Bio-based textiles range from waste-based to bacteria-infused and to lab-grown materials.[i]
The shirts we wear in the office may come from Orange Fiber. The company has chosen the citrus juice industry as their material supplier. They use the processed, squeezed citrus fruit pulp that is left over from juice production as their resource for a new yarn and turn it into wearable products. This is done by extracting cellulose from the juice production leftovers that would normally end up as waste, and treating it with a patented process. The citrus fruit yarn is not unlike silk in its properties: soft to skin with a gleaming appearance. Thus the yarn may function as a sustainable alternative to silk, or even as an upgrade to it as essential oils that nourish the skin have been capsuled inside the material. The outcome may not be far from a wearable vitamin cream. [ii] [iii]
Our printed dresses and t-shirts may come from Blond and Bieber. They use the astonishing colour palette of algae pigments for their work, and their analogue algae printer “Algaemy” works circularly and autarchically in producing colour pigments from the algae without using any further energy or material. In use, the algae-dyed textiles easily change their colours when getting in contact with sunlight, which makes it at first sight an unpredictable material. On the other hand it is a real asset, because of its variability.[iv]
Algae has wider potential as well, and we may have some pieces in our wardrobe that use algae as a raw material. Contrary to many currently used textile raw materials, algae may be grown in oceans, lakes and waterways instead of taking up arable land that could be used for food production. Naturally it does not require irrigation either. Algae may also reduce the need for transportation in textile production as it is available in coastal regions globally.[v]
The right clothes for bad weather may be woven from gelatin yarn. The ETH Zürich developed a process to post-treat gelatin made from animal byproducts with formaldehyde and wool grease. This additives function as “wax“ for the porous surface and make the natural water-permeable structure of gelatin subsequently water-resistant. The porous filaments with not interconnected pores are seen as a huge asset in order to produce textiles with excellent thermal insulation. As a finishing the yarns are treated in 120 °C to completely remove the free formaldehyde from the textile.[vi] “In terms of environmental safety and compatibility it would nevertheless be beneficial to find another cross-linking procedure”, Philipp Stoessel of the development group explains.[vii]
Meeting individual needs: New synthetic and technical textiles
A new breed of technical, synthetic materials aim at meeting the individual needs today’s – and tomorrow’s – consumers may have. We may be soon wearing Adidas’ Sport Infinity footwear that have been 3D-printed to perfectly fit our feet. The composite “supermaterial” our shoes are made from can be recycled and redesigned endlessly. This allows us to change our shoes if our feet have special needs from one day to another, or if we just feel like another design. The partly waste-based material will be upcycled back to the production loop.[viii]
While training, we may benefit from Far Infrared Radiation (FIR) implemented in our sportswear. The researchers of the Human Performance Lab, Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary in Canada are experimenting with the well-known positive physiological effects of Far Infrared Radiation (FIR) implemented in apparel. Their main research focuses on the possibility of decreasing the oxygen consumption of athletes while exercising. The purpose-built sport apparel has woven-in ceramic nanoparticles that function as the carrier for FIR. As the body heat rises, the ceramic particles emit FIR. Then the activated FIR transfers energy in form of heat back to the body. Athletes with the FIR apparel consumed less oxygen compared to athletes wearing a garment without the FIR nanoparticles. Other potential benefits include easing recovery in case of an injury, or easing symptoms of for example arthritis or menstrual pain.[ix]
For a night out we may indulge in one of Iris van Herpen’s 3D-printed dresses. The Dutch designer has been one of the first designers to explore 3D printing in fashion and her latest collection presented dresses made from a fine-spun web of flexible thermoplastic polyurethane and polyamide. Each of the dresses have been sewn together from 5,000 3D-printed parts, but perhaps soon – to make the pieces more available – this part is given to robots to do; van Herpen is not new to this area either.[x] [xi]
When we need warmth and protection, we can bundle up in our The North Face Moon Parka made from synthetic spider silk. The material of the parka has been developed together with Spiber and is extremely strong, resilient and elastic, following its natural paragon spider silk.
Fusing biology with high technology: Hybrid textiles
Biotechnology offers vast potential for future fashion that takes the best of both worlds. Hybrid materials that bridge biological and synthetic ingredients and processes may combine high-tech functionality with environmental credentials.[xii]
Synthetic coatings and structures that add functionality to our performance wear may soon be so last season, if you ask MIT researcher Lining Yao. Yao has developed clothing that responds to the changing body temperature and humidity with the help of natto bacteria. The hydromorphic natto bacteria form a biofilm that is printed in layers on the fabric of Second Skin clothing. The bacteria reacts to changes in body temperature and humidity, curl up and let the body breathe.[xiii]
The future wardrobe: Drivers for change
The development of these new textiles is driven by the interest in optimising and increasing performance on one hand, and the quest for a more sustainable fashion production and consumption system on the other. In some cases, these even merge. We may be filling our future closets with items that enhance our performance or well-being while being environmentally friendly and easy to replace without a bad conscience. Sustainable, functional fast fashion sounds like an illusion, but is it?
Cries for the accelerated pace of fashion to slow down have been widely heard, but this may not be happening.[xiv] Consumers enjoy the convenience of instant gratification, and for fast fashion companies the incentive to slow down may not be so lucrative either. Professor Rebecca Earley has a fresh viewpoint to the discussion, arguing that the time cycles in current fashion system are out of sync: we consume slow materials in a very fast way. Slow materials are for instance cotton that needs a long time to grow and to be processed or polyester as an oil-based synthetic fibre that needs a huge amount of resources in order to get dissolved again after it is used. Her resolution is sustainable fast fashion. New resources and production processes create new materials that are endlessly recyclable and/or bio-based and at the same time fulfill or even exceed today’s characteristics that make textiles wearable and desirable.[xv] These developments are happening in laboratories and innovation incubators as we speak, but it may still take a long time before these innovative textiles reach the market. It may also take an even longer time until they reach the high street price points. Maybe we can do a proper spring clean to our closets while waiting.
Image via Flickr
[i] Luczak, K., “Biological Couture”, Scenario Magazine, 5/ 2014.
[vi] Stoessel, P. R., Krebs, U., Hufenus, R., Zeltner, M., Halbeisen, M., Stark, W. J., 2015. Porous, Water-Resistant Multifilament Yarn Spun from Gelatin. Biomacromolecules, 16(7), pp. 1997-2005.
[ix] Worobets, J. T., Skolnik, E. R., Stefanyshyn, D. J., 2015. Apparel with Far Infrared Radiation for Decreasing an Athlete’s Oxygen Consumption during Submaximal Exercise. Research Journal of Textile and Apparel, 19(3), pp. 52-57.
[xii] Ng, M. C. F., Wang, W., 2015. A Study of the Receptivity to Bacterial Cellulosic Pellicle for Fashion. Research Journal of Textile and Apparel, 19(4), pp. 65-69.
[xiv] Malchevski, M. & Larsen, N., “Future Fashion is Slow”, Scenario Magazine, 6/2014.