Our clothes help define us, yet the fabrics they are made from have remained functionally unchanged for years. However, developments in fiber technology and manufacturing techniques will soon allow us to design and wear clothes that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, monitor health and change colour.
We have a fantastic opportunity to shape the future landscape of the textile industry in the UK simply by building on what we already have. Textile innovation in the UK is ranked number three in the world and number one in Europe; a recent survey shows that spending on R&D in the industry is above average for all manufacturing sectors.
Textile innovation can be found in the cars we drive, the roads we drive on, the planes and trains we use, in operating rooms and the battlefield; there are major growth opportunities for UK companies in medical textiles, advanced materials and composites and smart textiles.
We are seeing not only product innovation, but process innovation as well – 3D weaving, 3D knitting and waterless, plasma-based surface treatment are all being used commercially in the UK. The digitalisation of manufacturing, linked to an ever-more sophisticated internet, is disrupting the fashion sector. And, as the environmental impact of the sector becomes more widely recognised, the need for sustainable manufacturing and sustainable fibres, fabrics and fashion will undoubtedly be a huge driver of innovation of product, process and also, interestingly, of how we care for our clothes after we’ve bought them.
The way we buy clothes, and how they are delivered, will also change with immersive shopping experiences and the use of haptics and virtual reality. How clothes are made will also evolve; there are already so-called “dark factories” producing clothes where all the manufacturing stages are automated, and major retailers are investing heavily in sewbots in order to bring reliable production closer to market.
However, it is also worth reminding ourselves that in five, ten and even 50 years’ time, I strongly suspect we will still be wearing jeans and getting dressed up to go out.
So, let us not only invest in the development of new fabrics, new processes and new skills, but also take the opportunity to make our traditional fashion and textile manufacturing sector fit for the future.