Comic: The Fantastic Fabrics of Our Future

Cotton's time in the sun has come to an end–we need new fabrics for the world of tomorrow

59 sec read

It’s been over 25 years since Cotton Incorporated launched its Fabric of Our Lives campaign on Thanksgiving Day in 1989–the sweet voice of Aaron Neville in our ears as he crooned: “The touch, the feel of cotton, the fabric of our lives.” As clothing consumers, cotton is near and dear to our hearts. It’s soft; it’s marketed well; it’s been around forever. But maybe the future of fabric deserves better.

Although we’re unsure of the exact trajectory of the plant’s history, we do know that cotton was independently cultivated in both the Americas and Afro-Eurasia as far back as 4500 B.C. Like any valuable import or export, its production has played an important role in the politics of the world’s most dominant powers. This close association to the financial underpinning of the British Empire and then the United States irrevocably tied the plant–and the invention of the cotton gin for its mass production–to the crime of slavery and exploitation.

In recent history, the rapid globalization of industry and economy has seen the plant’s reputation further tainted as the methods used for its production have made it into one of the more pesticide-heavy and environmentally damaging crops we harvest.

So, if cotton is out, what do the fabrics of the future look like?

A comic with panels. Titled: "Cotton–the fabric of our lives? Not for long. The future of fabric deserves better."
Panel 1 (a woman's head in a cotton field)
Panel 2 (a torso being sprayed): "Spray-on. A British company patented a way to bond and liquefy fibers into a sprayable textile that creates a form-fitting garment on the body. Other applications: transdermal drug delivery and oil spill cleanup."
Panel 3 (a person wearing a sweater underwater): "Algae. New York's Fashion Institute of Technology created a filament for knitting made of alginate, a substance found in the cell walls of brown algae. The medical industry already uses it for wound dressing and impression making."
Panel 4 (a firefighter's uniform): "Self-repairing. Penn State researchers are developing a liquid coating technology which will allow torn fabric to self-heal in the presence of water. It also protects against external toxins–great for garments worn by rescue workers and farmers."
Panel 5 (bare legs and pile of clothes): "Recycled. Americans throw away 30 billion pounds of clothing annually, with only 15 percent recovered for recycling. A Seattle firm is looking to close the loop on textile production and disposal by reclaiming the cotton in old clothing, shredding and repulping it into fiber for new textiles."
Panel 6 (legs wearing jeans and shoes, next to large mushrooms): "Homegrown. Ten years ago fashion designer Suzanne Lee pioneered the process for growing a textile film made of cellulose fiber, a byproduct of bacteria and yeast. Once dried, the material is similar to leather, but with a much smaller carbon footprint."

For more information about these new fabric types, read more: spray-on, algae, self-repairing, recycled, and homegrown.


How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Sartorial section, which looks at the impact of science and technology on how we present ourselves to each other. Click the logo to read more.