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Futuristic textiles

How four Canadian innovators are keeping clothing functional
November 28, 2012

First, clothing protected us from the elements, enabling the earliest humans to explore the globe. Later, it became a fashion statement, an expression of personality and status. Today, professionals like firefighters, astronauts and athletes wear clothing to stay safe and perform better. What's next, say four innovators funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, is clothing that heals, helps us do our jobs, play and look better than ever.

Wearable technology

Barbara Layne at Concordia University imagines a time when hospital gowns record vital signs and first responders communicate with touch pads built into their suits. The technology is available, but making it work in clothing that people actually want to wear is the challenge, says the director of Studio subTela at the Hexagram Institute. Her studio is developing techniques to effectively and affordably weave natural fibres with microcomputers and sensors to create garments that are "receptive and responsive to external stimuli," she says. "Our research takes particular care to embed electronics so that the technology is unobtrusive, robust, washable and comfortable."

High performance fabrics

When it comes to staying warm in the cold, wicking body moisture away from the skin is key. Backed by lab tests, many companies say their proprietary fabrics do the job, but only Mark’s Work Wearhouse actually tests their garments on people. The Canadian clothing store chain partnered with Brock University kinesiology professor Stephen Cheung to develop "a method to accurately model the water vapour pressure gradient;” in other words, how well the company's new outerwear breathes in real-world situations. Mark's is using the results to improve a new proprietary fabric and "further enhance their product development and design," says Cheung. And he's in talks with other companies to refine their athletic wear, which means better performing clothing is coming to athletes everywhere.

Setting standards to clothe and protect

When it comes to staying safe at industrial jobs, Betty Crown has your back — and the rest of your body too. For more than 30 years her team at the University of Alberta's Protective Clothing and Equipment Research Facility has developed standards and tests for clothing that keep workers safe from on-the-job hazards like chemicals, electricity, fires, and now steam. When the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers asked Crown to update the industry's standard blue coveralls to include steam and hot water protection, her team created minimum specifications for the clothing. Then, in collaboration with the university’s mechanical engineering department, her team established testing methods to ensure the fabric and clothing meets the standards. The standards and tests will eventually be adopted by the Canadian General Standards Board, but the research is already being sown into new oil and gas clothing. "The reason our research has been successful is because it has always been based in collaboration with other departments, industry, producers and workers," says Crown. "We couldn't do it on our own."

Clothing with a silver lining

Another successful industry-research collaboration is the creation of SILVERCLEAR® by the CTT Group at Cégep de St-Hyacinthe in Quebec. This inexpensive and highly effective antibacterial silver based liquid solution is used to treat textiles used in anything from burn dressings to shoe linings, bedding and lab coats. For centuries, silver’s antibacterial properties have helped treat infections and other ailments. Products containing silver are highly effective in killing bacteria and preventing bacteria reproduction, however, they require high concentrations of silver, making them expensive to produce. SILVERCLEAR® has a low concentration of silver that makes it affordable yet it is the most effective product of its kind. “Test results prove that burn and chronic wound dressings treated with SILVERCLEAR®, registered with Health Canada as a Class II medical device, not only eliminate bacteria but prevent bacteria from reproducing to help treat and prevent infections,” says Bernard Rose, President and owner of TransTex Technologies Inc., in St-Hyacinthe, the company that manufactures SILVERCLEAR®. “Traditional burn treatments are changed daily by a medical team and most patients require sedation because it’s so painful. SILVERCLEAR® dressings can stay on a patient for three to seven days, requiring fewer dressing changes thus reducing the trauma to the patient.” SILVERCLEAR® is a product with many other applications outside the medical realm and is proving to be effective in reducing odour in athletic wear from sweating.