While it may seem that the U.S. textile industry has largely headed overseas – thanks to the ever-present “Made In…” tags tucked into the seams of every item you buy – we’re actually about to witness a revival in U.S. textile manufacturing.
This revival will primarily be due to the textile industry’s latest advancement, digital technology.
Sooner rather than later, smart technology will not only be woven into the fabric of our daily lives but, quite literally, into the fabric of our clothes.
We’re essentially merging traditional textiles with cutting-edge technology to create a new frontier for both industries. And it’s all happening right here, in the United States.
Taking Textiles to a New Level
Whether you call it smart clothing, functional fabric, or textile devices, these innovations are groundbreaking.
Electrical engineers, material scientists, software developers, manufacturers, and fashion designers have all collaborated in an effort to merge the age-old industry of textile materials with nano-technology and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Today’s smart fabrics are far more complex than a blend of wools, cottons, and polyesters.
They incorporate a variety of metals, fiberglass, and ceramics. Rather than being superficially glued together, these make up the basic elements of the fiber, itself.
These innovative fabrics – while not yet made to wear as a fashion statement – serve much-needed and practical purposes of safety and protection.
While semiconductors and sensors are the lifeblood of most technologies – from telecommunications to transportation to energy – their integration into textiles is brand new.
The textile industry is reinventing fabrics to allow them to collect and store data in order to address many unresolved human needs.
Already, scientists have developed fabrics that react not only to the signals our body emits but to the elements it faces.
After collecting the data, high-tech fabrics can actually process that information. This means that the fabric will be able to see, hear, communicate, and store energy. Ultimately, the fabric will monitor the health of and heat or cool its wearer, accordingly.
Some articles of clothing currently in the making include safety gloves for industrial businesses and body armor for the military. Weaving chips into the fabric of these items is practical for mountain climbers and triathletes, as well as our nation’s defense.
Imagine the possibilities: camouflaged, weather-resistant, and temperature-controlled uniforms for military and law enforcement, alike. Think about our soldiers being in ground combat and making their clothing invisible to the enemy.
Other novel properties, with wide-ranging applications, include fabrics that are incredibly lightweight and durable, as well as flame resistant.
These technical textiles can forge protective gear for firefighters, rendering them impervious to flames, replicate the sensing capabilities of a smart watch, or detect when a wounded soldier needs to be treated with an antimicrobial compression bandage.
Dressing the Department of Defense
With so many incredible possibilities, the U.S. government is already backing this initiative.
The Obama Administration has just announced the New Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Hub in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a reported $2 billion in manufacturing research and development (R&D) investments.
This leading consortium of 89 manufacturers, universities, and non-profits, organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will spearhead a new manufacturing innovation institute in partnership with the Department of Defense.
Having already brought in over $300 million in public-private investment from leading universities and manufacturers, this initiative aims to accelerate the revival of the U.S. textile industry. It expects to generate over 50,000 jobs in multiple fields the next 10 years.
Involving the Academics
Professor Yoel Fink of MIT explains that light conducting fibers could function as optical identifiers or barcodes, and fibers comprised of lasers could project light in multiple colors.
These high tech fibers collect information and can actually see light and develop perception of depth.
They function like cameras, but rather than a single aperture by which to view the world, there will be thousands of viewpoints covering the surface of the material.
Further, Fink explains that the fibers can pick up sound and translate it into an electrical signal such that the wearer would be able to play music directly from the clothing, eliminating the need for uncomfortable earphones.
Genevieve Dion of Drexel University examined future knitting capabilities. She explains that, by adding conductive yarn to different types of knit structures, knitting as a digital fabrication can mimic 3-D printing.
By weaving fabric of the average belly band, worn by pregnant women, with carbon fiber and integrated super capacitor, the wearer can wirelessly monitor the baby’s vitals on a moment-to-moment basis directly from her sweater.
Juan Hinestroza of Cornell University stated, “I believe that one of the big transformations of the 21st century is going to be taking fabrics and apparel and turning them from something that has a fairly low functionality into a functional high-tech industry.”
Hinestroza considers cotton to be one of most fascinating and misunderstood materials, despite the fact that civilization has been wearing if for thousands of years.
Rather than merely adding function to the material (i.e., the Apple watch), the material becomes the function with automatic abilities. Just like the materials worn by Spiderman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, the average person will have almost super human abilities to keep themselves healthy and safe inside their clothes.
By adjusting both the size and the space between nano-particles, Hinestroza’s team was able to control the interaction between light and matter, meaning we can make and control colors.
By making transistors from cotton, his student discovered how to trap toxic gasses or smells in a selective manner, which would change the threat of chemical or biological warfare, and prevent epidemics.
Weaving in Profits
As this exciting new innovation spans multiple industries, the investment opportunities are incredibly diversified.
Further, textile manufactures like International Textile Group Inc. (ITXN), apparel companies such as VF Corp. (VFC) and Columbia Sportswear Company (COLM), materials businesses like Corning Inc. (GLW), as well as health and biotech companies like Amgen Inc. (AMGN) will all see major growth from the imminent success of smart fabrics.
In the meantime, just image: Soon you’ll be able to attend a sporting event in a textile device. If it starts to rain, your sweatshirt will not only keep you warm and dry, but you can even change its color and pattern and root for the opposing team, if you so please.