4D Textile Exoskeleton – David Schmelzeisen, Institute of Textile Technology at RWTH Aachen University
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Texcycle #4


Over billions of years nature has evolved to develop sophisticated systems to survive in the wild – whether that’s being able to fly, live underwater, camouflage from predators or heal after injury. From the quest to manufacture artificial silk in ancient China to the development of velcro in the mid-20th century, the textile industry has long drawn inspiration from nature. Creating materials, structures and systems that emulate biological entities and processes is known as biomimicry. Here we take a look at some of the latest textile innovations taking a leaf out of nature’s playbook to inspire more efficient and sustainable solutions.

4D Textiles

Unifying space and time, 4D structures are programmed to change shape in a planned, intentional way to external stimuli without robotic mechanisms, i.e. wires or motors. Active Textile by Self-Assembly Lab at MIT is a composite textile punctuated with V-shaped slits hat open and close in response to light. This is made possible because each of its six layers respond and expand differently to light/heat, particularly the upper two strata that control the mechanism. The Institute of Textile Technology at RWTH Aachen University have also reated self-morphing textiles by 3D printing microstructures onto stretched fabric. This pre-stretching embeds energy into the textile – think of it like a tensioned spring – allowing it to shapeshift when activated by heat or moisture. Adaptive textiles could be used in interiors and architecture, such as sun blinds or stadium roofs that adjust according to the weather, or in sportswear that changes shape in response to physiological stress.


According to Fashion Revolution, up to 25% of a garment’s carbon footprint comes from the way it is washed and cared for, so if clothes could repel dirt or clean themselves then this  ould save a significant amount of water, and in the case of polyester garments, reduce microfibre pollution. Like water off a duck’s back or a lotus leaf, companies including Filium, Dropel and Labfresh offer natural fibres with hydrophobic, stain-resistant and odour-repellent properties – suitable for an array of products from clothing and carpets, to towels and upholstery. Silver nanoparticles have long been added to textiles to kill odour-producing bacteria, however nanosilver is prone to leaching and could be toxic to aquatic life. As a safer alternative, Sanitized AG’s Mintactiv additive harnesses the antimicrobial power of peppermint oil for a naturally fresh – and recyclable – textile.

Temperature Regulation

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Maryland created the first ever fabric that automatically regulates how much heat can pass through it. Like the 4D textiles described above, this fabric is made of two materials: one that absorbs water and another that repels it. When wet, i.e. exposed to sweat, the yarn contracts, opening up gaps in the fabric to enable heat to escape; when cool and dry, the fibres expand, closing the gaps to retain heat. What’s more, the fabric also controls how much infrared radiation – largely responsible for regulating body temperature – is kept in or let out. As the strands of yarn come closer together, the electromagnetic coupling between the carbon nanotubes that coat the fibres change to allow more infrared radiation to escape the body. This carbon coating can easily be added to  abrics at the dyeing stage, and with its second skin-like properties, could mean that one day we’ll only ever need a single layer of clothing (think Star Trek uniforms).


Like cuts and grazes heal, imagine if a hole in your stockings or a tear in your chinos could mend themselves? Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have developed a self- ealing polyelectrolyte coating that can simply be dropped onto damaged fabric with a bit of warm water, to reattach torn fibres. Meanwhile, Philadelphia-based lab Tandem Repeat identified and isolated self-healing squid genes that can also be applied as a coating to textiles or incorporated into fibres so that the auto-repair properties are built in. Not only can this increase product durability and lifespan, but it could help limit exposure to toxic chemicals for farmers and soldiers at work in their respective fields.

Short Cycles

Nature, much like fashion, changes with the seasons yet manages to do so without creating any waste. Seeing fast fashion as an opportunity and not just a flawed concept, some designers are looking to accelerate product lifecycle with rapidly biodegradable materials that keep up with current consumer behaviour. The idea of disposable clothing has been around since the 1960s when paper dresses became a short-lived novelty item. Today, material research lab Neffa is working towards “growing” garments with mycelium that can be put in the compost bin after a few wears, while Berlin-based design studio Blond & Bieber’s photosentive algae dyes gradually change colour when exposed to sunlight – perfect for those who quickly get bored of their clothes.

Going full circle

The ultimate goal of biomimicry is to achieve circularity. Nature is built on two polymers:  roteins and polysaccharides, and grows following the path of least resistance, which means it can easily be broken down and is inherently energy-efficient. Mixed fibres and coated textiles are difficult to recycle, or even decompose, so man-made solutions must consider only using

biodegradable, non-toxic materials and/or develop highly efficient recycling systems. For now, the reduction in environmental impact and longer product life offered by the innovations above can hopefully buy us a little more time to catch up with nature.


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