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Fabrics represent a broad range of versatility in design applications. Still, there are limits; common properties exhibited by textiles, such as softness and elasticity, have restricted the use of fabrics in functions better suited to rigid materials, such as impact-resistant surfaces or electronic devices. However, because textiles’ supple and flexible attributes are highly desirable—and in many cases preferred over the characteristics of inflexible substances—advances in fabric technologies and production methods are expanding their material capacities in novel directions.

One example of an unexpected capability in fabrics is puncture resistance. Advanced materials such as aramid 1414 and ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene can withstand cutting. However, such fabrics have less capacity to tolerate strong punctures. Researchers at Tianjin University in China recently published their development of a stab-resistant material made from aramid fibers coated with polyacrylate and carbon nanotubes. The new textile solves prior limitations. In current protective fabric technology, cutting is inhibited primarily due to friction caused by interlocking or rough-textured fibers. However, increasing friction has thus far required adding thickness, weight, or rigidity. The Tianjin team’s use of polyacrylate emulsion and carbon nanotube coatings increases friction due to the creation of new inter-fiber bridges—while maintaining material lightness and flexibility. In addition to puncture-resistant apparel and packaging, the new fabric shows potential for robust architectural textiles.

The effective conduction of electricity is another example of a surprising textile trait. Smart fabrics have long been anticipated to replace portable electronics as effective vehicles for electricity and digital media. However, the fragility of electrical wiring and the need for high conductivity have thus far slowed the development of such materials. Engineers at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University have found a promising solution: a novel soft material that transmits power like conductive metals. The new composite is an organogel, a polymer gel with a cross-linked internal structure, infused with liquid metal. The admixture represents a hopeful future for softbotics—a movement to create more interactive, flexible, and user-focused robots. Developed by lead mechanical engineer Carmel Majidi, the new conductive organogel is highly elastic and possesses inherent self-healing properties. “This is the first soft material that can maintain a high enough electrical conductivity to support digital electronics and power-hungry devices,” Majidi said in a CMU press release. “We have demonstrated that you can actually power motors with it.”

Fabric innovations are also delivering unanticipated new products that support a circular economy. French company FabBRICK manufactures solid construction modules out of recycled textiles. Company founder Clarisse Merlet noted the extent of material waste in building construction as well as the clothing industry while she was an architecture student. Seeking a solution, she devised a successful method of transforming discarded apparel into building blocks for interior partitions, furnishings, and surfaces. To make the modules, Merlet and her team first crush and shred unwanted textiles into small pieces. Next, they mix these fragments with a bio-based, mold-resistant glue to create a composite material with a clay-like consistency. They then compress this textile composite into a mold. Each textile ‘brick’ requires 30 minutes for shaping and 10 to 15 days to air-dry.

FabBRICK invites organizations to donate their textile waste for use as a feedstock for new types of products, including decorative objects and a so-called “coating brick” wall covering. The company’s contribution to the textile industry is not only to devise a novel application (e.g., building blocks) in need of greater resource efficiency but also to increase the resourcefulness of the sector itself. “Fast fashion is everywhere, so we can always be close to a source of textile waste,” Merlet told Capital Finance International. “The next step is to automate production so that we can recycle even more.”

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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