If you're in the apparel industry, you've likely heard the term "nanotechnology" and its claims to revolutionise the marketplace writes Stacy Baker. It's being used to impart characteristics onto fabrics such as stain, water and oil-resistant finishes - and what's more, the added value doesn't come at a hefty price. 

While nanotechnology - simply the use of nanometres, one-billionth of a metre, to alter fibre structures so they perform better - is not entirely new, applications within the textile industry are just beginning and its promises to change what consumers expect out of their garments are becoming more of a reality every day.

Nanotechnology is more than hype and its link to market demand is clear.

Consider this: The amount of clothing with performance attributes will jump to 25 per cent of the $170 billion US apparel industry in the next five years, according to NPD; four out of five people search for performance attributes when looking for fashion or casual wear, reports Greenfield research; and 2 million workers will be needed in the next 15 years to support nanotechnology industries worldwide, according to The National Science Foundation.

Not only that, but many apparel experts believe that the types of innovations offered through nanotechnology applications - stain, wrinkle, odour, moisture wicking to name just a few - will drive market revenues, spur consumer interest in fashion and offer shoppers not only a reason to spend on clothing with benefits, but also pay full price for them.

Nanoparticles - one-millionth the size of a grain of sand, according to Nano-Tex — make the inherent fibres work better. Nano-Tex for example, used its technology to improve the architecture of molecules on a nano-scale, says David Offord, chief scientific officer for Nano-Tex.

"We use the analogy of building a wall with bricks. If you try to build a barrier by unintelligently throwing bricks in a pile, you use a lot of bricks and the wall isn't very sturdy. If you intelligently build an ordered wall just a few bricks thick, you use less bricks and the overall structure is sturdier. That's how our treatments work on fabric - we use less material to achieve a superior result."

Making fabrics work better
By using technology on a nano-level, companies are able to impart characteristics onto fabrics or basically make fabrics work better.

Schoeller, for example, has created NanoSphere, a stain-, water- and oil-resistant finish that offers higher levels of performance than non-nanotechnology inspired treatments on the market.

That's because the molecules used in this technology adhere to fibres permanently rather than coat the top and will not wash off over time, says Sheree Hallaran, marketing director for the company. The bigger benefit is that they offer performance without sacrificing the fabric's hand, plus truly change the way molecules work so they perform at a higher level.

The opportunity to change the nature of fabrics essentially means that the market for nanotechnology-enhanced products is wide open. Schoeller is currently using its treatment for backpacks, children's apparel, medical gowns, workwear and more, but that's just the beginning.

Experts see this having a huge role in the fashion world, particularly in designer wear: consumers who pay high prices for luxury goods and high-end apparel want it to last, plus want the comfort of knowing that spilling a glass of wine on an expensive silk shirt isn't the end of a shirt (if it's made from fabrics enhanced through nano-particles).

Nano-Tex's research has found that consumers want performance attributes imbued in everything from ties to suits to casual wear to dresses. And with nanotechnology, you're able to manipulate the finest of fabrics while keeping their inherent comfort and drape properties.

"We're really at the beginning of a revolution of the apparel industry," says Mark Brutten, senior vice president of marketing for the company. "In some categories it's taking longer to develop than others, but the consumer interest is clearly evident in everything from activewear to dress apparel."

Companies and designers currently embracing the Nano-Tex application are Gap, Hugo Boss, Marks & Spencer, Rene Lezard, and the list goes on.

Added value benefits - and challenges
While the benefits to consumers and brand image are enormous, the added value doesn't come at a hefty price.

Brutten says that nanotechnology treatments typically add around just 5-10 per cent per garment to the price tag, which retailers can choose to absorb or pass on to shoppers. The advantages, however, such as preserving a $3,000 couture dress or ensuring your kids' clothes last a little longer, are worth the additional cost for most people.

But nanotechnology doesn't come without its challenges, most of which fall on the marketing side.

One issue, explains Hallaran, is that "nano" is a hot topic right now and many people are marketing products enhanced through nanotechnology that may not adhere to certain industry standards, like Bluesign, which guarantees that the products won't harm animals, humans or the environment.

Another marketing challenge is that many consumers aren't familiar with nanotechnology, nor its benefits, so the industry is dealing not only with educating consumers about a brand with nanotechnology, but about the treatment itself. This means marketing brands on two fronts, plus making sure retailers educate associates in how to sell the products.

"Consumers don't know to look for it," says Brutten. "Another challenge, as with any technology, is to communicate in language consumers understand, rather than in highly technical industry language. We need to help consumers understand what the technology is and how it can make their lifestyles more comfortable."

Manufacturing issues
Beyond marketing, the largest issue for vendors like Nano-Tex, Schoeller and others, is finding uses that meet consumer demand and then executing those seamlessly in the manufacturing environment.

"This technology is more complex than anything historically has been in the chemistry arena," says Offord. "We've had to go outside the textile industry to find chemists in the biotech and semiconductor industries to make chemicals that work in this environment. We have to have the processes ready to run in a mill without new equipment or changes in the way the manufacturing environment operates."

The upside is that all this investment in technology and processes and research is paying off, and promises to keep paying off in the future.

"We don't know how big this industry is," says Brutten. "But we do know that we're experiencing large amounts of growth both on new innovations and greater penetration of existing products on the market.

"I truly believe that in the future all apparel will contain attributes that make it perform better in a way that makes life easier for consumers."

By Stacy Baker