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By Cathy NewmanPhotographs by Cary Wolinsky



The textiles of tomorrow are still on the drawing board. But one day—maybe not so long from now—they could take humans to outer space, make soldiers invisible, keep people in touch with their friends, and move buildings.




Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The size and scope of such dreams about textiles of the future made my head spin. Visions of flying hotels, spider silk pulled from the milk of a genetically altered goat, a smart bra that knew when to shape up, a disappearing cloth bag being evaluated by the French Atomic Energy Commission for who-knows-what made me long for something simple and uncomplicated.

Something, it turned out, exactly like the bright yellow pillow the size of a magazine that Asha Peta Thompson showed me at the Design for Life Centre at Brunel University in the south of England. "It's a television remote control for somebody with motor-skill problems," Thompson, a weaver, explained. The pillow, which has large numbers and volume control icons embroidered on it, relies on a switch made of a layer of mesh sandwiched between two layers of copper-coated nylon, allowing a person lacking manual dexterity and strength to manage the controls.

It was functional, simple, and fun. It should be, Thompson explained. She has the admirable mission of not only designing products for people with disabilities but also making those things so appealing that able-bodied people will want them too.

Thompson also showed me a soft fabric mat that a child with cerebral palsy could sit on and, by leaning forward or back, use as a joystick for video games. The marriage between textiles and technology made perfect sense, she said. "We surround ourselves with textiles. You come out of the womb, and they wrap you in a cloth; then they put you away in a coffin in a cloth. When you get out of the bath, you wrap yourself in a towel. It seems natural that what we wear should be combined with technology."

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Multimedia

VIDEO From balancing carbon-fiber engine valves to controlling a
garment-clad cow,
photographer Cary Wolinsky went the distance to set up his high-tech textile shots.



Forum

To illustrate this article, the photographer manipulated some images, but today's technology makes some altered photos difficult to detect. When does image manipulation go too far?


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Pageable pants? Heart-monitoring T-shirts? This is functional fashion of the future. And with clothes this smart, the sky's the limit. What would you like your clothes to do for you?



More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.


Did You Know?
It's hard to imagine a world without nylon. Considered the first and perhaps most famous synthetic fiber ever produced, nylon finds its way into everything from clothes to carpets to conveyor belts and countless other products. But when scientists at the DuPont Company in Wilmington, Delaware, invented nylon in 1935, they were thinking only of women's hosiery.

"As strong as steel, as fine as a spider's web," DuPont proclaimed of its new miracle fiber, which debuted at the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair in the form of women's stockings. Cheaper and more durable than silk stockings, nylon hose were an immediate hit, selling an estimated 64 million pairs by 1941. Interestingly, DuPont decided not to trademark "nylon." Rather, in a reverse corporate branding strategy, the company allowed the word to enter the American vocabulary as a synonym for "stockings"—while holding the rights to the patent, of course.

Runaway hosiery sales came to a halt in December 1941, however, when the U.S. entered World War II and the entire production of nylon was allocated for military uses. Ironically, this was a huge break for nylon producers as they were able to demonstrate nylon's versatility and reliability for more than just stockings—first as parachute fabric, when Japanese silk supplies were cut off, then as lightweight tents and ponchos, and nylon-reinforced ropes and tires. Nylon's wartime success provided the foundation for an even greater postwar commercial expansion that continues to the present day.

—David Brindley

Did You Know?


Related Links
U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center
www.natick.army.mil/
Explore the cutting-edge textile technology scientists and engineers are developing to protect soldiers on the battlefield.

American Fiber Manufacturing Association and Fiber Economics Bureau
www.afma.org/
Looking for the latest facts and figures on manufactured textiles? Those and more can be found at this trade group website.

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NGS Resources
Newman, Cathy. National Geographic Fashion. National Geographic Books, 2001.

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