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Extreme textiles go on show
Feature: 3/12/2004



American museum stages a major multi-sector exhibition

“Extreme textiles: designing for high performance’ is the title of an exhibition to be staged at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution from April 8, 2005 to January 15, 2006 (director-e News, 07 December 2004).

Appropriately, as Cooper-Hewitt is the only US museum devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design, this will be the first museum exhibition devoted solely to technical textiles.

The exhibition, put together by Matilda McQuaid, exhibitions curator and head of Cooper-Hewitt’s textiles department, will present over 150 extreme textile applications from a wide range of areas, including architecture, apparel, medicine, transportation, aerospace and the environment.

The exhibition will examine the broad spectrum of contemporary design through the medium of textile fibres and structures. “The goal of this exhibition is to reveal the incredible breadth of areas in which textiles are being used, and to provide inspiration for new approaches to design”, Matilda McQuaid said.

“In addition, the exhibition will share the intrinsic beauty of technical textiles and acknowledge the enormous influence they have in our lives”.

Performance characteristics
Items featured in the exhibition will be arranged in terms of their high-performance characteristics – stronger, lighter, faster, smarter, safer – and displayed throughout the museum campus.

’Extreme textiles’ will explore the recent advancements in technical textiles and use the museum’s own textile collection to illustrate historical examples of textile structures and techniques – such as weaving, knitting, braiding and embroidery – that continue to be used in the most pioneering textiles today.

These age-old techniques, in combination with the tremendous advances in the fields of science and engineering, have contributed to the production of textiles that are more dynamic and versatile than ever before.

Developments in polymer technology have resulted in fibres that are stronger than steel, but retain textiles’ traditional advantage of flexibility.

These extraordinary new fibres are employed in a number of high-performance situations, ranging from the strongest rope ever fabricated, the Marlow SuperLine, which features a break load of 2,000 tonnes; woven shipping containers which transport millions of tonnes of raw materials, pharmaceuticals and food stuffs around the world; and soft polyester slings, capable of lifting 50 tonnes, that are replacing steel chains for heavy lifting.

Smart textiles
The emergence of smart textiles, which incorporate computers and telecommunications technologies, allow for a wealth of new responsive devices, especially in the apparel and home furnishings industries.

Examples of smart textiles on display will include touch-on light switches made out of pom-poms, tassels or fur, and an interactive, playful musical rope installation by Squid:Labs that will explore the idea of smart cables or ropes that can track and self-monitor exerted stress/strain loads.

The US Army’s Objective Force Warrior Program integrates electronic systems into the basic soldier uniform, enabling the possibility of undergarments that continuously monitor the vital signs of the wearer.

Textile innovations have radically transformed safety apparel for every kind of hazard from needle sticks in law enforcement to molten metal splash for foundry workers.

As many of these advances originated with the space programme, the exhibition will examine the transfer of technology from the entirely unique, customised space suit to the apparel worn by firefighters and polar explorers.

A variety of gloves demonstrating different performance characteristics will be featured, including gloves for handling razor-wire and barbed wire and gloves worn in motorcycle racing and during training for the Apollo IV astronaut mission.

Medical applications
Textiles also play a major role in the field of medicine, where bio-implantable devices have been used since the 1950s.

On view will be current applications of medical textile devices, such as woven and knitted vascular grafts used to replace human arteries in bypass surgery and customised, machine-embroidered implants used by surgeons as ‘scaffolding’ for connecting nerves during reconstructive shoulder surgery.

Groundbreaking research and development in the field of nanotechnology – which investigates the creation or enhancement of living tissue – will be explored through electro-spinning, a technique for creating nonwoven fabrics with nanoscale fibres.

An electro-spun mask, developed by the US Army’s Natick Soldier Centre, will be a startling illustration of current advances in nanotechnology.

Dramatic examples of textiles used in the fields of flight and space travel will be on view, from a recreation of the Wright brothers’ pioneering 1902 glider to space suits loaned from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

Mars airbag
The exhibition will also feature a prototype of the Mars Lander airbag, as well as the next generation “Tumbleweed Rover”, which integrates monitoring/sensing devices into the Mars airbag system.

In the arena of sports, textile-based composites that combine strength and rigidity have made enormous contributions to the speed and high performance of sailboats, racing sculls, skis, skates, surfboards, bicycles and other sporting equipment.

Exhibition highlights from this section include the 2003-2004 WilliamsF1 BMW F26 race car, the bicycle wheels of Tour de France cyclist Jan Ullrich, the prosthetic foot worn by paralympic gold medalist Marlon Shirley and a racing dinghy with a radical new type of sail.

‘Extreme Textiles’ reveals how technical textiles have already become an integral part of our daily lives and forecasts how textiles will undoubtedly continue to shape our lives.
Author: John Gibbon
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