When German stores recently pulled some of their Nike soccer jerseys because a chemical used to contain odors was said to be harmful, the move had all the indications of progress running amok: that "new and improved" may be driving the market over safety concerns.
But antimicrobials, which prevent the spread of bacteria and reduce odors caused by them, and other advances in the capabilities of textiles still hold enormous marketing potential for sportswear manufacturers.
"This Nike thing is just a blip in the realm of progress," said Joe Cunning, executive director of the Delaware-based National Textile Center, a university research consortium funded by the Commerce Department.
"It's something large companies, like Nike, have been asking for a long time," said Nathan Dry, vice president of Guilford Mills, a North Carolina textile manufacturer that is researching antimicrobials.
"If you've ever been in a gym around a bunch of lockers, they all smell about the same. That's bacteria generated from the perspiration of an athlete," Dry said. With antimicrobials, "the environment in the gym is going to be much nicer, especially for people who work in the gym."
While antimicrobials--as a finish applied to fabric--are in limited use only, researchers are already moving beyond mere containment of bacteria. According to Cunning, there is increasing demand among apparel makers for fabrics that "react to our environment and provide greater degrees of comfort or performance."
For several years, the National Textile Center has funded research into "smart fibers" that can alter themselves in different conditions. In athletic wear, for example, pants and jackets that react to environmental conditions can warm up or cool down as needed. Such a product has been available in Japan for five years.
Richard Gregory, professor and director of the school of textiles at Clemson University, heads a research team investigating electrically conductive polymers--plastics that act like metal and can conduct electricity. Gregory is working to build microcircuits into fabrics that can be used to store information.
Such fabrics have a variety of potential applications, he said. In hospitals, they could be used in clothing to read a patient's vital signs or programmed into surgical sutures to release antibiotics at a predetermined rate.
While the commercial applications of smart fibers are numerous, Gregory said, his research is also useful to the military, one of several agencies funding his lab. He is looking into "chameleon fibers that can respond to an environment and change color, which has implications for camouflage," he said. He's also researching photonics--light-sensitive garments that "understand the nature of what it's being exposed to: radiation or a chemical or pathological agent." The fiber itself would seek out data about the environment, store the information and respond to it, Gregory said.
If the fabric included a Global Positioning System, another project Gregory is working on, that information could be transmitted to a military base camp. To prevent that information from being intercepted by an enemy, Gregory is pioneering stealth fibers, which cannot be detected by radar.
Smart-fiber research is an extension of the wearable computer movement that has grown out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, in which computers are attached to clothes and accessories. If computers can be woven into fabric, future consumers won't have to endure the MIT cyborg look.
Cunning predicts we'll begin to see smart fibers in consumer products in the next two years. Although now in limited use, bacteria-killing fabrics, like the ones Nike apparently used, will become more prevalent, especially in athletic gear, Cunning said. Currently, antimicrobials are applied to garments topically.
But textile makers like Guilford Mills are researching how to infuse antimicrobials into the yarn woven into the fabric. The advantage of fiber-based antimicrobials is that its germ-killing properties will survive multiple launderings.
Still, health concerns persist. Anything that can kill unwanted bacteria has the potential to kill useful bacteria as well.
"If something kills something else . . . it's awfully hard for it to do that to one living thing and not another," Dry said. "You don't want to end up with skin problems or rashes or irritations because of what you have to do to render it antimicrobial. You don't want to cure one thing to have another [problem] start."