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Running out of definitions

My Take | July 25, 2022 | By: Janet Preus

Little by little we, as an industry, have expanded our view of what is a textile. Actually, many of the materials that are part of the stories we’ve run on the Advanced Textiles Source site are not “textiles” at all. Or fabric. They may not be called vinyls or even film. They are something else. But it is a something else that can be used in a way we may use a textile, or it is a material that has certain properties that are similar in some ways to a textile, or it is combined with a textile to make it, well … something else. 

Is it flexible? Lightweight? Can it be rolled up? Sewn? Welded? Manufactured using equipment typical of an industrial fabric operation? Is it part of a flexible composite, or is it an entirely new woven, knit or nonwoven? Is it none of the above, and yet we embrace it as a newcomer to the industry. (Don’t ask me for an example on that one, but I bet I could find a few, if you insisted.)

Engineered materials are often a proprietary product (we’ll call it product X) that was developed for a specific purpose and one that is owned and used by a single entity. At some point, product X may become available on the market, but maybe not. Maybe another material will be developed–engineered–that’s even better, and the new one (product Y) will ultimately be the one that’s commercialized and product X will be phased out. If product Y is engineered from completely new materials, but it functions in a similar way as product X, would you classify them together?

I hope you don’t think I’m being overly simplistic or talking in circles. I’m trying to break it down into its parts and to illustrate a point: but for the necessity of establishing and observing standards in function and safety, we don’t have to classify them. 

The truth is a discussion emanating from a feature and blog post in June of this year sparked the interest, in particular, of one of our Advanced Textiles Association long-time members, who had some thoughts of his own on the topic, took the idea and pushed the boundaries even further. You’ll want to read “Breaking out of the bubble” by Bud Weisbart. 

We’re not out to dictate to anyone how one should define materials that belong or don’t belong in this industry we call industrial or functional fabrics. But we are both interested in future developments and how new opportunities can be created for businesses to stay strong and grow. 

The most obvious example is in smart fabrics, especially e-textiles. There’s no way an expert in electronics, or a fashion designer, or a textile manufacturer, or a textile researcher on his or her own could have accomplished what the industry has now achieved in e-textiles. And we’re just getting started. Why? Because people with expertise in a variety of disciplines got together and starting to work things out collaboratively. 

Successes have been incremental, but of this I’m sure: they happened because participants kept an open mind, were willing to try (and sometimes fail) and, in the words of Weisbart’s article, escaped their “bubble.” May I remind you that this organization used to be all about canvas tents and awnings. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but can you imagine if we had stayed inside that bubble?

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

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