Vive la Diffrence! When It Comes To Apparel

By Lynne Webster, Senior Teaching Fellow, University of Leeds | December 7, 2010

nonwovens offer a range of unique properties that other, more traditional, fabrics do not

Let’s face it, nonwoven fabrics are different from woven fabrics! Why not just embrace the differences and celebrate the uniqueness they offer? Nonwoven fabrics should be applauded for their distinctiveness rather than being constantly compared to woven fabrics. They offer exciting opportunities for the fashion designer and present the fashion industry with the possibility of reducing assembly costs and allowing recycling, thereby reducing the overall life-cycle impact of clothing. The following are some of the most recent research and product developments undertaken by students and staff from the School of Design at the University of Leeds, along with the fashion industry’s use and acceptance of new materials.

An Elusive Marketplace

During the past few years, the nonwovens industry has been researching ideas to create new markets and has been looking to the apparel sector as the way forward—but with limited success. The combination of nonwoven fabrics into garments and accessories for functional purposes is well established in protective clothing, garment linings and interlinings, but fashion apparel has remained elusive…why?

Traditionally, nonwovens are engineered to provide physical properties and technical performance that are fundamental to their end use. Nonwoven companies trying to move into apparel markets approached the development of products for this market in the same way. They created fabrics with properties that they believed were a good match for fashion, such as incorporating stretch, adding softness or developing nonwovens that could drape over the body. However, breaking into this lucrative market proved more difficult than had been predicted and these fabrics did not have the success that had been anticipated. The reasons for this are many and varied. First, fashion apparel is notoriously fickle—what is popular and desired today may not be popular tomorrow. Second, the nonwoven industry’s understanding of how designers perceive and use new fibers and fabrics is essential to fully appreciate how nonwoven fabrics can create new markets and gain commercial success in the apparel sector.

Fashion readily embraces novel materials and techniques—new technologies drive creativity and enable designers to innovate in previously unimagined ways. This can be evidenced as early as the 1960s when many fashion designers experimented with a space age aesthetic and looked to the future with their use of high-tech materials. For example, Paco Rabanne’s use of contemporary materials challenged traditional forms of construction and led to the creation of new shapes. At the same time, Pierre Cardin experimented with materials such as metal, paper and plastic. This creative engagement is still evident today, as seen by Shelley Fox’s innovative cutting and use of non-conventional fabrics, Issey Miyake’s Pleats Please collection and A-POC (a piece of cloth), Manel Torres “spray on fashion” FabriCan spray,  Victor & Rolf’s chameleon camouflage and blue screen collections, and Hussein Chalayan’s dresses with memory wires that elevate the skirts to his tailored jackets. Nonwovens offer this same artistic challenge to the designer. After all, new fabrics need the creative engagement of fashion designers and the motivation most designers cite for harnessing technology in fashion is purely to further the creative process, to achieve something in a new way.

Trialling through handling the materials remains a very important part of the design process, and so, a few years ago, students and staff in the School of Design at the University of Leeds attempted to challenge perceived limitations of using nonwovens for fashion apparel.
Using the Yorkshire Fashion Archive—a collection of garments and accessories from the 20th century donated to the University of Leeds by the general public—the object of the exercise was not to simply replicate the archive garments using nonwovens, but to push boundaries and present garments that could only be made using nonwovens. A collection of garments called Fashion Synergy was the result. Elements of this research were disseminated at the EDANA Nonwovens Research Academy held at the University of Leeds in 2007 and at the University of
Leeds International Textiles Archive (ULITA) in the same year.

This early research, supported by members of the nonwoven network, attempted to bring together the disciplines of textile engineering and design to allow the production of innovative, visually appealing, functional and commercially feasible apparel for the fashion market. It was discovered that nonwovens offered a range of unique properties that more traditional fabrics did not. The research was committed to developing garments using dynamic and leading-edge design and construction methods interlaced with more traditional methods. Consequently, experiments using laser cutting (Figure 1), ultrasonic bonding, hand knitting (Figure 2) and heat processes generated unique and creative answers to a range of technical problems which could be seen as barriers to the potential use of nonwovens in fashion apparel.  

This initial experimentation generated further research momentum and other imaginative, original and sometimes “quirky” collections, including “Fashion: Function in Action” (see Figures 1 and 2) where technological advances resulted in creative solutions. This collection, supported by EDANA and its members and exhibited at INDEX08 in Geneva, was based on high-performance, durable and single-use nonwoven fabrics and incorporated developments in elastic film composites, thermo-active PCMs, masterbatch additives, thermochromic finishes, electroconductive fabrics, high temperature protective fabrics, metalized and multi-layer spunbond laminates.

Next came “Fashion: Transparency” sponsored by Colbond (Figures 3, 4 and 5). This collection successfully combined new technology and traditional techniques to create garments that change how the wearer feels. This collection invited us to view materials in a challenging new way. Fabrics are given ingrained imperfections, adding a sense of story kept up-to-date in an elegant and contemporary way with sonic bonding, laser cutting and beading. Here “transparency” creates a mood with many facets, from soft dressing and feminine ruffles through to tailored-inspired looks.

Finally, “Fashion: Décoratif” (Figures 6 and 7) supported by Colbond, Fybagrate and Anglo Recycling, is an example of how exploratory research into nuno felting, beading, embellishment and print and color techniques generated a collection of innovative and stylish garments.
These garments form part of a large body of research using a wide range of nonwoven fabrics to create fashion garments across a variety of styles, fit and shapes. Collars, which conventionally had interlinings, did not; seams, which ordinarily needed overlocking, were left raw, and front bodices, which by tradition have facings, were produced without. The complexity and nuances of nonwovens have been fully exploited in the search for craftsmanship and originality.

What Now?

As all fashion designers understand, textile choice can significantly influence the eventual silhouette and the entire message of a collection. Designers are fascinated with the aesthetics achieved through a variety of innovative techniques, some of which have already been mentioned. The use of nonwovens, with their unique properties, enables this exciting experimentation to develop and evolve.

All new fabrics need the creative engagement of fashion designers and the motivation most designers cite for harnessing technology in fashion is purely to further the creative process, to achieve something in a new way. Collaboration between nonwoven producers and fashion designers is essential to ensure that nonwoven fabrics move confidently into apparel markets in the coming years.

The next unique and inventive collection of garments,
supported by Lenzing  and developed by staff in the School of Design, University of Leeds, U.K. will be on display at the
Lenzing stand at INDEX11, April 12-15, 2011 at Palexpo in Geneva, Switzerland. v

About the Author

Lynne Webster has worked extensively in Asia, designing commercial ranges for companies including Top Shop and Debenhams. She also worked in the corporate wear sector; researching and designing ranges for The Halifax PLC, WH Smith PLC, Thomas Cook, British Airways PLC and BT. Research into the use of nonwovens in apparel is an ongoing project being undertaken by undergraduate students and staff in Fashion Design, School of Design, University of Leeds, U.K. under the supervision of David Backhouse, MDes RCA subject leader and Lynne Webster, senior teaching fellow.

More info: Lynne Webster, senior teaching fellow, University of Leeds
Email:  l.c.webster@leeds.ac.uk

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