February's featured article

What's New in Winter Fabric Technology

John Calvert : Office of Innovation Development

What will we see at the 2014 Winter Olympics? Aside from some amazing athletics, we could also witness the next trend in winter fabric technology.

If you caught the perennial motion-picture classic “A Christmas Story” over the holidays, you saw Ralphie Parker’s little brother, Randy, bundled up in a snowsuit resembling the Michelin Man. Perhaps your well-meaning mother dressed you like that when you were young. Many of us remember bulky, marginally warm snowsuits with something less than love. But fabric technology has come along way over the years. The gear that will be worn by athletes competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is a far cry from Randy Parker’s snowsuit. The next generation of lightweight, high-tech materials will heat your body and keep you dry, even in extreme weather.

Winter sports fabrics evolved at a leisurely pace until the 1990s, when things changed dramatically. The Olympics have a tradition of introducing us to these changes. Remember those sleek spider web suits worn by the U.S. Ski Team at the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway? Besides bringing a new look to the games, they contained patented technology that increased aerodynamics of the wearer. Innovations in fibers, fabric construction, and design have led to technical textiles becoming a part of nearly all modern outdoor wear.

One of the most exciting innovations involves the use of aerogels for insulating clothing layers. Aerogels, first patented in the early 20th century, are created from a process of removing the liquid from silica gel crystals. They also happen to be the least-dense solid material known to man, composed of up to 99 percent air, and offer superior insulating properties. In fact, a single 3 millimeter layer can keep you warm in subzero temperatures. For most of their existence, aerogels were too costly to manufacture commercially and had limited applications due to their brittleness. That has all changed. In 2012, NASA researchers discovered a way to exponentially strengthen aerogels so that they could be stretched, compressed, and manipulated in a variety of ways. Subsequent developments in the academic world led to new and less-expensive manufacturing processes. So far, only experimental clothing has been created using this technology. While there’s no word yet if we’ll see aerogels in Olympic uniforms this year, it wouldn’t be surprising.

Another promising development is the arrival of air-permeable fabrics. For a long time, cold weather athletes have had to compromise between staying warm and staying dry. Materials such as Gore-Tex offer excellent waterproof capabilities—so excellent, in fact, that they trap sweat and moisture that needs to escape. New air-permeable fabrics completely block water on one side while allowing water vapor to escape from the body. This technology is the result of new manufacturing processes that treat micro-porous material with waterproofing agents without covering the pores, preserving the fabric’s breathability. Outerwear incorporating this technology has already hit the shelves, and you’ll no doubt see it on some Olympic athletes in Sochi.

Many other fabric technologies are continuously in the works as manufacturers continue to push the envelope of innovation. At the United States Patent and Trademark Office, patent applications for new technologies arrive at a blistering pace. Patents are not just business tools for financial gain: they’re a way to chart the progress of human development. Even one hundred years ago, many of today’s popular sporting activities would not have been possible in cold weather. Fabric technology has come a long way in a short amount of time, allowing humans to compete harder, stronger, and faster in the most unforgiving of conditions. While only a fraction of this technology has made its way to department store shelves, the consumer demand for continuously fashionable, lightweight, and warm performance clothing makes it all but sure we’ll see more soon.

What will we see during the 2014 Olympics? Besides awe-inspiring skiing, skating, and sledding—among many other sports—it could be the next trend in cold weather wear. Whatever we see, one thing is certain: the fabric of history is in the making.

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