Lecturer cuts her cloth to help heal scars

May 15, 1998

The Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels has a long tradition of knitting expertise, appropriately for an institution in the heart of Borders sheep farming country. But the research of Lisa Macintyre, a specialist in knitting technology, is unconcerned with tweeds or lambswool sweaters. It aims to help treat burn victims.

Mrs Macintyre, a lecturer in textiles who is undertaking a part-time research degree, is investigating pressure garments used to treat hypertrophic scars. These develop after serious injuries, notably in burn victims, where the edges of a wound cannot be stitched together. The scars can take more than two years to heal fully.

About half of the patients who need pressure treatment are children, Mrs Macintyre said. This can exacerbate problems because too much pressure will harm bone growth and too little is ineffective.

"One of the major problems is that although these garments have been used since the early 1970s, nobody has ever established scientifically the ideal pressure for effective treatment," she said.

Treatment is based heavily on the experience built up by individual occupational therapists and physiotherapists, who measure patients and then make pressure garments themselves or order them from specialist manufacturers. This frequently involves further adjustments. "Occupational therapists are not normally textile trained, and the companies that supply the fabrics are rarely specialists in pressure garments," Mrs Macintyre said.

"I hope to research the properties of fabrics and come up with a system whereby you can do a simple test in the lab and find the relationship between the stretch in the fabric and the pressure that is applied on the body.'' There are several different types of fabric now available. They are all knitted and have more elastane than is used in ordinary fabrics. A pair of leggings will typically have up to 10 per cent elastane, such as Lycra, but pressure garments have up to 40 per cent.

It is easy to measure pressure by stretching the fabric on a cylinder, Mrs Macintyre said, but she hopes to be able to produce recommendations on the effect of different fabrics on bony or fleshy parts of the body, thin or overweight people, children or adults.

"This type of scarring is normally very traumatic for the patient. Additional trauma due to delay in treatment should be minimised. I hope that providing this information will help therapists better understand the fabrics they use and, therefore, enable them to provide an even better service."

With honours student Carolyn Hassall, Mrs Macintyre has also researched the colour of the fabrics used to make pressure garments. They found that most are "American tan", a yellowy beige to mid-beige that is significantly different from the typical pale pink Scottish complexion. Other studies have established that if patients are unhappy about the look of the garment, they are less likely to wear it.

"This is an area that could be looked into: making fabrics more like skin; having other colours, such as red or blue; or something like a Thomas the Tank Engine print, which could make it more appealing to children."

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