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Smart… Fabrics?

When we think of technology, we may picture cellphones, spaceships, or solar panels. The last thing we might think of is clothing, or fabrics in general. Indeed, we do not hear of the latest and greatest from the textile industry on the news or in the media, with the potential exception of advertisements for Nike’s most recent Flyknit shoes.

Despite their perceived irrelevancy to technology today, textiles were once the focus of technological advancement, the pinnacle of such times being the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution itself started as the significant demand on cotton textiles introduced the need for an improvement in the production process. Thus, machines were built that could do the work of a human worker many times faster than that of even the most skilled artisan. As mechanized product ion of textiles became increasingly popular, the industry grew to the point where the first factories were built, in which textiles could be mass produced by unskilled laborers both extremely quickly and cheaply. Even far after the Industrial Revolution, newly engineered textiles were highly sought after. For example, when nylon was first invented and introduced in1935, there were actually riot s as people tried to get their hands on the new product.

So, where has such an influential industry gone in the recent decades? What has it done? The answer is simple: not much. In the modern world, the definition of technology itself has shifted towards a focus on electronics and devices while fabric and clothing are, relatively speaking, much more easily obtained and commonplace. As we took textiles for granted, there have not been many efforts to advance textile technology any further. This poses a more serious problem than one might first assume, as the production of the industry’s leading synthetic products such as polyester or nylon involve the use of harmful substances, petrochemicals, and bring serious threats to the environment through waste created in production. In fact, the fabric industr y is at blame for about 20% of global industrial pollution.

Fortunately, a new company sprouting out in California, Bolt Threads, aspires to change that and “put the tech back in textiles.”Co-founder and CEO of the company, Dan Widmaier, spent his student years studying the way spiders can produce an array of different kinds of silk by arranging proteins in a certain manner, each differing in elasticity and strength. He and his company now hope to apply that invention of evolution to textile production for humans whilst revitalizing the textile engineering industry. They’ve developed a platform, Engineered Silk, that they hope will allow them to create “programmable polymers” that can easily be configured to have certain characteristics, including the aforementioned elasticity and strength, but also qualities like UV resistance. This technology will completely nullify the need to use chemicals to imbue fabrics with such characteristics, and may even lead to some of the most versatile and quality fabric the world has ever seen, or rather, worn.