A fashion line up using the same model

Nanomaterials to revolutionise the fashion industry

'Fashion-tech' has become a buzzword in both the fashion and technology sectors. E&T is the first to explore the potential nanomaterials have to revolutionise both industries.

Every so often a fashion innovation comes along that fits so seamlessly into our lives that we can't imagine a time when it wasn't hanging in our wardrobes. Ready-made, off-the-shelf clothing came about due to innovation in textile manufacturing in the 1830s, the advent of plastic zips in the 1950s revolutionised the fashion industry, and Teflon began to coat uniforms in the 1960s to increase their wearability. Could nanomaterials be the next big fashion-tech innovation?

'Fashion tech', a phrase bandied around far too often at sportswear launches, London Fashion Week and wearable device events, has faced widespread criticism by both industries. Beyond sewing LEDs onto dresses and integrating pedometers into bracelets, seemingly few industry experts can pinpoint how technology is going to influence fashion in the future.

While thousands of websites are praising a new age of wearable devices and smart materials, Google the phrase 'nanomaterials in fashion' and startlingly little has been researched or written. In a modern, tech-savvy age where the fashion and technology sectors are being heralded as industry's most promising new allies, it's a troubling disconnect.

It's not an illusion that the fashion industry has been slow to embrace and foster the use of technology within its hallowed halls. In an arena that thrives on the individuality of designers and the protected secrets of original design, few fashion designers have opted to open the closely guarded doors of their fashion-houses to the troublesome influence of engineers and scientists.

Changing its spots

There is one woman, however, who recognises the part technology has to play in sustainable design and smarter materials and who shuns the disconcerting advent of fast-fashion and sweat-shop manufacturing. Susan Postlethwaite, lecturer of MA Fashion Futures at the London College of Fashion (LCF) is trying to change the rigid way in which the fashion industry operates – one student at a time.

"The crux of teaching students from a technological and fashion point of view is that they will develop the ability to design from a theoretical perspective," says Postlethwaite. "The working environment at London College of Fashion allows students to use 3D design software and 3D printers to prototype ways of looking at fashion as a proactive and provocative discipline that can encompass ideas and ideals."

Postlethwaite teaches from a dual perspective of fashion and technology and her MA Fashion Futures course is one of the worryingly few to feature on today's university curriculums. She first introduced the idea of engineering into LCF when she created an MA in Fashion and the Environment, before reframing the course as MA Fashion Futures.

MA Fashion Futures looks at the role technology has to play in developing new ways of teaching and investigating clothing, footwear and accessory design, treating fashion as a critical study of materials and modern technologies rather than just the aesthetics of design. The course is cross-subject, collaborating with students from the product design, architecture, curation, industrial design, science, horticulture, philosophy, anthropology, publishing, film and social media departments to question modern fashion.

Postlethwaite believes that educating young designers to use new technologies such as nanomaterials could eventually give the brands that hire them a competitive edge. She says that artists are already beginning to work with scientists to make the nano process visible.

"It's vital the link between science and art becomes closer. As fashion designers we want to embrace technology by experimenting, but to do this we need scientists and engineers to build us things to play with. The 3D printer is a perfect example. It's a big focus of the Fashion Futures course."

Collaboration, Postlethwaite says, is the key to fusing the fashion and technology industries through shared knowledge and research. She sees partnerships with private organisations as the way forward; joining forces with technology organisations that have already developed processes and can bring them into the university. "The fashion industry is renowned for its slowness in up-taking new technologies," she says. "What's interesting from a university point of view is that we really want to work with the technologies but we can't invest in them because things change too quickly.

"We're living in an interesting time where lots of people wear very functional clothing, but on the catwalk we're still seeing fantastic invention. Thanks to the Internet we have a fashion-aware world, but people aren't wearing fashion the way that they used to."

Postlethwaite adds: "Performance sportswear and fashion are beginning to fuse, and sportswear is leading the way for high-performance fabrics. But nanomaterials are going to revolutionise fashion right the way through to couture."

Optical nanotextiles – a reflection of light or a reflection of infrared for sun protection – is one potential application for namomaterials in fashion, or the absorption of light and heat so a garment can cover less of your body but retain more warmth.

Commercial fashion technology

Thomas Stegmaier is a researcher at the Center of Excellence for Technical Textiles Denkendorf, a hi-tech German acceleration centre that specialises in creating technical fabrics with commercial potential. "We are using special electro-spinning technology to include nanoparticles in the fibre of garments," says Stegmaier. "If you wanted a magnetic property to a fibre, for example, we could introduce magnetic effect into the fibre.

"We can decrease the electrostatic effect to avoid electric shocks associated with cheap nylon clothing, or increase it to allow a garment to conduct electricity."

While Postlethwaite has yet to see the final potential applications for nanomaterials in couture fashion, she's under no illusion that textiles are its prime application. "We don't yet know what the possibilities are in nanomaterials in fashion, nevertheless we're sitting on the cusp of a technology that is going to change everything.

"In the end what people do with nanomaterials is going to be textiles related," she says. "The lightness, the impermeability, the practical side of integrating it into textiles will be its unique selling point. I was discussing recently the potential of almost invisible clothing, and when you're working with technology on a nano-scale you have the ability to integrate technology that is virtually invisible."

Fast fashion

Fashion is a fickle industry by nature, with garments becoming obsolete and landfill-worthy the moment a season passes, rendering entire lines unfashionable. This wasteful attitude has been compounded by the advent of fast fashion from high street stores such as Primark and H&M, who have benefitted from cheap international labour and increasingly falling material costs. In the meantime, these stores and their consumers are filling landfills at an alarmingly rapid rate.

Postlethwiate is attempting to rebalance this attitude towards disposable fashion by looking at new ways of designing clothes to last, including the exploitation of nanomaterials in production. "We're trying to slow down the cycle, to break away from the sped-up, transient nature of the fashion industry. From my perspective the market has become so risk averse it's almost lost its logic."

Time in fashion is predicted, designed and produced in six-month cycles; twice a year depending on whether a line falls into the spring and summer ranges (SS) or autumn and winter (AW). Although fashion changes over time, Postlethwaithe insists that there are not huge alterations from season to season and that most of the changes occur in colour, texture and pattern. She says the fashion industry would be sensible to look at seasons over ten-year periods and, rather than making radical changes every six months, pick classic shapes and cuts that could integrate nanomaterials to enable changes in colour, texture and function.

"I think there is always a problem with technologies that get too cheap," Postlethwaite says. "We are able to produce garments in the Far East that are so cheap they cost virtually nothing. The cost of fabrics becoming too cheap is not actually that desirable, we need to think about resources and the 'real' cost of things. Who is making these things and are they being fairly paid; there are implications all the way through manufacture. For me, cheap fashion is actually a problem. It means that we're going to consume more."

However, she says, there are dangers in using nanomaterials to manufacture garments that are too durable. "There is the possibility of making fabrics that won't degrade by using nanomaterials to delay the onset of decay – clothing that will last forever."

Postlethwaite says this will have a serious impact on how we design and use these fabrics. The paradigm is whether designers should be making things that don't ever degrade. She argues that our tastes change as we age, so clothing forms a function that allows us to express ourselves. If we make something that lasts forever, how useful is it?

This issue could be countered with a smart nano-textile that is recyclable. "Would we be able to recycle it? What is the longevity of a product like this and is it really sustainable if it goes to landfill when fashions change?" Postlethwaite asks. "If we could create an infinite fabric that we could recycle then that would be the ideal."

Nanomaterials on the catwalk

Despite lending obvious benefits such as waterproofing, electromagnetic conductivity, increased durability and insulation to textiles surprisingly few fashion designers have incorporated nanomaterials into new collections. The most likely explanation for this is the fashion industry's archaic reluctance to dip its toe into the field of technology as a whole. There are, however, still a few brave and innovative designers that have taken the risk and introduced the fashion-pack to nano-based garments.

An exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, recently revealed how nanomaterials have entered the couture slipstream of fashion. It displayed a dress by costume and fashion designer Alexander Ruth, made from a specially designed nanosilk. The couture dress was made from an impenetrable, high-performance fabric capable of protecting its wearer from being soaked in navy dye. During the exhibition demonstration, dye was poured over a model wearing the silk dress, which thirstily drank up the liquid while the model's skin remained completely unstained.

Nanomaterial's first foray onto the catwalk was executed through the vision of designer Tom Lipop, a self-confessed technology-addict who has designed for models Kate Moss and Erin O'Connor, during his SS14 show. Working out of a small studio in Hackney, east London, Lipop creates technically tailored pieces with laser-cut pockets and fabric-bonded, eliminated seams.

Lipop's true innovation lies in his specially formulated nanomaterial coating called nanobloc, which lends all the qualities of waterproofing to a garment without altering the texture of the fabric or compromising the look of the piece. A showerproof line of linen suiting and shirting, casual fit shirts and bamboo jersey t-shirts, made their way through the flashbulbs of the menswear equivalent of London Fashion Week.

Lipop praises the use of nanomaterials in fashion: "I'm really interested in techno fabrics. I have a cashmere fabric'that has been nano-bloced to make it water repellent and that is something I would'love to develop – a whole outfit that is waterproof. What if you want to go skinny-dipping but it's cold? There are really'interesting developments in the techno-fabric industry."

Dangers of nanomaterials

As with all new technologies there are those who believe nanomaterials could be a grave danger to wearers. Research proving that silver incorporated into nanomaterial garments made its way into water during trialling did little to calm fears in the scientific community.

Postlethwaite remains unconvinced. "To be honest, it's not a worry. I think obviously research needs to be done into the science of nanotechnology and its potential effects, but I'm sceptical of its risks and it's not the kind of anxiety I'd like to promote. I don't think that should stop us from using it."

She is keen to disapprove the scaremongering of nanomaterials in the fashion world as she thinks it could damage'the industry's useful expolitation of the new technology. "People are going to go ahead and develop things at the nano-scale anyway. I liken it to the relatively unfounded fear of mobile phones causing brain tumours, which in a modern age has done little to halt the development of the mobile phone industry or the number of consumers buying them."

Posthethwaite is right to be cavalier in her attitude to the risks of nanomaterials in textiles. The Umweltbundesamt (the German equivalent of the UK's Environment Agency) and The Center of Excellence for Technical Textiles Denkendorf have recently published some research exploring the few significant risks of silver-based nanomaterials being absorbed by the human'body through the skin and via German wastewater supplies.

"We've done a lot of research into the safety and dangers side of integrating metal oxide nanomaterials into textiles," says Stegmaier. "We have determined through three years of research that when using these types of nanomaterials in textiles or the finishing process that there are categorically no significant dangers.

"If you are using metals, minerals or oxides I see no real problem. The only possible exception is silver – if it finds itself into wastewater it could be a problem."

Nanomaterials can enter wastewater treatment plants via industrial and urban wastewater, and research has found a few isolated cases of toxic nanosilver particles forming in the sludge of wastewater facilities. However, using incinerators to destroy nanomaterial waste could prevent future contamination.

The Umweltbundesamt determined that healthy, intact skin is a good barrier for titanium and zinc oxide nanoparticles, which are used regularly in products such as sun cream. Silver particles were found on the upper dermal level of patients' skin and in the hair particles of wearers, but then simply rubbed off.

However, smaller particles can enter deeper layers of the skin, which could have further health implications. Research shows that gold nanoparticles (5nm in diameter) penetrated the horny layer of mouse skin, while quantum dots5 (Ø 4.5 nm – 12nm) penetrated the skin of pigs.

The Umweltbundesamt's report concluded that nanomaterials as a whole are not a dangerous technology if produced in a controlled environment, but could be a waste of finite resources. The report advised: "Designers, manufacturers and consumers should in particular review the use of precious metals and rare materials in textiles for their purpose and intended function. While the use of nano-silver can be useful in textiles of medical purpose, it may be a waste of valuable resources and pose environmental and health risks in clothes for everyday wear."

The benefits for the environment, it seems, could outweigh the negatives. Wearing nanosilver or triclosan-infused (biocidal) garments would reduce the wearer's carbon footprint as garments need fewer washes, which saves power and laundry detergents.

Wearing biocidal garments can reduce the wearer's water consumption and carbon footprint from 402kt (kilotonnes) of CO2 per year to 47kt of CO2 per year as the garment's enhanced antibacterial properties mean they need to be washed less frequently.

Improved dyeability in textiles also reduces the number of dyeing and washing cycles during manufacture and can therefore save raw materials and prevent wastewater.

"We're currently sitting on the cusp of what nanomaterials can do to revolutionise the fashion industry," says Postlethwaite. "Unfortunately, all we can do for now is sit and wait until the technology has advanced enough to see what this big change in textiles will do and see what designers can do with what innovative tools scientists can make for us." 

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