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What water bears and textiles could have in common one day

March 9th, 2020 / By: / My Take

by Janet Preus

I’ve noticed an interesting trend in fiber materials. While there have been amazing new fibers, yarns and fabrics created and manufactured, there has also been renewed interest in natural materials that have been around for a very long time. Not sure anybody knows exactly when cotton balls first became swaths of fabric, or coir was braided into ropes and fishing nets, but cotton, coir, hemp and many other natural materials are finding new uses, especially when combined with other fibers to create new functionality. 

Our feature, “Developments in advanced fibers” by Seshadri Ramkumar, makes note of new uses for old fibers (hemp, in particular, as it’s a hot topic now). But there are a number of other developments that have been in the making for some time. Another that Dr. Ramkumar discusses, and one that I find fascinating, is biomimicry. Synthetic silk is a good example, as it has moved well beyond the research lab and established a place in today’s fiber market. 

The lowly silkworm has had an impact, so when interest in an even lowlier (and more obscure) critter surfaced in Dr. Ramkumar’s article, I noticed. Tardigrades, aka “water bears,” were new to me. What could they have to do with textiles? The answer is, if scientists can figure out exactly how these tiny critters survive for years in environments that would spell the end to the vast majority of other species … well, maybe they can figure out how to engineer crops for fibers (such as cotton) to do the same: survive just about anything. Farming these crops would never be the same. 

Did you know about tardigrades? Did you also know that a type of brine shrimp that are millions of years old are being studied by textile researchers because of their temperature resistance? Until I ran a story about them in Advanced Textiles Source, I didn’t either. I also learned that squid have been studied because of their ability to not just camouflage themselves, but change their camouflage, depending on the circumstances, and they can also repair themselves, a capability that would extremely useful in military applications (most obviously), but in hundreds of other environments, as well. 

But I digress. 

The point is that new research in textiles is anything but boring. In fact, the creativity shown by the scientific community addressing new challenges is astounding. What I want to know is this. What made a textile scientist think of studying tardigrades (or brine shrimp, or cephalopods) in the first place? That could be a story right there.