Cotton is certainly promoted as the fabric of our lives, but it has a secret life many of us don't know about: the chemistry voodoo required to transform it into a fabric that's actually lifestyle-friendly.
Cotton is cultivated outdoors, so the soil, weather and processing all impact the resulting crop, meaning that not all cotton is created uniformly. As the microscope closeup reveals, the cotton fibers themselves twist along their axis. These curves make it difficult to treat the resulting fabric's surface. Since many traditional surface-chemistry techniques simply don't work, it's quite difficult to embed cotton textiles with the properties that designers are looking for in a fabric. So textile chemists are delving down to the level of the individual atoms and molecules to manipulate and improve a textile's physical, chemical and biological properties - the science of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is less about miniaturization than it is alchemy. Adding silver nanoparticles (Ag) to cotton makes it antibacterial. Gold (Au) will enable the fabric to detect biological compounds and to trap viruses. Platinum (Pt) and palladium (Pd) both function to decompose harmful gases and toxic industrial chemicals. "These functions are incorporated into the cotton fabrics without affecting their texture or comfort," explains Juan Hinestroza, Associate Professor of Fiber Science and director of The Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory at Cornell University. "The cross-sectional dimension of cotton fibers is in the micron range so the presence of a monolayer of nanoparticles will not be perceptible to the touch." (image)
Hinestroza notes that while this technology is cutting-edge impressive, the fashion crowd tends to prioritize looks over function and will no doubt be much more impressed by the whiz-bang artistry of surface plasmons, electrons that oscillate and interact with a topcoat of nanoparticles, changing the color. "For example, if the designer desires to have a golden finish for his/her piece, Ag nanoparticles can be used to create a shiny metallic-yellow color while simultaneously imparting antibacterial properties," says Hinestroza. "Having a controllable color palette for any fabric is a dream-made-reality for a fashion designer."
The dress at left was made by one of Dr. Hinestroza's students using fabrics containing no dyes; it gets its color from nanotech wizardry. (image source)
Hinestroza has been helping students in Cornell's Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design uncover the nexus of materials science and fashion. "We have a unique structure," he jokes. "I call them schizophrenic." Whatever you call them, call 'em innovative for having designed a bodysuit that can repell mosquitoes carrying malaria, a cotton frock that captures solar power to recharge iGadgets and fabrics embedded with nanoparticles that, when the distance between them changes, change color.
Or give you sartorial superpowers.
Superheroes from as far back as 1939 continue to inspire Hinestroza for their imagination and vision. Decades before Dupont invented fabrics like Kevlar and Nomex in the 60s, the early comic-book artists were already suiting up their ninjas in stretch spandex-esque ensembles that were both fire-resistant and bulletproof. "Instead of making a material and finding an application for that, I like the idea of, Oh, I have this dream. Make me a material to make my idea a reality," adds Hinestroza who, when he dreams about the future, doesn't yearn for a car that flies, a robot that manages his life or even the ability to cryogenically preserve his brain. No, he wants what every lazy college kid and single guy dreams of: clean clothes that never require having to do laundry. He jokes (sort of): "I don’t like the concept of washing." (image)
Instead of railing against technology or worse, running from it, the Futurenetic fashion tribe* seeks to embrace tech and find a sustainable way forward for style. Some, like Hinestroza, use nanotechnology. Others have turned to biology, designing clothing inspired by the first 1000 hours following conception, botany (mega-antioxidant plants with roots that cultivate lace fashion trim) and test tubes (victimless leather brewed up in the lab).
Or, they simply dream big about the days when we will be able to tissue-engineer our jewelry using the literal fabric of our lives: the skin we're in.
*NOTE: IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT EACH FASHION TRIBE, START HERE.
Podcast music: Kevin MacLeod, Incompetech.com
- Lesley Scott