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Upping the ante

My Take | November 11, 2019 | By:

by Janet Preus

The trend toward multi-functional capabilities in textiles is pretty well established now. Not all fabrics have to do all things, but the more advanced a textile is, the more likely it is to require more than one functionality. Just to be clear about the terminology. I’m using “functionality” in a broad sense; that is, a fabric that can be, for example, fire retardant, breathable, water resistant and washable. 

As consumers, I doubt we think very much about the list because the manufacturer has already done that for us. Our children’s pajamas must be soft, breathable, comfortable and fire resistant, and our rain jacket water resistant and breathable, at the least. Our outdoor furniture cushions should repel water, resist fading from the sun, and prevent mildew. And everything should be washable. 

I haven’t yet mentioned the multitude of industrial textiles that are used in other applications, from filters to road building, medical to military environments, protective gear for athletes, soldiers, cops and firefighters—and a lot more. In all of these cases, the fabrics used have to do more than one thing. A tent that keeps out the rain but quickly degrades in the sun has little value. An anti-ballistic vest that stops a bullet, but is cumbersome and uncomfortable isn’t serving soldiers and law enforcement as it should. And so forth. 

I’m just dusting the surface with functionality here, but you get the idea. Now, I’m going to make it complicated: whatever other functionalities you happen to need in a textile product, I want you to add “sustainable.” 

How about disposable nonwovens? Soft, skin-friendly of course, but don’t you want them to biodegrade, as well? The chemicals used in the patio chair cushions … what are they? Are they safe? The water repellent in your rain jacket … do you want that close to your skin?

Not surprisingly, the industry is looking at natural fibers in a new way to address the need for more sustainable textile materials. Cotton and hemp come to mind, but I’ve run a number of stories on Advanced Textiles Source about using plant-based fibers that are not so well known, including plant waste materials. In fact, I just put up a story about a new fabric made from banana leaves. (Generally, you’ll find these stories under the Eco Note tab.)

Our feature, “Pairing functionality and sustainability” by Seshadri Ramkumar, provides a number of great examples that underscores the solid trend toward more sustainable materials and processes in the industry. This shift is deep and wide, addressing how we make textiles, how we impart the necessary functionalities to them, and how we incorporate efficient and “clean” processes, including disposing of waste materials. 

It’s complicated and it can be expensive, but this is not stopping the progression in this direction. There are risks involved, to be sure, but the risks associated with not addressing sustainability are even more serious. I expect to continue to see new fibers, textiles and composites, processes, partnerships, technologies and ideas that will support a more sustainable, as well as profitable, industry. You can be sure that I will also continue to post these stories for you to read and evaluate.  

Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source. She can be reached at

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