Textile Science: More Than Just Wearable Tech

Science & Textiles For many people, “textile science” brings to mind immediate thoughts on wearable technology and “smart” textiles. And it’s true! Over the past 60 years or so, the textile industry has completely revolutionized at a pace never before seen. Advancements in technology and corresponding surface design have driven a whole new market. But beyond these more obvious developments, the following article explores the science of textiles (and the history thereof), as well as textile application within science. More than just performance athletic wear and wearable tech, textiles and science have a long, intertwined history – one that is changing rapidly with today’s newest discoveries and experiments.


Isabel Dodd, silk satin and polyester velvet machine-embroidered for scarves, 2004. Silk and polyester are embroidered together and then submerged in a caustic soda solution, creating this beautifully crumpled texture.

Photo courtesy of Clarke, Sarah E. Braddock., Marie O’Mahony, and Sarah E. Braddock. Clarke. Techno Textiles 2. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2006, p95.


The Science of Textiles For centuries, the science – chemistry, biology, physics – of textiles has been inseparable from the textiles that make up our everyday lives. Years and years of research on this science had to have been conducted to understand what differentiates cotton from wool from silk. On the most basic level, a textile fiber is “a unit of matter” with a “length at least 100 times its diameter or width” and “can be spun into yarn or made into a fabric.” What makes these fibers different from each other is their polymeric substance, cross-sectional shape, and surface contour.


Photo courtesy of C K Dixit. (2015). Textile Fibers (Version 1.0.0) [Mobile Application Software]. Retrieved from http://www.play.google.com.


Fabrics can be further classified into woven, knit, and nonwoven fabrics. Woven fabrics are comprised of fibers that run perpendicularly to each other (the longitudinal threads are the warp, while the lateral threads the weft), creating a criss-crossed pattern. On the other hand, nonwoven fabrics do not have yarns, and it is instead the arrangement of fibers that describes the construction. Nonwoven fabrics are bonded together, usually through mechanical, chemical, or thermal means. The fibers are entangled, creating sheet or web structures, such as the widely used material, felt. Since they are not made by knitting or weaving, they do not require yarn to be made from fibers. Knitted fabrics are a third category, which are the most flexible of the bunch and are made by interlooping strands of yarn to create a soft, breathable textile. Since knits are made from one continuous thread or yarn, they can be stretched in all directions – while woven fabrics can only be stretched diagonally. 

The next layer of textile science involves the colorants and chemicals of a finished piece. The two main types of fabric colorants are dyes and pigments. Dyes are applied as a solution to fabric, while pigments are insoluble and thus remain in a solid form until they are mixed with a binder or vehicle in order to attach to the fibers. Dyes attach incredibly well to fabric because they can adhere to the repeating units (polymer molecules) of textile fibers. Other chemical treatments can add other desirable characteristics, such as flame retardants, softeners, and water and stain repellents.

Historically, these characteristics have always been important to textiles in their usage. Recently, the oldest indigo-dyed fabric was discovered in prehistoric site Huaca Prieta, north of the city of Trujillo in coastal Peru – dating back to at least 6,200 years ago. A chemist was able to confirm the presence of indigo in the textile using high-performance liquid chromatography, a technique that pumps the sample through a solvent at high pressure to determine the identity of the dyes.

Photo courtesy of Lauren A. Badams.

More complicated than a normal natural dye extraction, extracting blue out of indigo plants involved fermented leaves (in South America that means those from the species Indigofera) that were  aerated through intense mixing and solidified, creating a paste. The paste mixture was then dried, stored, and reconstituted with an alkaline (basic) substance, creating the indigo pigment. Indigo pigment can be converted into its dye form, which is called white indigo, through an action of oxygen removal from the vat (with bacteria, fructose, reducing chemicals etc.) and introduction of an alkaline substance.

Fibers dyed in this white indigo turn yellow, then green, and finally blue, through a reaction with oxygen from the air. This technique was most probably invented by women, as women were in charge of textile production in Andean cultures, according to Jeffrey Splitstoser, the study researcher. 

Indigo today is often made via the Heumann-Pfleger, shown below, which was developed by Karl Heumann in 1890 over the course of 17 years with Pfleger’s addition of NaNH2 (sodium amide) in 1901. This synthesis has a larger and more consistent yield than previous ones, the first of which was developed in 1882: the Baeyer-Drewson indigo synthesis. This synthetic indigo is molecularly equivalent to natural indigo, meaning that all jeans one can buy today are dyed with the same molecule used on the found fabric that dates back to 6,200 years ago!



Heumann-Pfleger method for indigo synthesis starting with anthranilic acid and chloroacetic acid. Scheme courtesy of Elmar Steingruber “Indigo and Indigo Colorants” Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry 2004, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim.


The indigo-dyed textile found in Peru tells a story of their specific synthetic process, but also one of a possible ritual where red and yellow ochre pigments were painted on and would run when rinsed with water. Splitstoser posits that this performance was part of a ritualistic show, perhaps linked to their drying climate, asking for rain.

Textiles have always imparted information – told stories – whether in tapestries from ancient civilizations or about societal rankings through garments. The materials themselves hold precious information from what fibers or dyes a civilization used to what was meaningful in a particular culture. Other information about trading routes (where did a specific dye originate?), economical developments (why is there a shift in popular fabric?), social structures (who wore a specific color?) – who certain peoples were. These questions tie into larger study within archeology and the lesser known subject of material culture, which focuses on the material evidence – objects, resources, or spaces – that defines a specific experience in a culture.

Today, that information sharing can come in the form of technology: data on fitness, heart rate, body movements. The developments in communication are also accompanied by those in synthetic fibers. Many synthetic fibers, such as viscose rayon, nylon, and polyester were initially developed to mimic and stand in for natural ones; however, today, they are moving beyond their intended purpose, taking on new heights in many areas of industry and study, including art, fashion, and technology.

These simultaneous developments in technology and textiles have redefined what it means to wear clothing, to use fabrics today.

Sophie Roet, Paper Textile, 2004. Photo courtesy of RISD Museum.

For example, textile designer, Sophie Roet, has made large advancements in the worlds of textile science and art, blending these to a point of unified correspondence. Among her vast collection of work, she has created metallized fabrics that thread metal foils through silks, producing textiles that can be molded by hand into three dimensions and then smoothed back out again. A different fabric using a polyamide monofilament warp and paper/steel yarn as weft allows for the manipulation of movement in stripes, as seen above.

Kunihiko Morinaga – Anrealage. Reflect, 2016. Photo courtesy of Hadley Feingold.

In Kunihiko Morinaga’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection, Reflect, photosensitive, reflective fabrics were debuted, whose patterns were only visible when a photo was taken with flash. When the garments are first approached, they are white with scattered black dots. Completely hidden to the naked eye – or even a non-flash photo –  surprising, colorful, neon, geometric designs leap out only with flash. These designs were created after extensive collaboration between Morinaga and a young company developing reflective painting. These designs both exemplify fashion’s trend towards technology and also open a commentary on today’s cameraphone culture.

The Textiles of Science Another interesting entry point into this world of textile science is through the lens of the scientist who is using textiles to solve problems. One of these problems is a medical one: to engineer human tissues for reintroduction into the body. Researchers use textiles as scaffolds, extracellular matrices for cell adhesion, to regenerate and grow tissues that will replace or help heal those that have been damaged or have worn away. The scaffolds have many requirements in order to grow properly and to be successful after replacement in the human body: they must be flexible, biocompatible, and have a high surface-area to volume ratio, so as to maximize the cell to surface interaction and facilitate growth.

What makes textiles so useful to the task of tissue engineering is their variability of porosity, for the empty spaces between the fibers, otherwise known as interstices, are tunable. Also, by varying the knit or weave, as well as the folding, rolling, stacking etc. as a secondary operation, an infinite number of structural possibilities can theoretically match the infinite number of types of tissues within the human body.

Cells attached to ridges of a curved yarn in a knitted scaffold.

Photo courtesy of Tao, Xiaoming, ed. Smart fibres, fabrics and clothing: fundamentals and applications. Elsevier, 2001, pg. 303.

In entering the field of textile science from these different points of view, the case for the importance of communication between art and science becomes clear. As advancements continue to be made, art and science will have to come together more and more to not only progress in the way we look at the world through art, but also how we address the biggest challenges facing our world today. Moreover, it will not only become more important for artists to work more with scientists, but also for scientists to work with artists.


Clarke, Sarah E. Braddock, O’Mahony, Marie. Techno textiles 2: Revolutionary fabrics for fashion and design. D Thames & Hudson, 2007.

Hatch, Kathryn. Textile Science. West Publishing Company, 1993.

New York Textile Month: Issue 1 Talking Textiles. Published by Lidewij Edelkoort. Editor Philip Fimmano. September 2016

Pappas, Stephanie. “Oldest Indigo-Dyed Fabric Ever Is Discovered in Peru,” Live Science. 2016. https://www.livescience.com/56099-oldest-indigo-dyed-fabric-discovered-peru.html

Tao, Xiaoming, ed. Smart fibres, fabrics and clothing: fundamentals and applications. Elsevier, 2001. http://memberfiles.freewebs.com/27/65/76886527/documents/3.smart_fibres,_fabrics_and_clothing_(www%5B1%5D.isotextile.blogspot.com).pdf






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