RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

  TEXTILE INDUSTRY  -  Re-tailoring knowledge

To spark renewed innovation and competitiveness, the textile sector is seizing a new opportunity for growth. It is doing so by opening up to the latest changes in all areas of science and technology.

Protective glove for the cutting table used in garment making. © IFTH
Protective glove for the cutting table used in garment making.
The mission of textile scientists and engineers is to break out of their traditional haunts and explore other areas of knowledge in the hope of finding new and unexpected applications for their sector. As Lutz Walter (Euratex) explains, “apart from the new technologies that could bring changes to the production line, the new paradigms, both for the raw materials and the finished products, are multifunctionality, reactivity, and the material intelligence of fabrics. Some applications are picked up on by designers and fashion houses – who are always in search of inventiveness – others are targeted more particularly at the many new niches on the technical market.”   

Dyeing for an alternative

Upstream of the production process, biotechnological applications are one example of innovation, in particular concerning the traditional preparation and processing of natural fibres. Before cotton and wool – which make up the lion’s share of the raw material – is weaved, chemical operations are required to remove impurities, scour the materials and make them suitable for the dyeing process. These operations are financially and environmentally costly. Research has focused on finding possible biological solutions.

These have promising benefits in terms of process performance that have been demonstrated clearly in pilot projects and alternative processes using enzyme properties are beginning to become effective in replacing the use of chemical agents. However, problems of stability and reliability remain to be solved before they can be developed on an industrial scale.  

A satellite eye for colour
A surprising technology developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) in the field of colorimetric recognition has been applied in the quality control of dyed fabrics. For satellite observation applications in the field of agriculture, ESA engineers developed a kind of ‘artificial eye’ to monitor the use of chemical fertilisers on cultivated land, detectable in soil colour. The Finnish company Specim, in association with a number of Italian partners including the University of Coma, transferred this optical technology and used it in an automatic system capable of inspecting textiles during the production process as the material flows by uninterrupted at rate of 100 metres a minute. This electronic eye can detect colour irregularities ‘in real time’, enabling any manufacturing faults to be corrected immediately.

However, it is at the final stage in the production chain that many of the significant innovations are found, at the time of ennobling or surface treatment. A typical example is the exploitation of plasma physics. This makes it possible, for example, to waterproof an absorbent textile such as cotton or to neutralise the hydrophobic properties of a synthetic woven material.

In addition, returning in a sense to an earlier fascination with the silkworm, the study of the complex structures of living organisms and natural processes in all their biodiversity also represents a field of inquiry rich in potential inspiration.   

The self-cleaning and hydrophobic properties of textiles manufactured using the nanotechnological process known as the Lotus effect®. © V.v.Arnim-ITV Denkendorf
The self-cleaning and hydrophobic properties of textiles manufactured using the nanotechnological process known as the Lotus effect®. © V.v.Arnim-ITV Denkendorf
The self-cleaning and hydrophobic properties of textiles manufactured using the nanotechnological process known as the Lotus effect®.
© V.v.Arnim-ITV Denkendorf
Self-cleaning with the ‘Lotus effect’
A surprising discovery was also made in botany – a discipline that is far removed from the textile industry and its problems. The German researcher Wilhelm Barthlott of the Bonn Institute of Botany (DE) discovered, in the 1990s, that the lotus plant, admired for the resplendence of its flowers and leaves, owed this property to the high density of minute surface protrusions. These protrusions ‘catch’ deposits of soil and grime, preventing them from sticking. When it rains, the leaf has a hydrophobic reaction. The water rolls around as droplets, removing grime as it moves.  

Reproduced for nanotechnological processes on the surface of woven fabrics, this self-cleaning property was developed as a technological innovation and patented under the name the Lotus effect®. It is used for specific niche markets, such as for sails or certain garments. This example shows to what extent the marriage of knowledge in fields that would appear to be worlds apart – in this case botany and nanoscience – can give rise to unexpected innovations

Curative textiles in chitin fibre
Another example, of medical value this time, is chitin. This abundant biopolymer, whose structure resembles plant cellulose, is found in shellfish and the external skeleton of many insects.

It is currently the subject of extensive research in the fields of agriculture, food and cosmetology. A particularly promising textile application is currently being studied at the University of Ghent (BE). This consists of developing chitin-based fibres to produce medical dressings that would help to reconstitute skin in serious burn cases, as well as providing an anti-bacterial barrier.    

  Leapfrog or the reinvention of the sewing machine   
  If there is one machine for which progress appears to have ground to a halt, it is the sewing machine, which dates back to the years 1830 to 1850. Although it has been constantly perfected, contemporary technology has not budged an inch on one essential point: no satisfactory alternative has been able to replace the human operator. Until now only the dexterity of the human hand has had the suppleness and flexibility to guide the passage of the fabric during the complex processes that go into making up a garment. Hence the distinctive labour-intensive nature of the industry.

Launched in 2004, the EU-backed Leapfrog (1) project has a singular technological challenge at its heart. "Many developments in the field of automated sewing on spherical forms with the aid of 3D visualisation suggest that a significant automation of the garment-making process is possible,” stresses Lutz Walter (Eurtex). The project also aims to integrate a flexible and computerised production chain management that adjusts in line with consumer demand and preferences. 

(1) Thirty-five industrial and university partners based in 11 European countries are co-operating on the Leapfrog (Leadership for European Apparel production From Research along Original Guidelines) project. Budget: €23 million (60% provided by the EU) Duration: 4 years.


  What strategy for European textiles?  
  In 2004, a ‘Technology platform for the future of textiles and clothing in Europe through to 2020’ was set up by the three major European organisations involved in research and technological development   – Euratex, Textranet and Autex. This grouping of experts from all backgrounds has identified three pillars for reflection, proposals and initiatives between now and the year 2020.

  • Increased emphasis on the production of specialised goods with a high added value.
  • Increased R&D for new textile productions.
  • A move away from production designed for mass consumption to product personalisation.