Sports Apparel: Trends in High-Tech Fabrics
The latest material innovations take performance to a whole new level
By Emily Walzer
A shirt that doubles as a personal trainer. A jacket able to take photos with gesture movements. Materials that charge a cell phone or change color with a rub of a finger. Fabrics that boost energy, reduce cellulite and moisturize your skin with spa treatments. Sound space age? Actually these are just a few of the trends in textile innovations that are becoming available in sports apparel.
Other advances include fabrics that take aim at harmful UV rays, pesky mosquitoes, and yes, even unwelcome odors. No longer reserved for select markets, like aerospace and the military, these technology-enhanced textiles are being designed for casual wear and recreational athletes.
“Our lifestyle has evolved into multi-functioning electronics with the performance to text, email, video, photograph, and have web access… all in one device. We expect the same in other aspects of our life too, especially apparel,” says Tricia Carey, merchandise manager at Lenzing, a global textile supplier.
Indeed new materials can do it all, especially when it comes to providing functional features to keep athletes performing for longer periods of time. For tennis players the benefits of high-tech fabrics translate to more enjoyable hours on the court feeling fit and hitting well, no matter the playing conditions.
Currently there is keen interest in energy-related fabric development. This new class of materials focuses on circulation, muscle recovery and blood flow to enhance energy and wellness. For example, mineral-based Celliant is technically engineered to harness and recycle the human body’s natural energy to create health and performance benefits. A Schoeller product, called “energear,” similarly recycles energy radiated by the body to promote performance and improve overall well-being.
Another Schoeller innovation getting a lot of play is “coldblack.” This material refracts a spectrum of rays from sunlight that typically heat you up. The result: a black T-shirt feels just as cool to wear on a hot, sunny day as a white garment. Coldblack was initially designed with mountaineering in mind as a material able to reflect the sun’s heat so one didn’t sweat excessively when outfitted in black pants on a glacier at high elevations.
Functionality is also evolving in the compression category to provide additional benefits beyond muscle support and soreness. Added features promise to moisturize or firm the skin; fight cellulite; or refresh and revitalize the circulatory system. Based on encapsulation technology, these textiles contain additives such as aloe vera, vitamin E, caffeine or retinol and are released through movement or pressure of the fabric against the skin. Wrangler just introduced this technology for a new line of women’s jeans and many European hosiery brands also market these high-tech fabrics.
Another skin and sports-friendly material is Insect Shield. A repellency technology, Insect Shield keeps mosquitoes, ticks, ants, flies and other critters at bay for up to 70 washings. The product was an instant hit with fly-fishing enthusiasts and adventure travelers, and Insect Shield has now increased its presence in sportswear as well as for hats and socks.
Keeping Your Cool
The majority of performance apparel focuses on the cooling effect of evaporation. While the concept of “wicking” is not new, the latest crop of high-tech fabrics advance this functional feature considerably. These days, materials are designed to keep pace even in a sweat-soaking three-set match.
According to Gregory Hagguist, chief scientist and founder of the innovative textile company Cocona, evaporation of perspiration is the key to comfort and performance. He explains that garments need to have the fastest possible recovery time to drying to keep athletes comfortable. "The faster the recovery back to an ideal relative humidity micro-climate, the more comfortable the user is going to be and the more likely they will be able to perform stronger or stay out longer,” he says.
Wicking properties are often associated with slick-feeling shirts made from synthetics. However, fans of natural fibers are in luck. “Among the fastest growing areas of performance apparel are cotton products featuring state-of-the-art technologies for moisture management,” says Mark Messura, a senior vice president at Cotton Incorporated. His organization teamed with Under Armour, for instance, in the development of the brand’s “charged cotton” garments.
Also emerging is the category of “cooling technologies.” These fabrics literally feel cool to the touch due to embedded ingredients that claim to cool the skin’s temperature by a few degrees.
There has been a renaissance in wool in the past few years with the latest incarnation ideal for active sportswear. Soft next to the skin, breathable and anti-static, this new breed of merino wool fiber keeps you warm when the climate is cold yet releases body heat and moisture when it’s hot. That’s because merino is very breathable — the fiber can absorb up to 35 percent of its dry weight in moisture vapor and still feel dry to the touch, thus eliminating that clammy feeling. In addition, merino is considered an “active” fiber featuring a natural crimp that creates a lot of very small insulating air pockets. That’s another reason why this natural textile effectively keeps you warm in cool conditions.
According to wool specialists, merino helps you sweat less and hence smell better! Unpleasant odor during and after exercise is caused when sweat degrades. The complex chemical structure of merino wool actually locks away these unpleasant odor molecules.
The ability to respond and adapt not only to the outside climate, but to the athletes’ own microclimate, is a main driver in textile science. Whether using wool, cotton or new man-made fabrics, the concept of temperature regulation has emerged as the holy grail of materials innovation.
Going forward, reactive technologies that work in sync with the human condition, as well as the environmental conditions, look to be trend setting.
For tennis players, these high-tech fabrics may not guarantee wins against the likes Roger and Serena, or even the club pro, but the advantages just might prove to be game-changers.
Emily Walzer is the editor of Textile Insight magazine, a leading trade publication focused on the performance fiber/fabrics industry. Her 25-year career covering the activewear business includes the role of reporter, writer, editor, commentator and presenter. She has participated as a speaker, panelist and moderator at major textile trade events and has appeared on television as an expert on industry trends.
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