High tech fabrics grow with sports market demands

March 3rd, 2017 / By: / In the Industry

When you think about high-tech sports and recreation products designed to help athletes hone the competitive edge, equipment rather than fabric likely springs to mind first, but this reaction is behind the times—fabrics have evolved to become essential performance enhancers. And as technology continues to progress, manufacturers of sports and recreation fabrics and fabric-based products are not only able to meet the ever-changing demands of serious and professional athletes, they’re also seeing new markets open up as even weekend warriors become aware of the advantages these sophisticated fabrics offer.

Fabric advancements are “seemingly endless,” says Maureen MacGillivray, Ph.D. and professor of Functional Apparel Design with the Center for Merchandising and Design Technology at Central Michigan University. Located in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., among other services, the center assists clients with prototype designs and helps them select and evaluate fabrics and other components.

“We have a lot of expertise in helping customers understand the thermal properties of their fabrics and designs,” she explains. “For example, if a manufacturer of ski wear is trying to determine the best insulation for their garments, we can evaluate the insulation they’re considering with our hotplate—which assesses wet and dry thermal transmissions—to determine the best solution.”

A thermal manikin is also used for manufacturers wanting to determine the effectiveness of entire garment systems (such as a next-to-skin garment, along with an insulated vest and a wind- and water-resistant outer layer). “We can test these systems under standard conditions or under the environmental conditions in which they’ll be worn, including air temperature and humidity,” she says.

Some advancements MacGillivray mentions include antimicrobial fabrics, fabrics that can stretch in all directions, extremely strong and tough but featherweight fabrics like synthetic silk, and those that can cool or warm the wearer depending on the temperature. There are also self-cleaning fabrics that can illuminate and insulate, fabrics that generate power as the wearer moves (“Enough to power wearable electronics,” she says), self-repairing textiles that can also neutralize chemicals and next-to-skin fabrics that moderate the microclimate.

Providing protection

Keeping athletes comfortable, flexible and unhindered while still protecting them from injury seems a tall order. At one time it was. But technology has now made both functions possible. Consider Epoch Lacrosse LLC. Headquartered in Roseville, Minn., the design and engineering company manufactures lacrosse equipment for players 10 years old and up, and college and pro-league players, says James Miceli, principal and founder.

Lacrosse is a skillful, sometimes brutal, game where players must move with alacrity, even when wearing typically cumbersome body protection. It’s also a sport subject to temperature extremes, says Miceli. In many parts of the country, the season starts out in freezing weather and finishes up in the summer, leaving players shivering or overheated—additional impediments to optimal performance.

Presented with this problem, Epoch began looking for a solution. The search led them to phase change technology, now used in the company’s Integra line of protective gear, introduced in late 2016. Consisting of gloves, shoulder pads and arm pads, Integra is the company’s first foray into protective gear (previously, Epoch offered only equipment).

The phase change material—sourced from the aerospace industry—incorporates micro-crystals that adjust to changes in body temperatures. When cold, the crystals freeze and tighten up the fabric, making it less porous and preventing cold air from coming in. When hot, the crystals melt, causing the fabric and the spaces between the fabric to open up and become more porous, allowing for airflow.

Along with other design innovations and materials, Integra products also incorporate Carbitex, a flexible, stabilized and extremely lightweight carbon fiber that offers improved impact protection and mobility, and is resistant to abrasions. Carbitex is used on high-impact areas; the phase change textile is located on areas that touch the skin.

“We take pride in designing and manufacturing lacrosse equipment that pushes the technological envelope. Because we’re nimble and so focused on one area we can prototype very quickly, so we’re constantly looking for new products,” says Miceli.

D3O is also continually developing new technology, says Louise Wilson, head of marketing communications for the company. Located in Croydon, South London, U.K., D3O specializes in impact protection and shock absorption, providing high-performance materials used by global sports, motorcycle and defense brands, among others. Some of the protective sports products they offer include running insoles; knee pads for mountain biking; helmet liners for hockey, American football, baseball and lacrosse; and body protection like impact shorts and back protectors used in hockey, mountain biking, snow sports and football.

These products (made from polymer-based materials, typically foam and elastomers) incorporate the company’s D3O® technology, used to make “rate-sensitive, soft, flexible materials with high shock-absorbing properties that are used in impact-protection products,” says Wilson. The material is designed to flow freely but stiffen on impact, absorbing and dissipating energy, reducing its force.

Over the past four years, the company has expanded its materials portfolio from three formulations to more than 25. D3O collaborated with DuPont for a recent development, a rate-sensitive thermoplastic. Dubbed D3O® powered by DuPont™ Hytrel®, the material is designed to stiffen under “higher frequencies” yet still maintain its durable properties.

“It means under higher energies or strain,” Wilson explains. “For example, walking is lower frequency than running. Or, imagine a ski boot, which flexes for beginners or when cruising but stiffens when racing, where the skier is pushing harder or faster.

“D3O has also developed new running insoles in partnership with Enertor™,” she continues. “Unlike traditional EVA [ethylene vinyl acetate] materials, the D3O material doesn’t degrade quickly after repeated impacts, enabling runners to train harder for longer without risk of injury. The product offers 44 percent shock absorption.”

Wilson says they’ve noticed consumers are becoming more proactive, embracing protection before injury rather than after, a mind-set encouraged by advancements in fabric technology. They’re also seeing greater adoption of advanced sports technologies in everyday consumer products.

Thermal control

Fabrics that respond to wearers’ changes in body temperature, keeping them cooler or warmer as conditions require, are in high demand—so much so that Darren Berezowski, president of Garmatex Technologies Inc., describes thermal control as “one of the new hot topics in the fabric world.”

Garmatex, headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, provides synthetic performance fabric solutions/technologies to multiple textile categories, including sports apparel, military and many more: “Virtually every sector that has textile applications,” says Berezowski. The company focuses on moisture, thermal, bacteria, odor, abrasion and movement management.

A fabric used in the sports world (among other industries) is Kottinu®, a polyester or micro-poly that mimics cotton’s feel and comfort, but is designed to wick away moisture and dry faster than cotton.

“A three-month military test was conducted using Kottinu shirts under very demanding conditions,” says Berezowski. “The results were unanimous; military users felt cooler, the shirts dried faster, they had less body odor and they felt more comfortable than in anything previously worn under similar conditions.”

Another Garmatex product is IceSkin™. Designed to reduce skin surface temperature, it’s engineered through a multilayer, three-dimensional knitting process. The polyester and nylon blend fabric combines a high percentage of natural jade mineral with the company’s CoolSkin® microfiber technology. Other thermal control products include ColdSkin™, which promotes extra cooling through a thermal reduction process and a natural cooling agent when excess heat is built up; and WarmSkin®, which increases retention of the body’s natural heat and removes unwanted moisture from the skin.

Polartec® LLC is a Lawrence, Mass.-based provider of textile solutions that produces fabric for the “who’s who” of the outdoor sports industry, says Michael Cattanach, global product director for the company. Alpha® is one of Polartec’s insulating fabrics, constructed to provide warmth without weight via low-density fibers placed between air-permeable woven layers. Launched three years ago, the knitted, fuzzy polyester fabric exists partly because the U.S. Special Forces came to Polartec seeking a fabric to replace down.

“Down would get too hot during maneuvers or hiking,” Cattanach says. “They wanted something that would keep them warm but would also respond to changes in body temperature. They were also looking for something quicker drying than down.” As a test, Special Forces members had to jump into rivers wearing items made from the various fabrics under consideration to see how fast the material would dry (“Ours came out on top,” says Cattanach).

NeoShell® is one of Polartec’s protection fabrics. The 100 percent waterproof shell is constructed to be truly air permeable. The outside of the fabric is a knitted stretch synthetic nylon or polyester. In the middle is a porous, submicron membrane designed to release moisture more easily. The inner layer is typically another version of the outer layer.

“The technological advancement is in the middle layer, comprised of polyurethane,” Cattanach explains. “This technology involved a process of electrospinning, enabling us to balance waterproofness with air permeability.”

Polartec fabrics have typically ended up in products used by avid outdoor sports enthusiasts, like hard-core mountain climbers or participants in extreme sports. But recently the company has been branching out to somewhat tamer markets, such as golf, running and cycling. A fabric with broader appeal is Delta™, a cooling, next-to-skin base blend of polyester and Tencel®. With Delta, they’re trying to find the middle ground of taking moisture away from the body and combining this with the characteristic of a cotton T-shirt, says Cattanach. Engineered with elevated structures knitted across the surface and enhanced with hydrophobic and hydrophilic yarns, the fabric is recommended for gym or golf shirts and for very hot conditions.

The sports world offers fantastic opportunities for companies providing performance-based fabrics and fabric products, says Berezowski. “Sales have skyrocketed in recent years and will continue to see significant growth,” he says. “Estimated at $150 billion today, Allied Market Research forecasts ‘the world sports apparel market is expected to generate revenue of $184.6 billion by 2020.’”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a Long Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.