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'Extreme textiles' come of age

High-tech threads are bringing textiles into the realms of lifesaving medical devices, racing cars and, maybe one day, skyscrapers. Photos: Weaving high-tech fabrics of the future

A knitted bag holds a weakened heart, helping it pump blood. Electricity flows through the threads of a battery-powered fleece jacket, keeping the wearer warm.

Carbon fibers are braided into structures that look like mushrooms, but are actually prototypes of automotive engine valves. Other fibers are shaped into bicycle frames and sculling oars.


Textiles are no longer just the stuff of clothing, carpets and furniture covering. Made of high-tech threads, they can also be found in lifesaving medical devices and the bodies of racing cars. One architect is proposing building a skyscraper out of carbon fibers.

"I think there's more areas that are using textiles than there were before," said Matilda McQuaid, head of the textiles department at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, where 150 items showing the advances of materials science are on display in a show called "Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance."

In fact, textiles have long been used for more than clothes and rugs, said Peter Schwartz, head of the textile engineering department at Auburn University. "The Romans used jute fabrics for road stabilization," he said.

Many textiles are never seen, like those that are embedded in the rubber of automobile tires. "Not many people are quite aware of it," said Larry Q. Williams, business director of Invista, a company that makes a polyester fabric used in tires. "It's the polyester that's forming the shape of the tire and holding it together."

Otherwise, a tire "would immediately blow apart," Williams said. "Textile reinforcement of tires has existed as long as pneumatic tires have been built." Cotton textiles were used initially, followed by rayon and then nylon. But nylon had the problem of "flatspotting": When a car was parked for a while, the section pressed against the ground would harden and roll bumpily until the tire warmed up.

In the 1970s, polyester replaced nylon, and continual improvements in the textiles explain in part why tires now often last 80,000 miles instead of 10,000 to 15,000 miles.


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Threads made of a wide variety of new materials, including metals, carbon fibers and high-strength materials like Kevlar, have further widened the use of textiles. Chemical coatings stiffen them or add additional properties like fire resistance.

Woven electronics are not a new idea--the exhibit includes a prototype from 1960--but the concept of "smart" clothing, carpeting or wall covering is nearing practicality. Infineon Technologies, a German chipmaker, has made a snowboarding jacket that plays MP3s and a carpet that can report the footsteps of an intruder or the heat of a fire.

ILC Dover, of Frederica, Del., has developed technology for NASA that allows the outside of a spacesuit to act like a mouse pad for controlling computer functions. The electrical signals flow along metal-containing polymers in the suit's fabric, not metal wires. The circuitry is thus less likely to wear out or break.

"The uses are increasing in the high performance sector," Schwartz said. "People are looking at new polymers for fibers." For example, fibers that are more efficient at absorbing energy could lead to safer safety belts. Stronger fibers could be braided into ropes that could replace steel cables.

Squid Labs of Emeryville, Calif., has added microscopic strands of stainless steel to rope, making the rope electrically conductive. Pulling the rope changes the electrical resistance. For the Cooper-Hewitt show, Squid Labs built a jungle-gym-size gizmo that plays musical notes when visitors pull on the ropes. More practically, such rope could set off an alarm when it is fraying.


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"There is a lot of engineering that goes in the textiles," said McQuaid of Cooper-Hewitt.

Even so, today's textiles still show ancient patterns. "The weaving and knitting, the structures are identical to what were made way back when," Schwartz said.

The museum show largely overlooks one area of textile innovation, the so-called nonwovens, whose fibers are bound together in a random pattern. They can be found in bandages and diapers, among other items.

"But they're really boring to look at," said Susan Brown, an assistant curator of the show. "They might be really cool. They might be really interesting. They might do something great, but they come in the mail, and you're like, I can't put that in a museum."

Brown added, "We excluded a lot of really ugly things."

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