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What is a textile?

March 12th, 2018 / By: / My Take

Easy answers: woven, knit or felted materials, generally composed of yarn or fibers. Hmm. Nonwovens, then? Same deal, only not knitted or woven. Sometimes. Felted, then? How about films? Plastics, generally?

Shall I go on?

Regardless of your take on this question, I would challenge you to find two dictionary definitions of the word “textile” that agree. They might be close (they like to use the term “cloth” for “material”) but they won’t be identical, that’s for sure. In fact, if you asked five people in the textile industry to define the word, you might get “blind-man-and-the-elephant”-like responses—I suspect, because the answer may depend on one’s personal involvement in a market segment.

I’m not trying to be difficult here; I’m trying to open the door to an interesting discussion about our understanding of this industry. When I started as an editor for IFAI, I had, at best, a very fuzzy idea of what a nonwoven could be. I’ve since learned that nonwovens offer a staggering future for textiles, due to the ability to engineer the chemistry that goes into the material that goes into a product that behaves like a textile.

And therein lies the definition on which I most often rely: If it behaves like a textile (is flexible enough to be rolled or folded), I call it a textile. Furthermore, all manner of textiles are used in composites (both rigid and flexible) and “hybrids” made with everything from glass to wood to ceramics. (See Marie O’Mahony’s feature, “Textiles in hybrids” on this site.)

I have not yet mentioned a flurry of new materials and technologies that could also fall under the textile umbrella, developed via research that’s more diverse than similar:

  • Using biomimetics to create smart fabrics for a range of purposes from medical to camouflage
  • 3D printed products that more typically would be sewn from a textile, such as clothing
  • Solar energy collecting films or cells paired with conductive yarn or thread
  • Biodegradable textiles made from non-food agricultural products such as milk waste or corn
  • Carbon fiber – multiple uses!
  • Foldable touch screens
  • E-tattoos
  • Thermally conductive rubber

And many more.

Why make a point of saying, “This is a textile, but this is not …?” I say let’s embrace these new approaches to the idea of a textile and see what great new uses for them might be developed next.


Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source. You can reach her at