Chemical Processes Make A Fashion Statement

Oct. 7, 2010
Chemical technology developments add new twists to fashion trends.

While chemical processing technology has long been involved with both the production of fabrics and their associated dyes, the Science in Style event at Imperial College London on Sept. 16 added a novel twist to the industry's relationship with the fashion world.


The event was chosen for the official launch of Fabrican Spray-on: a fabric that can be sprayed directly onto the body using aerosol technology. The spray dries instantly to make innovative clothes that can be washed and re-worn.

Fabrican Spray-on is the result of a collaboration between Spanish fashion designer and academic visitor at Imperial, Dr. Manel Torres, and Paul Luckham, professor of particle technology in the school's department of chemical engineering.

The new fabric consists of short fibers that are combined with polymers to bind the fibers together and a solvent that delivers the fabric in liquid form and evaporates when the spray reaches a surface. The spray can be applied using a high-pressure gun or an aerosol can. The texture of the fabric can be changed according to which fibers — such as wool, linen or acrylic — are used and how the spray is layered.

"When I first began this project I really wanted to make a futuristic, seamless, quick and comfortable material," says Torres. "In my quest to produce this kind of fabric, I ended up returning to the principles of the earliest textiles such as felt, which were also produced by taking fibers and finding a way of binding them together without having to weave or stitch them. As an artist, I spend my time dreaming up one-off creations, but as a scientist I have to focus on making things reproducible. I want to show how science and technology can help designers come up with new materials."

Fashion is just one of the uses of this technology. Torres and Luckham have set up a spin-off company called Fabrican to explore other applications such as medicine patches and bandages, hygiene wipes, air fresheners and upholstery for furniture and cars.

The fashion application of spray-on fabric is a great way of advertising the concept, but we are also keen to work on new applications for the medical, transport and chemical industries. For example, the spray-on fabric may be produced and kept in a sterilized can, which could be perfect for providing spray-on bandages without applying any pressure for soothing burnt skin, or delivering medicines directly to a wound," adds Luckham.

Chemical technology is at the heart of another novel fashion development, too, this time at Kingston University, London.

For part of her degree project, Master of Arts fashion student Emily Crane has been working with top U.K. chef Heston Blumenthal, chemical engineers and couturiers on a range of edible clothes.

Kingston has a reputation for encouraging innovative design and one of Crane's first dresses was grown from soap bubbles in her freezer. However, she was determined to pursue the edible route and searched out alternative ingredients. Gelatine, seaweed and food dyes are now the primary raw materials.

A big turning point for the designer came when she fortuitously discovered how her garments could drape over a body: "I was designing a dress which was half white and half black and experimented using a black food dye. The white side stayed solid, but the black side became soft. I realized that the glycerol in the food dye had completely changed the texture of the garment."

Moving from high fashion to more practical wear, Clariant, Muttenz, Switzerland, has announced the latest advance in its Advanced Denim technology. Known as Pad/Sizing Ox, the new dyeing procedure will allow retailers to offer fashionable, high-quality jeans based on what the company describes as the most sustainable, resource-saving production method available today.

The new process allows textile mills to use up to 92% less water and 30% less energy, and reduce waste cotton by 63%. Most of these savings come about as a result of using ozone and peroxide for bleaching wash-down, avoiding the use and consequently the presence in wastewater of harmful chemicals such as hypochlorite or permanganate.

Among the benefits being claimed for denim manufacturers are: improved fastness, better reproduction of tones and shades, and easy application for more precise results.

Clariant says this will expand the market's potential to achieve new and interesting colors, deeper and faster blues, "amazing" blacks and grays, finely-graded shades and special wash-down effects. It will also meet current market demands for an efficient process to dye small and varied denim batches.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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