How Science Is Woven Into New York Fashion Week

Behind every runway model is a team of materials scientists, pushing the limits of fabrics and fibers

The science that drives the industry. — (Getty Images for IMG)
Feb 09, 2016 at 2:05 PM ET

Face it: New York Fashion Week is often more about who’s sitting in the front row at fashion shows than it is about the triumph of science and technology. But when you think about the materials that make up the clothes themselves, thousands of years of research and innovation become part of the story. There’s the millennia of innovation behind blended wool suits; the decades of laboratory work that produced nylon stockings; the careful cultivation of silk worms that still drive the lingerie market—it’s hard to ignore the science that drives the industry.

So when you’re skimming the latest fashion trends this week, take a moment to appreciate the microscopic fibers that make up the most incredible outfits of the season. Here’s a primer to help you get started:

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Natural Fibers: Old And Wrinkly, But Still King

Much like the clothing in your closet at home, most of the outfits that will appear on the runway at New York Fashion Week will be made up of natural fibers. Humans have been using these materials since the dawn of time—scientists estimate that the earliest dyed flax fibers are roughly 32,000 years old, and sewing needles may be even older than that.

Four major fibers still dominate the fashion scene: cotton, linen, wool and silk.

Cotton is the most commonly used fiber in the United States. The fiber is mainly made up of cellulose and, after it has been harvested from a cotton plant, it is typically sorted by fiber length, color and cleanliness. Luxury items, from blouses to bedsheets, usually use longer fibers in their fabrics. Less expensive, every day items such as t-shirts and jeans often use shorter fibers.

Designers turn to cotton when they’re looking for an inexpensive fiber with good strength that is machine washable. At the same time, cotton is a temperamental fabric. It displays poor elasticity and often shrinks, wrinkles or otherwise refuses to return to its original shape.

Linen is a fabric made from flax, a filament fiber harvested from flax plants. The oldest fiber on record, flax may have been cultivated by humans as early as the Stone Age. Flax is one of the most expensive plants to harvest, because the fiber is taken from the stem and root of the plant by hand, and producing the fabric requires drying, soaking, crushing, combing and spinning the fiber.

Nonetheless, the fashion industry still relies on linen for many suits, skirts, jackets and dresses. Linen is stronger than cotton, but less elastic, and is known for its cooling effect, which makes it the ideal fabric for summer clothes. Linen is also heat-resistant, making it an ideal material for sheets, pillowcases, napkins and tablecloths that are washed at high temperatures. It is also quite durable and doesn’t shrink or lose its shape quite as badly as cotton.

Wool was the universal textile of choice until the Industrial Revolution because, without mass production, it simply was not practical to make most clothing out of cotton or linen. Nowadays, however, wool is a luxury fabric due to the high cost in manufacturing and maintaining it. Although there are more than 200 varieties of fleece on the market, all sheep’s wool is composed of proteins that give wool some of its most desirable properties. After sheep are sheared, their wool is graded and sorted based on the quality and length of the fleece. The highest grade fibers are usually collected from the sides, shoulders and back of the sheep.

Due to wool’s unique protein structure, the fibers crimp naturally, allowing for a very strong yarn. This also creates air pockets that act as a natural layer of insulation. Wool also holds its original shape far better than cotton or linen, making it ideal for luxury winter items. That’s why you’ll see wool in almost all high-end sweaters, socks and suits.

Silk is a luxurious fiber harvested from the cocoons of silk worms. Farmers extract the raw silk filament from these cocoons in a delicate process known as reeling and then manufacture that into expensive silk fiber. Conventional silk fibers are uniform, white and long, while Tussah silk, harvested from worms not specifically bred to produce silk, is usually light brown, less uniform and shorter in length.

Silk produces a soft, fine, airy, shiny cloth that is stain-resistant. However, silk tears easily and degrades over time when exposed to sunlight or oxygen, which is why silk is usually reserved for evening wear or particularly expensive day wear.

Chemical Fibers: Innovation At Its Finest

No offense to silk worms and sheep, but there are some things that natural fibers just can’t do. For that, we have synthetic fibers—the products of technology, science and innovation that power the fashion industry.

Polyester is strong, stretch-resistant, easy to wash and dry and resistant to most chemicals. It won’t wrinkle, it retains its crease, mildew can’t grow on it and it hardly ever tears. This incredible material is a lab-grown textile, which consists of long chains of molecules mainly composed of “esters”—acids bound to oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon groups.

There aren’t very many disadvantages to polyester, and it’s relatively inexpensive to produce, which means that you’ll find it in virtually every form of clothing.

Nylon is another laboratory miracle fiber, but its specific uses in fashion are a bit more narrow than that of polyester. Since nylon is exceptionally smooth, lightweight, shiny and high-strength, it is ideal for hosiery—or anything that needs to weigh very little and stretch quite a bit.

Nylon is actually a generic name for an entire class of plastics called polyamides, comprised of long chains of atoms. It’s an incredibly diverse material. Since its invention in the 1930s, nylon has been used in tennis rackets, parachutes, fishing lines and car parts. In fashion, expect to find nylon in stockings, lingerie, underwear, sports apparel and swimwear.

Rayon, the first manufactured cellulose fiber, spun onto the fashion scene after scientists tried endlessly to create a cheaper, synthetic version of silk. But rayon never quite replaced silk and, for that matter, never quite qualified as synthetic, seeing as it’s made from dissolving tree cellulose in a soda solution and then passing the mixture through tiny holes to form fibers.

As a fabric, rayon is highly absorbent, easy to dye and soft and comfortable. You’ll find it in all sorts of work clothes and accessories, but also as components in dresses and jackets. One type of fiber known as viscose rayon is a very bright, lustrous fiber and is often found in formal wear.

Spandex is another synthetic chain of atoms, but here the chemistry directly influences the fashion industry. Spandex is famous for stretching repeatedly without losing its shape. That property comes from the randomly coiled segments of the polymer chain, which link to one another in an infinite network of microscopic interactions. Because of this web of atoms, the individual chains that make up spandex fibers only change shape if you stretch them and, as soon as you stop stretching them, they bounce back into those preferred, random coils.

Since spandex is the ultimate synthetic stretching material, you’ll find it most often in garments where comfort and fit are the top priorities, such as hosiery, swimsuits, exercise wear, waist bands and bra straps.

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