Apparel Trends: High-Tech Fabrics Take Performance to a Higher Level
By Emily Walzer
At last summer’s US Open, several ball boys and girls wore Polo Tech shirts made by Ralph Lauren that featured sensors knitted into the garment to read biological and physiological cues. Soon enough this type of “smart” shirt will move off the sidelines and onto center court, as wearable technology is emerging as one of the strongest trends in textiles right now.
Smart materials have been in development for decades, but according to fabric industry experts, the category is ready for mainstream. The latest innovations are functionally sleek fabrications that have incredibly thin yet effective sensors integrated into normal-looking activewear garments.
“This is the beginning of an era of wearables,” says Davide Vigano, CEO of Sensoria. Vigano, previously an executive with Microsoft, is helping usher in advances in how electronic sensors can be used into everyday products. His firm’s new sock, for instance, integrates conductive threads and sensor into knitted hosiery that is machine washable. Worn with the compatible electronic anklet device that magnetically snaps onto the cuff, the sock tracks not only how far and fast you go, but provides feedback on foot strike, posture and cadence.
While self-monitoring features are fast becoming a priority, textile execs agree that products still must look good to prove popular. The Ralph Lauren Polo Tech hits the mark with a stylish, snug compression fit. Fabric developers expect the next wave of innovation will include tech-wear that is even more attractive without sacrificing any functionality.
In addition to embedded fitness monitoring, another important trend in today’s performance fabric sector is customization. Increasingly, textile suppliers are introducing fabrications personalized to individuals’ needs. For instance, textile maker Schoeller has recently launched a refined application for what are known as “phase change materials” in a line of products called CoolIt, BalanceIt, WarmIt. (Phase change materials are technically engineered to absorb and release heat as necessary to enhance comfort by regulating body temperature.)
What Schoeller has done is advance this concept by dialing in a specific amount of these super high-tech phase change material capsules and temperature settings, so the technology is customized to distinct needs. CoolIt could be used in a lightweight jacket for summer that provides a cooling effect, for example, while WarmIt could be used in a jacket in early spring that provides a bit of warmth. “It could be used as a literal warm-up jacket for players,” says Schoeller spokesperson Shannon Walton.
Regulating body temperature continues to dominate fabric development, as this feature is key to athletic performance. To do that, innovations in lightweight, functional fabrics that move moisture, dry quickly and protect from the sun are under constant review.
Recently, athletic companies have upped their game with functional textiles focused on tennis. New Balance, for instance, signed Milos Raonic (facing page) to a multi-year contract and the Canadian star will showcase the company’s new Men’s Tournament Crew. The shirt is made with a lightweight textured wicking fabric, mesh inserts for supreme ventilation, bonded back and shoulder seams, and UV protection. “The Tournament Crew was designed to perform,” is how New Balance describes the high-tech top.
What’s also trending in textile technology is how traditional cold-weather fabrications are being updated for warm-weather wear. Wool has been edging into spring collections for a while, but now lightweight performance Merino wool is completely accepted as a warm-weather option in everything from socks to T-shirts. The latest wool products are soft, itch-free, easy care, and offer a roster of functional benefits, such as wicking, breathability and anti-odor properties. The emerging category of techno-wool blends — fabrics that combine Merino with a synthetic fiber — bumps the performance factor even higher.
Like wool, insulations are also making a seasonal transition. New synthetic products such as Polartec Alpha and PrimaLoft Active are lightweight insulations designed to provide just the right amount of protection on cool days, but won’t feel bulky or clammy when worn during an aerobic workout thanks to a high degree of breathability built into the insulation. Even insulations made with down are now engineered for year-round wear. According to one activewear designer, “A down vest is a perfect garment for spring.”
While tennis has long been a sport about looking good while performing well, today’s modern materials can help players take their game up a notch.
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