Technical textiles are defined as textile materials and products manufactured primarily for their technical and performance properties rather than their aesthetic or decorative properties/ characteristics.

Historically, utilisation of fibres in technical capacities dates back to the early Egyptians and Chinese who used papyrus mats to reinforce and consolidate the foundations, respectively, of the pyramids and the Buddhist temples. Their serious use in modern civil engineering projects, however, only began after the floods of 1953 in The Netherlands, in which many people lost their lives. The event initiated the famous Delta works project in which, for the first time, synthetic fibres were written into the vast construction programme. Since then, geotextiles in particular have matured into important and indispensable multifunctional materials.

Use of silk in semitechnical applications also goes back a long way – to the T THE FIBRE OF YOUR FABRIC TECHNICAL TEXTILES, FABRICS AND FIBRES ARTICLE | Mark Da Silva, WorkSafe Victoria lightweight armour worn by warriors of the Mongolian armies, who did not only wear silk next to their skin for comfort, but also to reduce penetration of incoming arrows and enable their subsequent removal with minimal injury. Use of silk in wound dressing and open cuts in web and fabric form also dates back to the early Chinese and Egyptians (Textile Institute, 2000).

Textile materials and products are manufactured primarily for their technical and performance properties rather than their aesthetic or decorative characteristics. Terms such as industrial textiles, performance textiles, functional textiles, engineered textiles and hightech textiles are also all used in various contexts instead of technical textiles.

The industry can be divided into a number of sub sectors:

  • The treatment of raw materials, i.e. the preparation or production of various textiles fibres, and/or the manufacture of yarns such as through spinning
  • Natural fibres, including cotton, wool, and silk
  • Manmade fibres, including cellulosic fibres such as viscose, synthetic fibres such as polyester, and fibres from inorganic materials such as glass
  • The production of knitted and woven fabrics, i.e. knitting and weaving
  • Finishing activities such as bleaching, printing, and dyeing
  • The transformation of the fabrics into goods, including the “clothing” industry, carpets and other textile floor covering manufacture, the production of home textiles such as bed linen, and the manufacture of technical or ‘industrial’ textiles

The uniqueness and challenge of technical textiles lies in the need to understand and apply the principles of textile science and technology to provide solutions, in the main to technological problems, but also often to engineering problems as well. With the emphasis on measurable textile performance in a particular field of application, this requires the technologist to have not only an intricate knowledge of fibres and textile science and technology, but also an understanding of the application and the scientists, technologists and engineers who service it. Thus the producer of geotextiles requires an intricate knowledge of the world of civil engineering, and for medical textile producers, the requirements of consultants, medical practitioners and nurses. This series attempts to provide a bridge between the producer and end-user. The main principles involved in the selection of raw materials and their conversion into yarns and fabrics followed by dyeing, finishing and coating of technical textiles are explored, followed by the raw materials, processing techniques, finishing, specifications, properties and special technical and commercial features of a wide range of specific areas of application.

Industry is taking advantage of new technologies and business intelligence in safety equipment and clothing, especially technical textiles. This includes augmented reality, advanced robotics, high-speed data processing, 3D imaging and visualisations. There are numerous technological improvements today to keep the workers safe in hazardous environments.

Applications of technical textiles

Unlike conventional textiles used traditionally for clothing or furnishing, technical textiles are used on account of their specific physical and functional properties and mostly by other industries. Depending on the product characteristics, functional requirements and end-use applications the highly diversified range of technical textile products have been grouped into 12 sectors according to their application:

  • Personal and property protection
  • Technical clothing and footwear
  • Agriculture
  • Construction
  • Industrial uses
  • Oeko Tech – environmental protection
  • Geotextile and soil engineering
  • Packaging for all products Textiles for automobiles, shipping, railways and aeroplanes
  • Hygiene and medical products
  • Furniture, household textiles and floor coverings
  • Sports and related leisure products

Personal and property protection

This includes the various textile materials used in the protection of humans and their property. Included in this category are the various items of clothing used to protect against harsh atmospheric conditions, bulletproof jackets and all manner of protective gloves used in various industries, as well as face masks used in the chemical industry. Technical textiles are also used in the suits of soldiers who are fighting in various environmental and inclement weather conditions; for example, forests, deserts, and high altitudes where snowsuits are required. Likewise, workers across many industries require clothing that will keep them safe in these extremes of high and low temperatures. They too require dexterity, not to fire a gun, but rather to carry out workplace tasks and operate machinery both safely and easily. Technical textiles are lighter in weight and easier to wear then their traditional counterparts, enabling tasks to be carried out under less stress.

Technical clothing and footwear

This category includes fibres, yarns and textiles used as technical components in the manufacturing of clothing, such as sewing thread, interlinings, wadding and insulations. Other products used in clothing are press canvas, zippers used in trousers, buttons and cuff and collar canvas.

The global market

The global technical textiles market is now a most energetically developing market that massively impacts the global economy as far as human and common assets, capital arrangement, innovative improvement, and social and political components. Different elements that affect the development of the market must be anticipated when considering the market’s span.

The future

The future of technical textiles embraces a much wider economic sphere of activity than just the direct manufacturing and processing of textiles. The industry’s suppliers include raw materials producers (both natural and artificial), machinery and equipment manufacturers, information and management technology providers, research and development services, testing and certification bodies, consultants, and education and training organisations. Its customers and key specifiers include almost every conceivable downstream industry and field of economic activity, including the architects, engineers, designers and other advisors employed by those industries. In between lie many other interested parties, including environmental, health, safety, business and free trade regulators, patent and intellectual property agents and lawyers, investors, bankers, regional investment agencies and providers of development aid.

From an innovative standpoint technical textiles have been supporting organisations develop novel and groundbreaking methods within diversified industries such as:

  • First wind turbines manufactured using polyurethane infusion resin
  • Prosthesis for inguinal hernioplasty
  • Dressing material containing sodium bicarbonate to control odour
  • Copper-coating technology for smart textiles
  • Carbon fibres enable structural parts to store energy

Fortunately, developments in medical and smart textiles are already providing answers, offering cheaper and more effective care than is currently possible, as well as helping to prevent such injuries occurring. Good news for our industry, great news for healthcare providers and governments, and greater news still for patients who will be able to enjoy the benefits of longer, fitter and healthier lives (Technical Textiles, 2018).

The future promises even fiercer international competition which will see manufacturers striving to engineer costs downwards and develop global economies of scale in production and product development. Technical textiles will become better value for money than ever before and this should open the way towards further applications as existing end-uses mature.