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Tougher, Better, Faster, Stretchier: The technology behind clothing and fabric

Image: Ambar Del Moral

The clothes on your back dont just make you look good. They keep you warm and dry, make movement easier and make your life better.

Fabric technology has a huge impact your day-to-day. From early advances with chemistry that gave us synthetic fabrics to treatments that are revolutionizing the idea of what clothing can do, textile tech is expanding to new and exciting places.

Here well explore the technology behind these advances, take a look at how far weve come and peek ahead to see where were going.

Spandex

Invented in 1958 by chemist Joseph Shivers, this stretchy synthetic fabric had a major impact on the clothing industry after it was introduced to the public in 1962.

Creating spandex, or lycra (the terms can be used interchangeably), requires a multi-step process of reacting monomers to produce a prepolymer a polyester-polyurethane copolymer, to be exact. The result is fabric marked by elasticity and quick-drying properties. Its no surprise these textiles have been widely adopted by the activewear and leisurewear industries.

Nylon

Up until Nylons invention at the beginning of the 20th century, things like ladies stockings, parachutes and military flak vests were all made of silk. After nylon was invented, it was applied to these applications and more, creating a great deal of relief during WWII when silk was scarce.

This extremely versatile plastic has persisted because it can be molded into solids or drawn into fibers, thus inching its way into practically every moment of your day. As a fabric, nylon is light with high tenacity, has excellent abrasion resistance and can repel things like insects, fungi, animals, molds, mildew and rot.

UNIQLO HEATTECH

Born from Japanese ingenuity, UNIQLOs line of HEATTECH shirts, pants and accessories is a game changer for cold winter months. The combination of an innovative knit and a delicate, ribbed fabric traps the heat naturally generated by the body, while moisture gets transformed into heat. The innovative fabric works to keep you warm while also staying breathable and flexible.

There are three categories of HEATTECH to meet your needs. The base line is a light, thin fabric with a soft texture. Need more warmth? HEATTECH Extra Warm features a raised lining and approximately 1.5 the heat retention of regular HEATTECH. For the most frigid of days, youll want to reach for HEATTECH Ultra Warm. This is the thickest option, featuring a raised lining thats best suited for extreme cold.

From base layers like long-sleeve T-shirts and long johns to everyday items like jeans, dress pants and socks, the HEATTECH line is also stretchable, soft, anti-odor and anti-static. The result: warmer, cozier living no matter how bad the weather.

Wrinkle-freefabrics

Chemists have been developing this technology for a long time, working out the kinks (literally) since the 1940s. It wasnt until the 1990s that advancements with these fabrics thrust wrinkle-resistant options into the mainstream.

Also known colloquially as permanent press, wash and wear, and no-iron, these smooth fabrics are able to maintain their shape thanks to a series of chemical agents and treatments that help to crosslink the molecules within cellulose-based fibers. Thanks science!

3D printed clothes

Dont have anything to wear? In the future, you wont need to worry about it.

3D printers work by way of additive processes, building objects layer by layer in succession. Though still in the early stages of development, this cutting-edge technology is primarily used in haute couture at the moment. Eventually though, 3D printing will hit the masses and change everything. Soon youll be able to print a whole new wardrobe on demand, exactly to your size specifications.

Smart clothes

The past has been about developing different ways to weave fabric or using chemistry to invent new fibers altogether. The future of textile technology will be all about embedding tech right into the fabrics themselves.

From a jacket than can charge your device, to a running shirt that captures biometric information while you work out, wearable technology will soon migrate from the wrist to everything you wear. Imagine a touch screen style sleeve thanks to interactive fibers, or even clothes that can change color with the aid of an app.

Its happening faster than you might think.

Watch next: This portable charger is powered by energy created with your hand

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