X-Treme Possibilities


A building without steel supports, standing 40 feet high. A zipper that is resistant to biochemical contaminants. Saving a life with a woven vascular graft. Sounds insane, but not as cracked as learning the secret behind them all: textiles.

Fashion forecasters can debate linens vs. pima cotton all they want this season. The real future belongs to high-tech fabrics that will do more than keep you warm—if they are to be used for clothing at all. We’re not referring to textiles made from cotton thread or silk yarn—rather, newer fibers like carbon or aramids, still woven in traditional techniques.

As the subject of Cooper-Hewitt‘s recent exhibit Extreme Textiles, these highly engineered fabrics are shown as the ultimate performance enhancers: faster, lighter, stronger, safer, or smarter. Much of the exhibit focuses on the textiles’ agricultural, aerospace, military, and industrial uses (i.e., oil-field ropes that hold over 4 million pounds, geo-textile mats to encourage ground vegetation; space tethers to “throw” payloads like satellites into different orbits). The most spectacular is the testa carbon tower, a prototype of a 40-story building whose main support comes entirely from a weave of continuous, helical bands of carbon fiber. It’s certainly a lighter alternative to concrete and steel.

Technical textiles have innumerable applications for clothing. Storm zippers are now being refined to seal against not only water, but gas and chemical toxins—ideal for biochemical hazard suits. Integrating computing and telecommunications technology, smart textiles will give our clothes a much more active role. Imagine the multiple uses of the Sensewear Patch Body Monitor, a wearable adhesive that can collect, process, and store our physiological data, later to be downloaded for our doctor’s use. Or envision donning the North Face MET5 jacket, with its integrated heating system for extreme-weather sports.

A mere explanation of such an exhaustive exhibit cannot do this overwhelming, burgeoning field justice. We suggest a visit: “Extreme Textiles” will be at Cooper-Hewitt till the end of October. Needless to say, it’ll make your Hypercolor T-shirt from fifth grade seem less than wicked cutting-edge.