Cloth caps and clogs banished

January 20, 1995

The term textiles conjures up images of linens, yarns, woven fabrics, man-made fibres and similar materials used in the clothing industry. Yet at Leeds University department of textile industries the term is more likely to refer to artificial seaweed, equipment for the rescue services or the aircraft industry, or even artificial arteries "knitted" for the medical profession.

Despite this innovation, the textile industry still suffers from the cloth cap and clogs image of the last century, says David Johnson, head of the department.

A comparatively small academic discipline reflecting the contraction of the industry in this country, it is nevertheless thriving and, unusually for a high-technology subject, attracting hundreds of female students.

At Leeds 80 per cent of undergraduates are women. They are an unusual mix, comprising the creative types who want to design or market fabrics and the highly technical individuals interested in manufacturing techniques.

All first-year students study together on a mixture of modules. "Even the artistically inclined students soon learn they must understand the technology as well," says Professor Johnson. "That way employers get graduates competent in design who can also discuss how their materials are made." Unfortunately some art schools are still churning out thousands of designers who understand nothing of the techniques manufacturers use. These are little more than useless in the current job market.

The subject lends itself to multi-media delivery and teaching modules are being transferred into hypertext. Professor Johnson says that textile manufacturing processes are extremely complex.

The naked eye could not follow the rapid movements of the spinning machine but with computer graphics students can unravel their intricacies with ease. When completed such a teaching module in hypertext, thought to be the first in the textile sector, should prove invaluable both in the United Kingdom and overseas.

The Taiwanese have already said they will buy it and other nations with burgeoning textiles industries such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan have sent encouraging signals.

All such countries pose a threat to the British textile industry, which will have to struggle to compete with cheap imports. But the more specialist areas, technical textiles, are more secure.

The products of the textile industry have expanded beyond the traditional areas of clothing and furnishing. The global focus on preserving the environment offers many opportunities.

Research in Leeds on the development of fibrelin, a by-product of linseed, could yield a cheap material which does not require weaving but which could be used to make "blankets" with a variety of environmental uses. Pilot projects will examine the fabric for use as a vegetation control blanket to prevent soil erosion and also to soak up oil spills.

The artificial seaweed, incidentally, is being used to cover the legs of oil platforms as a stabilising material.

Changes in technology, consumer lifestyles and international competition are driving forces behind the global textile industry. But in Britain small family-run firms still play a part with sales of Pounds 14 billion a year.

The clothing arm of the industry is by its nature more fickle and the need to respond quickly to change is of utmost importance. When polar fleece, for instance, becomes the "in" fabric, the industry has to find a way of manufacturing it quickly at the right price and to the right standards. Then just when they get it right, fashions change, and it is back to the drawing board.

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