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When Textiles Go to Extremes

High-Tech Fibers Are Stretching Concepts of Utility -- and Design

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page N06


In the brave new world of advanced materials, the key words are stronger, lighter, faster, smarter and safer.

"Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance," a new exhibition at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, showcases the latest precision-engineered materials as if they were fiber art. But they are pure function, a convergence of design, science and technology.

A carbon fiber building envisioned by California architect Peter Testa could redefine energy efficiency. (Testa Architecture And Design)

Gossamer filaments can heave a satellite into orbit. Metal mesh bangles are the jewelry of heavy industry -- durable steel filters made to withstand temperatures of 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit. An embroidered patch that resembles a flower is a bioimplantable device for reconstructive shoulder surgery, one of a series of surgical aids that mimic old lace.

The subject of technical textiles is rarely considered in the context of contemporary design. Many of the materials featured here are normally concealed behind walls, inside tires and, in some cases, under the skin. But cultural exposure is overdue.

"Textiles are an incredible part of our world in ways we don't understand," says curator Matilda McQuaid. "Plastics were extraordinary and still are. Textiles have been overlooked."

On a tour of the museum's Carnegie Mansion on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the curator sought to demystify the array of advanced polymers and composites that are driving innovation. It's a stretch to think of them as fabrics. Most were developed to withstand some of the most demanding conditions on Earth or in space. (The National Air and Space Museum lent moon boots, spacesuits and gloves.) Others evolved to meet military needs. Some materials, such as superlight, superstrong carbon fiber, already have segued into sleek sports gear. But others, such as electrospun nanofibers, are in their infancy.

In an era of easy blockbusters, a museum takes a definite risk when tackling the arcane and unfamiliar. But Cooper-Hewitt Director Paul W. Thompson says that the "nexus between aesthetics and technology" is exactly where a design museum needs to be.

Evaluating industrial materials as high design has a distinguished antecedent. The 1934 show "Machine Art" at the Museum of Modern Art was a seminal event in the history of design. The institution was new, and so was its concept of art. The young curator, Philip Johnson, decided to exhibit common hardware, including ball bearings, springs and cables, as worthy examples of form, function and aesthetics.

McQuaid was working at MoMA when she began thinking about high-performance textiles 13 years ago. She traces her interest not to "Machine Art" but to a 1956 MoMA exhibition called "Textiles USA," which included a section on such industrial fabrics as car tops and tires. After reading the catalogue, she began to look into how technical textiles had progressed in the decades since. Three years ago, after joining the Cooper-Hewitt, where she heads the textile department, she began scouting in earnest, chiefly at technical trade shows in Frankfurt and Atlanta.

McQuaid, whose background is in architecture, immediately saw textiles as structural rather than decorative elements. She selected examples for extreme function but kept an eye out for beauty, in raw or finished form. The unifying theme of the exhibition, and the link to the Cooper-Hewitt's historic decorative arts collection, is technique. Each piece involves some aspect of the age-old processes of weaving, braiding, knitting and embroidering.

The show seeks to seduce visitors with the artfulness of rarely observed objects -- booms and trusses developed for use in space -- and glamorous products made possible through the marvels of materials research.

A Formula One racer, the Williams F1 BMW FW26, is parked in the front hall. It serves as an example of how blankets of woven carbon fibers can be draped and tailored into complex shapes before being hardened with resin, heat and pressure to withstand, as this chassis did, the rigors of traveling faster than 200 mph.

A personal flying suit, Alban Geissler's Skyray, allows humans to soar like birds at speeds up to 137 mph. The rigid-wing system, which attaches to a jumpsuit, relies on carbon fiber and Kevlar. Explanatory text notes that Felix Baumgartner donned one to cross the English Channel in 2003. Landing requires a parachute.

Technical textiles are already familiar to millions in the form of Kevlar, Mylar, Gore-Tex, Teflon and Velcro. The next generation includes Vectran, a so-called muscle fiber made through a process of melt extrusion using liquid crystal polymer pellets. Superline, a mass of 36.5 million polyester filaments with a breaking strength of 4.4 million pounds, is described as the strongest rope in existence. Stronger than steel, it was designed to moor a BP oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some of the most intriguing examples on display are experimental. Strands of bright blue cable have been strung to look like a harp. Plucking a string will make music at the museum. But that's only to call attention to the rope's inner self. Dan Goldwater of Squid:Labs explained at the exhibition preview how the year-old company of mostly MIT Media Lab graduates had embedded a data sensor in the fibers. The idea is to signal weakness before a rope gives way. Potential applications include safety belts, mooring lines and architectural membranes.

Electronic textiles are only beginning to make their mark. A decorative fabric labeled Leaping Lines Electric Plaid Panel was commissioned for the exhibition. It combines conductive yarns with thermochromic ink, which makes the colors ebb and glow on a timed cycle. Practical applications are not yet clear to Maggie Orth, the artist-technologist who engineered the panel as a "programmable painting." By next month, Orth's company, International Fashion Machines, expects to launch her first commercial e-textile product: fuzzy light switches that are controlled by ruffling a colored pompom.

"It's unique and fun; that's what gets me out of bed in the morning," said the designer, who works as a consultant on e-textiles for the military. "I don't know if you need my fuzzy sensors, but don't you want them?"

To succeed as mass-market wearables, e-textiles will have to be machine-washable, lightweight and inexpensive. In the meantime, military garb and rescue vests are being wired, in some cases with appliques inspired by French wire ribbons. The U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., incorporated conductive webbing into the fabric of a camouflage suit to lighten the load of communications and other gear troops had to carry. The prototype, part of the Future Force Warrior program, effectively converts a soldier's clothing into a wearable computer. The center's research facility is also working on embedding fibers with microbial protection, fire retardance, thermal protection, electrical conductivity and radar wave absorption capabilities.

Architecture is another arena of promise. The exhibition focuses on a carbon fiber building envisioned by Peter Testa, a Santa Monica, Calif., architect and founding director of MIT's Emergent Design Group. Carbon fibers have been adopted for a variety of purposes, from earthquake-resistant highway overpasses to designer chairs. Testa proposes taking the material to the next level.

His 40-story circular office tower would be constructed -- knitted, if you will -- of carbon fiber and composites in an eco-friendly process that Testa believes would save massive amounts of energy. Robots would create, shape and cure strands of carbon fiber on site in a process called pultrusion, which he argues is no more complicated than fabrication of the fiberglass ladders commonly available at home-improvement stores.

"We are at a turning point," Testa said at the preview. "The science is clear in terms of the environmental consequences of the way we are building." With the rising costs of energy and materials, and the significant proportion of energy consumed nationally by construction -- he cited a figure of 40 percent -- traditional methods have to come to an end. (Environmental Building News has calculated a figure of 50 percent for energy consumed by construction, but that includes the building of roads and bridges. Keeping existing buildings running is believed to consume 35-40 percent of energy used.)

Testa's tower exists so far only as a creamy white model with circular ramps passing in and around the crisscrosses of a structural double helix. A second series of sculptural models envisions 20-story buildings made of wood reinforced with carbon fiber -- like hockey sticks, he says. The addition of carbon fiber would allow substitution of low-quality wood from renewable forests for premium lumber.

"We're still largely working with 19th-century methods," he says. "We have to find alternatives. We need to reduce the weight and energy consumption of these large buildings." He believes his carbon tower could do that effectively enough to counter the high cost of carbon fiber.

As with the designers behind many of the exhibits, he is passionate about the possibilities.

"It's coming," he says. "I'm not a futurist. This is really a very pragmatic project."

Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance continues through Oct. 30 at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 2 East 91st St., New York. Call 212-849-8400 or visit www.cooperhewitt.org.

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