5 Cutting-Edge Experimental Materials for Fashion and Textile Manufacture

From transgenic silk to 3D printed hair, cutting-edge experimental materials are changing what’s possible in fashion and how textiles are made.

Sixty-two international design teams presented work at the Cooper Hewitt and Cube Design Museum Design Triennial. Five of those teams dealt specifically with materials for fashion. Each new material required new behavior in the manufacturing process.

This is a table showing 5 different stages of a traditional textile manufacturing process: grow, harvest, spin, dye, weave. It also has photos of the 5 different materials in dress form. Each photo is covered in detail in the post.
Experimental materials change traditional cloth manufacturing processes.
Text and images J Hartnett-Henderson © 2019
Photograph of the front of one of the three Fantasma dresses. It glows green with the aide of glasses, is long sleeved with a plane collar and button up front.
Fantasma by Another Farm
Photo: J Hartnett-Henderson © 2019

GROW: Design studio Another Farm created Fantasma, a set of 3 bioluminescent dresses of christening length. The material was engineered by injecting silkworm eggs with coral DNA to glow. The dresses look blue until you put on special glasses. Then the material looks green.

Transgenic silk is a new material changing what is “grown” for use in textiles. Potential uses include clothing for activities in the dark from athletic apparel and theatre and dance costumes to rave attire.

The transgenic silk was woven into a textile by Japan’s Hosoo textile manufactory. This material can still be manufactured a textile manufacturer. Not so the next one.

The Cilllia dress is an off-white. It has short sleeves, is knee-length and has patches of the cillllia sticking up at right angles to the surface of the dress.
Cilllia by Jifei Ou
Photo: J Hartnett-Henderson © 2019

Designer Jifei Ou presented a coat made of 3D printed hair structures called Cilllia. And yes, that’s three letter ls.

The hair structures stick up perpendicular to the fabric and are programmed to control how they function. They can be grown in different directions and patterns.

Cilllia changes what is “grown” for use in textiles. The coat was manufactured by Tangible Media Group, not a typical textile company. New industrial capabilities were required.

Photo of a tank top made of seaweed woven very densely so that the top is quite thick.
Seaweed Shirt by Violaine Buet
Photo: J Hartnett-Henderson © 2019

HARVEST/SPIN: The Department of Seaweed experiments with the seaweed as a material for fabrication. For example, Designer Violaine Buet created a tank top by knitting sugar kelp.

Traditionally, material for clothing is intentionally planted or raised at scale on land, then harvested using a variety of techniques and much of it is machine woven. The use of seaweed for a material changes where the growing occurs, how the harvesting is conducted and removes the need to spin yarn. The manufacturing in this case was by hand.

Photo from the exhibit of an open-front silk coat dyed using Chieza's process. It is a brown grey with both horizontal and vertical seepage shaped streaks of a dull purple. The coat has no buttons, collar or cuffs.
Project Coelicolor: Terroir 001 by Natsai Audrey Chieza
Photo: J Hartnett-Henderson © 2019

DYE: Designer Natsai Audrey Chieza dyes textiles with bacteria such as Streptomyces coelicolor found in plant roots.

The color ranges from red to purple to blue. The intensity of color is controlled by time of exposure and degree of acidity as well as exposure to oxygen. The resulting color shapes are quite organic at this point.

This process was relatively intimate without an external manufacturers involvement. Chieza is investigating what it would take to scale production.

Photo of the 3D printed dress. The material is not solid but has intentional holes in it that conform to natural patterns. In places where there is a lot of movement such as armholes, there is no material.
Voronoi Dress by threeASFOUR
Photo: J Hartnett-Henderson © 2019

WEAVE: 3D printing has been around for awhile but new things are still happening. Designers threeASFOUR, in collaboration with Travis Fitch and Stratasys, showed the Voronoi Dress, a 3D printed dress. 3D printed materials result in a product that may have drape but it is too brittle for body movement. The team used geometries found in nature to increase the amount of movement (aka wearing ease) that is possible.

3D printing is typically outside the wheelhouse of traditional textile manufacturers. The collaboration required to create these designs attest to this fact.

These 5 cutting-edge experimental materials have far-reaching implications for fashion, certainly, but will also redefine the textile supply chain by creating new industries and reducing the need for some. How buyers vote with their dollars for environmentally conscious materials will make a difference.