Suckers for fashion

Just in time for the middle of New York Fashion Week, we take a look at fabric!

Our clothes get hurt a lot – normal wear-and-tear, regular beatings in the washing machine, surviving primary school on boys (lets face it, it’s mostly us boys), and following fashion. People growing up in the 90s know that we tore up otherwise-OK jeans on purpose, especially when Seattle grunge took hold and everyone looked like the cast of My So-Called Life. Well, at least until hip-hop fashion became en vogue in the mid-90s.

It has just occurred to me that 30-somethings, especially my readers in the USA, were reading the previous paragraph and cringing internally. I’ll get back to the science, I promise. Just give us a moment so I can stop snickering.

Anyway, a team of researchers have been looking into ‘self-healing’ fabrics. While this could be used for repairing safety gear, like what you would see in a lab somewhere, they want to see if something like this could work for cotton, which is probably the most common fabric in the world’s clothing.

(Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-30, author: Frank Vincentz, 2012)

Think about how perfume, your favorite air freshener or even how noxious smells (why are you even thinking about that!?) travel across the room – now you’re thinking ‘diffusion.’ This is how self-healing material works, according to the authors. In this case, material flows into an area of lower concentration of material: where the tear occurs. Water helps the diffusion along and can ‘heal’ it in a matter of minutes. It’s keen, sure, but the authors do note some weaknesses with the stuff: at the moment, the material may crack if it’s kept dry, which is how we normally want our clothes to be. Also, the material that’s capable of doing this is made up mostly of industrial, high strength films such as polyacrylic acid, which you’d find in disposable diapers. Want to wear wet diapers all day?

This is where the research comes in – can you make this with material that people actually want to wear, like cotton? The researchers propose they can, with the help of proteins that make up the ring teeth of squid – yes, the stuff that leaves sucker marks on whatever it’s grabbing.

(Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain, NASA)

They maintain their toughness and elasticity, dry or wet. Also, it comes from squid, which means they could harvest it naturally or just make up the proteins themselves by growing it in E. coli bacteria. The authors seem to have a concern about harvesting and sacrificing squid for this purpose yet have no problems doing the same to billions and billions of bacteria. Hey, given the choice, you would have no problems with it, either. Anyway, the authors propose that this would work because proteins are able to change shape, especially in water. Your hair does the same thing, anyway – that’s how perms and hat hair works. Because they can change shape, they can reassemble through the interacting with other proteins, such as the ones on the other side of the cloth damage. They made some small-scale test material using cotton and repeatedly dipping it in protein, enzymes, and some stuff that helps set the protein and enzymes into a film of some kind. It’s kind of like making Gobstoppers (well, Jawbreakers for Canadians and Americans, anyway). They also tried it with wool fiber and patches of wool itself.

Does it work? Oh yes, it can! You can essentially patch up your own clothing without using glue (eww, anyway). There are some catches: first, this doesn’t regenerate any cloth that you’ve lost. It’s not like growing skin back after a cut; if you’ve lost some cotton, it’s gone. You can patch it back up, what’s wrong with patchwork chic?

(Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-20-Generic, author: angela n.)

Second, this is not ‘living fabric.’ The presence of proteins and enzymes, which are required to and/or are products of biological functions, doesn’t mean something is alive. Otherwise, your fingernail clippings are alive and in your garbage can right now, evolving and probably plotting revenge (hey, you mutilated their brethren, what did you think was going to happen?). Finally, from a practical standpoint, caring for your self-healing fashion might be difficult since you’ll have to wash your self-healing clothes one at a time instead of throwing the whole lot into the wash. Otherwise, you run the risk of having self-healing clothes stick to each other (just in case diffusion doesn’t quite work out in the violent environment of your washing machine) and you end up looking like this (at about 47 seconds in).

This is still useful, especially for making emergency clothing. There’s some flaws at the moment, but with more research, we won’t have to worry about spontaneously-ripped clothing again, like blowing out the seat of your trousers or something. Good for guys like the Hulk, who seems to require a new set of clothing after a good day’s anger-induced rampage.

Before I go: Drexel University has a lab dedicated to wearable tech and new clothing materials. And people believe that artists and scientists can’t get along. ‘Haute tech,’ indeed. Boosh.

Featured Article: Gaddes D, Jung H, Pena-Francesch A, Dion G, Tadigadapa S, Dressick WJ, Demirel MC. (2016) Self-Healing Textile: Enzyme Encapsulated Layer-by-Layer Structural Proteins. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces. 8, 20371-20378. doi: 10.1021/acsami.6b05232

Featured Image credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-20 Generaic, author: Bengt Nyman, 2009)


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