Innovative Materials for Fashion: The Questions You Should Be Asking

Innovative Materials for Fashion: The Questions You Should Be Asking

Olivia Gecseg Monday, 24 June 2019

It’s hard not to get excited by the innovations emerging in material design right now. Anyone who’s been attending the art and design degree shows this season will have had a taste for the future of fashion, as emerging designers showcase their projects, the majority of which will address sustainability in some form or other.

With traditional materials, like cotton and polyester, under scrutiny within the industry, there’s an appetite for something new - and designers are ready to meet it with innovation. Even natural fibres are just not making the cut these days. The future looks bright in materials produced from yeast, fungi, bacteria and algae. Just some of the benefits of these bioengineered materials include fewer and safer chemical processes, biodegradable properties and the possibility to grow clothes in moulds, producing only as much as is needed. Thanks to technology, they are an increasingly possible reality for more widespread use in fashion. 

If you’re curious about incorporating innovative textiles into your work, we’ve compiled a list of the critical questions you should be asking about these new and exciting materials. And if you want to see interviews with those working at the cutting edge of innovation, head over to our Interviews and Technical Tutorials pages [Professional Members only]. Read on to find out more:

What’s the shelf-life and lifecycle?

While synthetic materials are generally stronger than natural, one of the common misconceptions about 'biodegradable' materials is that they have much shorter shelf-lives. Biodegradable means the fibre can be broken down rapidly by the action of microorganisms, so only in controlled environments, like anaerobic landfills or in compost heaps, will the process take place. Through regular wear and proper care, the materials will last as long as synthetic clothing.

Nonetheless, it is always essential to understand the entire cycle of the materials we are working with. Ask to see what happens to the product over time and under different conditions (temperatures, humidity, etc.). Having images of these processes will be helpful at a later stage when you begin to market your product.

How are the raw materials produced?

Make sure you have a full understanding of the origins of the material and do your homework on the environmental and social impact of its source. Any negativity or questions raised by the material’s production can emerge later on down the line. Avoid unexpected problems by doing this background research properly before diving in with new material.

Don’t be afraid to be critical - interrogate the manufacturer! If they’re worth their salt, they’ll be grateful to be working with designers who are attentive to the causes they believe in too.

How do they scale?

Commercialisation is the most commonly noted impediment to wider use of these new materials. Unfortunately, for now, there are few ways around this - designers who work with these materials have to be prepared to work on smaller scales, with less-inviting profit margins.

But there’s hope. There is increasing investment from stakeholders in the fashion industry as well as venture investors. Plus, from the other side, the designers working at the cutting edge of material innovation are mapping methods to produce predictable, scalable and sustainable products.

How much does it cost?

A bit of an obvious one - but this is going to be your most important consideration when deciding whether it’s worth making inroads to working with new material. It’s likely to involve higher production costs, which explains why we don’t see more amazing fabrics embraced on a large scale, despite the technology existing.

Can you incorporate the material as an element of your designs? Sustainable trims, like buttons or sequins, are a brilliant place to start.

What are the wash and care requirements for the finished product?

For today’s consumer, having the time to complete a huge pile of ironing is becoming more of a luxury than a chore. Try to reduce specialist care, and you’ll have a much more manageable task on your hands when marketing your product.

If you do find your dream textile and it comes with unique washing methods or is highly creasable, you could look at applying it to more low-maintenance products, like accessories or loungewear.

Are they fire-resistant?

Probably most relevant if you design nightwear or childrenswear, but a good one to bear in mind in any case - and you might be surprised by the properties of biomaterials!

Algae-based fibres, for example, are reported to have fire-resistant properties, meaning they don’t require added chemicals to make the garments safer. The added chemicals usually have nasty properties, damaging to the environment and even irritable to the skin.

Has it been dermatologically tested?

Although rare, the most common reactions to textiles, through contact with the skin, are through the use of harsh chemicals in the dyeing and treating process. Biomaterials shouldn’t have this issue, but again, ensure you’re aware of any possible reactions well in advance.

There are even some textiles which are purported to have health benefits for your skin and wellbeing. 

What are the material’s other applications, other than apparel design?

Finding the contexts of the material’s alternative applications, other than just in clothing manufacture, helps to bring gravitas to your brand. A common criticism of innovative textiles, made from things like orange peel or mushroom fibres, is that they are a short-lived gimmick (usually because they only work on small scales, limiting their impact for real change). But with more extensive applications, in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, demonstrates their value. Take, for instance, Ioncell-F, which can be used for the production of hydrogels used to make contact lenses, wound dressings and nappies. 

A final note:

You might be a long way off from using these kinds of materials, or you might already be working with them - you might have even developed one yourself! Whatever stage you’re at, as an industry, we have to stay mindful of the gap between material innovation and commercial product design. Working towards integration is key to a sustainable future for fashion, one in which we find recyclable, biodegradable, and lab-grown materials used in everyday goods.