Growing awareness of comfort properties and a desire to reduce the environmental impact of textiles are driving material innovation in multiple fashion areas: everyday garments, the growing athleisure market and highly technical sportswear.
Antibacterial, thermo-regulating, breathable: these were once characteristics that were confined to technical sportswear or high-performance workwear, but are increasingly making their way into the mainstream. And this in turn is spurring on a new wave of product development aimed at more demanding applications.
Today’s consumer is asking for performance or easy-care enhancements that can differentiate products in the crowded marketplace, says Helen Palmer, director of materials, textiles and knitwear at trend forecaster WGSN.
This can take the form of thermo-regulating or cooling properties with encapsulated mineral nano-particles, or the inclusion of metals such as silver and copper for antibacterial and antimicrobial enhancements for the lifestyle, intimates and knitwear categories. Meanwhile crease-free, easy-iron, machine-washable and stain-proof finishes are all becoming more desirable for the mass market.
“Sustainable products and processes are also gaining presence and we are seeing more creativity in this area, especially for recycled fibres such as polyester and cotton from denim jeans or T-shirts, as well as low-impact dyes, alternative, eco-friendly finishing processes,and biological fibres,” she says.
It is this mindset that led Austrian fibre producer Lenzing to develop Refibra, a new Tencel fibre made from cotton scraps and wood that launched last month. Lenzing’s Tencel, a cellulose fibre made from dissolving wood pulp in a dry-jet-wet spinning process, has been widely adopted by the fashion industry as the lyocell fibre of choice, used in anything from denim dresses at Asos to raglan tops at Jigsaw. The latest fibre aims to reduce the need to extract additional virgin resources from nature and reduce the net impact on ecological resources, says chief executive Stefan Doboczky. It can be knitted or woven and is available on a commercial scale.
“Tencel itself is an environmentally responsible fibre of botanic origin,” adds chief operating officer Robert van de Kerkhof. “With Refibra, we add to the future of manufacturing and start to reassess waste as resource. The target is to close the loop.”
Fibre giant Invista has also recently extended its Coolmax EcoMade technology, popular in sportswear, to denim for spring 18 to combine recycled fibres with cool-comfort properties. Invista surveyed 1,500 men and women in three countries and found that 75% of respondents wanted jeans that would help keep them cool in warm weather.
Carl Gross suit in the Toronto Marathon
Fibres made with Coolmax EcoMade technology are made from 97%-recycled resources, diverting plastic bottles from landfill that are transformed into usable fibre in a six-step process. Denim made with Coolmax EcoMade technology is breathable and moves moisture away from the skin, helping the wearer stay cool, dry and comfortable.
Another company making great strides in comfort technology is US-based Cocona Inc. Founder, materials scientist Gregory Haggquist, discovered that activated carbon from coconut shells offered performance benefits for fabrics by removing moisture vapour to keep the wearer cool when it is warm and warm when it is cold. Cocona works with primarily sports’ and outdoor brands such as The North Face, Adidas and Under Armour but has just entered an exclusive partnership for footwear with US fashion brand Kenneth Cole.
Its 37.5 technology – a reference to the body’s ideal core temperature – embeds active particles at fibre level to capture and release moisture vapour. In footwear it enables a cooler, drier shoe in the heat and a warmer shoe in the cold, while the technology also traps odour molecules.
Christy Raedeke, vice-president of global brand at 37.5, says the company is seeing a trend towards using the technology in men’s tailoring, sportswear and fashion footwear, outside of its traditional performance sport and outdoor application areas.
“Brands are realising that customers want real technology in the clothing they wear all week, not just the clothes they wear for sport,” she says. “For instance, both Kenneth Cole in the US and Carl Gross in Germany have developed dress shirts and men’s tailored suits with 37.5 technology. Taking a page from sport and outdoor where layering our technology adds to its performance, they have 37.5 technology in the dress shirt (akin to a base layer) and the suit lining (mid-layer) and in the wool shell (outer layer).”
Over in more technical applications for sportswear, there has been a growing trend for seamless activewear garments that do not rub or aggravate the skin. Spanish yarn manufacturer Nylstar, which specialises in nylon 66 yarns, has created a yarn called Meryl Hydrogen designed to meet this need. The company found that most seamless garment manufacturers added polyurethane or silicone based softeners to their garments in order to achieve the soft handle their clients desired but identified that they are chemical additives with an environmental impact. They are usually hydrophobic so repel water and they are always temporary, being gradually washed away every time the garment is laundered.
The company created Meryl Hydrogen as a soft, ultra-absorbent, chemical-free yarn made with fibres finer than cashmere, which has recently been adopted by sportswear brands like Athleta.
At the other end of the scale, water- and windproof fabric specialist Gore-Tex has created a new generation of its Gore-Tex Active products for road running and road cycling. The new Shakedry technology has resulted in the most lightweight and breathable Gore-Tex products available, designed to protect from the wind and rain, while reducing sweat accumulation.
Lenzing Refibra, which is made from cotton scraps and wood, launched last month
The new laminate construction has an functional backer textile on the inside that is comfortable next to the skin while the outside has a durable water-repellent surface. It is designed to eliminate the “clammy discomfort” of a wetted-out face fabric.
Technical performance is often associated with synthetic fibres and chemical finishes but there are also some significant developments being made which aim to maximise the natural benefits of fibres like cotton and wool. Cotton Inc has a suite of technologies including TransDRY and Wicking Windows for moisture management, the water-repellent Storm Cotton finish and abrasion-resistant Tough Cotton, which has just been updated with new versions for wovens and knits.
Merino wool is now commonly used in next-to-skin garments and outerwear, while global sportswear label Adidas launched two new Primeknit wool blend T-shirts developed with The Woolmark Company and knitting machinery manufacturer Stoll at the end of last year. The merino provides runners with thermo-regulation, anti-odour properties and movement throughout their run and day, explains Adidas senior director for running apparel and customisation Craig Vanderoef.
The athleisure trend shows no sign of abating and athletes continue to demand more and more performance from their clothes, which will push the boundaries of material innovation even further. Some of the more technical advances will continue to trickle down into the mainstream but it is clear that everyday comfort is a trend which is here to stay, powered by some of the latest developments in fibres and fabrics.