BOSTON — Some technologies speed along. Some crawl. And then there's clothing.
Wool and silk were first woven more than 5,000 years ago. Cotton got big when the Industrial Revolution mechanized its manufacture in the 18th century. The latest blockbuster - man-made polyesters - date roughly from World War II.
That's why the arrival of two new fibers - lyocell and elastoester - face a tough road as they try to weave their way into the fabric world. "It's enormously expensive to develop and market a new fiber," says Perry Grady, associate dean of the college of textiles at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. As fickle as the fashion world is, it's reluctant to try really new threads.
The most successful of the new fibers is lyocell. You may have seen it in designer clothes, jeans, and golf shirts under the trade name "Tencel." Major clothing lines, such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, have used it for the soft, slinky feel it gives to clothes. Another advantage: It doesn't need to be dry-cleaned.
Demand is so strong that its inventor and manufacturer, the British firm Courtaulds Fibers Inc., is doubling production to 200 million pounds a year and plans further expansion. Other competitors, with their own formulations, are moving into the business.
Like rayon, lyocell is made from wood pulp. But it's twice as strong and, unlike rayon, doesn't lose much of its strength when wet and doesn't create the troublesome chemical byproducts.
Having attracted the attention of the high-end clothing designers, Courtaulds is now branching into new markets, such as sheets and towels, industrial uses, and even a lyocell-wool blend that could create washable wool pants.
In May, the US Federal Trade Commission recognized another fabric, elastoester, made by the Japanese conglomerate Teijing Ltd. It is similar to polyester, stretches like spandex, and can stand up to high heat when wet. These qualities allow it to retain dyes better than nylon or spandex, and make it less likely to be discolored by chlorine. The product is used to make swimsuits and ski wear.
But don't expect the apparel market to give up traditional fabrics. Teijing still sells minuscule amounts of elastoester. Courtaulds sold the world 100 million pounds of lyocell last year. By contrast, farmers and importers last year sold 18.6 billion pounds of cotton in the US alone.
"There's always something new coming out in this business of ours," says J. Nicholas Hahn, president of Cotton Incorporated, the New York-based research and marketing arm of the US upland cotton industry. But cotton "is not being threatened by anything today by anything but polyester."
One reason is that the cotton industry has been busy improving its own product. Thirty years ago, cotton clothes shrank, bled color, and got wrinkled. When consumers started moving to polyester and cotton-polyester blends, the industry came out with prewashed jeans and a chemical process to make cotton clothes wrinkle-resistant. Since the chemicals weakened the fabric 30 to 40 percent, the industry bioengineered new strains of cotton that today are some 25 percent stronger than varieties in the 1970s.
By the early '90s, consumers were snapping up 100 percent cotton pants made wrinkle-resistant through a new, more environmentally benign method of spraying the garments after they're made. The latest twist: an industry-endorsed additive to Procter & Gamble detergents that makes cotton clothes less prone to bleed color.
With such reengineering and market savvy, today's traditional fabrics could wear well into the next century.
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