Technical textiles for the apparel industry, ranging from stain resistant clothing for catering staff to all-in-one suits for nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, looks set to be a fruitful area of growth over the next half-decade. Joe Ayling takes a look at a new report on the sector.

New research - 'The global market review of technical textiles in apparel: forecasts to 2011' - shows that volume growth of technical fabrics for apparel end-uses should increase 23% by 2011, with the value of the market jumping 17.3% in this timeframe.

Smart products - such as wearable electronics - are the cause of much excitement among both manufacturers and consumers alike, with Nike's strategic "tie-up" with Apple Computer on trainers that can track a runner's performance and help choreograph songs to a workout a case in point.

There is still room for aesthetic and commercial improvements, but technical fabrics, such as those incorporating Kevlar and Nomex, will show further penetration into mainstream apparel as a blend or stand-alone in garments, according to the just-style report.

Asia is identified as the largest growth area for technical apparel textiles, with a 42.7% value increase forecast over the period by 2011. This will be driven by an increasingly developed and sophisticated infrastructure, as well as huge growth in the private health sector in both China and India, requiring new uniforms.

Notable influences on the technical textiles market include the growth of China's economy, changes in membership within the EU, and ongoing political instability in the Middle East - with demand for technical fabrics used for military and public utility uniforms already increasing in line with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, the growth of technical apparel textiles is not refined to the military, and many newly-developed materials have married well into the mainstream fashion sector.

Performance textiles
Performance textiles - often windproof, breathable or aerodynamic - have been taken up widely. just-style's report deduces that aesthetic properties are a vital factor in the design of such products. The development of performance textiles was identified as the driving force behind many innovations in mainstream apparel.

In addition, clothing for outdoor pursuits is one of the largest market areas where technical fabric technology crosses into mainstream apparel, the report finds, using nylon or polyester microfibres.

Perhaps the most publicised technical innovation has been smart-clothing and smart-fabrics. However, the technical textiles report remains sceptical about such "hype", saying that despite many years of research and development, all that has been confirmed is, to date, very few "wearable electronic" smart textile products.

"Many problems have resulted from the fact that the developers of smart textiles technology have mostly been either US academic institutions, which have largely focused on the unique requirements of the US military, or electronics/chip companies, who have not understood the very different approaches to product development, planning horizons and user needs of the textiles industry," the report surmises.

"As a result, new product development has often failed to reflect either true market requirements or the problems of garment technology integration that are likely to be faced."

In addition, the report finds that many developments by small companies have failed to flourish through a lack of funding.

Commercial potential
Examples of smart-clothing with potential that has already hit the shelves include wearable electronics, appearance changing garments, shape memory products and non-electrical thermal control. Each was found to have different commercial and market potential by the research.

Various academic institutions, such as the Georgia Institute of Technology, have developed wearable electronics for communication, information and entertainment uses. However, there is a limit to the commercial potential of these products due to technological obstacles, despite the enthusiasm of mobile phone companies, for example, to make a breakthrough.

On the other hand, there is likely to be significant scope to supply appearance changing garments to the rescue services, outdoor workers, mountain rescue teams, as well as cyclists and joggers. Such garments, which change appearance in response to some external stimulus, have until now been largely directed at fashion clothing for nightclubs, the report says.

Overall research and development (R&D) is identified as "the lifeblood of the technical fabric industry", by the report, which names Klopman International, Milliken & Company, Du Pont de Nemours, Malden Mills Industries, WL Gore & Associates, Royal TenCate, The Toray Group, Schoeller Textil AG, and Reliance Industries among the leading technical innovators.

However, it seems that the transfer of garments from laboratory to catwalk could be a slow one for manufacturers, especially while the sale of such products through their functional attributes seems enough to support growth alone.

The technical textiles report, available now from just-style, also details the most commonly used fibres in the sector, along with sourcing and technical information. For more information, click here