Stefanie Rudolph

Things you should know about performance fabrics

What are performance fabrics?

Performance fabrics are material constructions that have been developed to achieve certain properties such as crease resistance, moisture transport, odour neutralisation and various others. Used in clothing, these materials can provide outstanding comfort, durability or special functions.

Functional materials are not a novelty

Being honest - nobody had to reinvent the wheel. Innovations in this field have been around for centuries. The original Mackintosh coat from the early 19th century, for example, contained rubberised cotton to protect against various weather conditions.

Moisture-wicking clothing appeared in the late 1980s, but "it was very expensive, and people didn't really see the value," says Matt Powell, Senior Sports Industry Consultant at NPD Group, a market research company. The gradual integration of functional fabrics into the sportswear segment is representative of consumer behaviour with regard to their reaction to new materials. In the end, it took 10 years for moisture-transporting materials to make their commercial breakthrough. Sweat, once valued as a symbol of athletic endurance and physical activity, has disappeared from the skin of athletes and occasional gym visitors. Over the last decades, moisture-wicking high-performance fabrics have become a standard in sportswear, replacing sweatshirts, cotton spandex tops and nylon running trousers.

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The symbiosis between "athleisure" and "performance”

On the one hand, it is relatively likely that the athleisure trend could not exist in its current form without performance materials, on the other hand, it was the rise of the athleisure industry, among other things, that increased the demand for functional materials. The driving concept behind the athleisure movement was the idea that in everyday life - even at work - you can wear something as comfortable as a pair of sweatpants (without actually wearing them). And right now, it looks like this idea has the potential to be more than just a temporary fad. “The trend towards more and more comfort is one of the most important trends in today's fashion industry and will not disappear that quickly," says investor Chris Burch during an investment round for the athletic leisure brand Swet Tailor.

Keep in mind: Performance is much more than just athleisure

Performance materials are a driving force for innovation in the textile industry. Just as sustainability is pushing the fashion industry to take action in the face of advancing climate change and global warming, performance materials have now reached a stage beyond that of sportswear. They have gained relevance in our everyday lives, regardless of whether we are athletes or not. From the quick-drying properties of Lyocell to the UV protection of merino wool, we are surrounded by smart materials everywhere.

Performance fabrics vs. technical fabrics

In this context, it is about the origin of a function. The specific properties of a fabric can be based on the material construction as well as on chemical and natural finishings. When fibre composition, yarn construction and weaving technique are decisive, we generally speak of technical fabrics. Of course, the finishing can also optimise the result and enhance performance. Ultimately, all these aspects contribute to the durability of the fabric in a demanding environment. Technical performance fabrics are generally more expensive than their alternatives, but in return they offer the greatest value and the least compromise between durability and style.

Wrinkle NL

Crease-free and non-iron

The crease resistance of a fabric depends on more than just one factor. The chosen material is as important as the complexity of the weave or the final treatment. If a production without supporting finishing is considered, wool and synthetic fibres are less prone to creasing than, for example, linen and cotton. Another decisive parameter is the weaving method. In the last step, a fabric can be chemically treated to prevent wrinkles or even make ironing unnecessary. Fabrics without additional finishing generally do not perform as well in terms of performance, although there are exceptions, such as materials made of merino wool.

Wool for sports and business wear (& sustainability))

Merino Wool

The idea of wearing wool for sports might seem a little paradoxical at first, unless we are talking about winter sports. However: the development of ultra-fine merino fibres enables textile manufacturers to produce garments that are very light and supple, as well as naturally breathable and temperature-regulating - a characteristic of merino wool that keeps the wearer warm when it's cold and cools the body down when it's hot. Merino wool allows sweat to evaporate very quickly, which has another advantage: less washing. Since sweat vaporizes faster, odour-forming bacteria do not have enough time to develop. In addition, every single merino fibre contains antimicrobial properties thanks to lanolin - a waxy substance that occurs naturally in sheep's wool. Lanolin prevents the growth of bacteria and thus inhibits the development of odours. But not only athletes benefit from this characteristic. This textile property is e.g. also of benefit to frequent travellers, whether for business or private reasons - for those who prefer minimalist travel wardrobe or for business people with long, challenging days. All clothes stay fresh longer - even socks. At the same time, it is an easy step towards sustainability, as 25% of the CO2 footprint of a garment is caused by its cleaning during its lifetime.

No bacteria = no smell. Odour-resistant technologies (& sustainability)

It is not necessarily the sweat that causes the smell - it is the bacteria. For this reason, textile technology uses antimicrobial additives and relies on treatments with metals such as silver, zinc and copper. Some use chemical additives, others, such as Life Material Technologies, found a completely natural solution: Peppermint plant extracts, strong antibacterial substances which are added to the fibre. According to the brand, the odour-inhibiting properties should be able to be maintained over 50 washes and can be used on clothing, bed linen or towels. Ultimately, any odour-inhibiting technology makes a small contribution to sustainability, as odourless garments need to be washed less often. This in turn can help the consumer to save water, energy, time and money, which in the end also allows a longer life of the product.

UV-protective fabrics: Performance and technology under the sun

UV beständige Materialien
UV Schutz - Kleidung mit Lichtschutzfaktor

Fabrics that offer UV protection may not be new, but the way in which they offer this protection actually is. In principle, covering the body with clothing protects us naturally from UV radiation, but the impact of climate change on the environment means that this protection needs to be improved and fashion technology enables us to achieve this. In addition, innovation in UV protection focuses on sustainability, and research is looking for organic and environmentally friendly substances that can be added to materials to make them naturally UV resistant. Additives such as aloe vera, merino wool, seaweed, calendula and plant extracts from Baikal skullcap are common. Some of them not only improve the UV resistance of a fabric but, according to recent studies, may also have antimicrobial or water-repellent properties. UPF-reinforced materials are already included in swimwear and sportswear, as well as in leisure and children's clothing, as they help us to protect ourselves against harmful sunlight over long periods of time, whether in the water, during sports, outdoor activities or even on the way to work.

Innovation vs. reinvention

Even though essential technologies were often already available and not everything had to be reinvented from scratch, the progress made in the field of performance materials should not be underestimated, especially when it comes to using natural solutions instead of chemical components. In addition, the example of moisture-transporting fabrics has clearly shown that innovations are sometimes not appreciated or rewarded if they are too far ahead of the spirit of the times. When the time is right, researchers or inventors consequently take up already existing technologies. Another reason to work with existing knowledge - a patent is difficult to obtain. Utility patents in the fashion industry relating to fabrics are becoming more and more common, which means that this area is becoming increasingly crowded. Since a utility model protects a useful invention that is new and not obvious, it becomes increasingly difficult to invent something that meets the requirements of a patent. Consequently, the focus is on refining, improving, combining and reinventing existing technologies - and frankly, the result is quite remarkable.

Bottom Line

Throughout history we have seen the sportswear market drive material innovation, paving the way for performance fabrics within the apparel industry. Non-sport clothing brands are adapting and transferring existing technologies to leisure wear and other areas of life. The trend towards sustainable fashion continues to evolve and merges with various performance characteristics. As a result, a variety of high-performance and/or sustainable textiles is emerging, the potential of which is far from being fully exhausted. As a community of fashion designers and textile suppliers, it is our task to take up and combine the increasingly available technologies and create new, valuable opportunities in the field of high-performance materials and adapt them to different stages of life and lifestyles.

Stefanie Rudolph