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Ever Wondered? Episode 6

The science and technology of what we wear

In Episode 6 of Ever Wondered?, Dr John Watt looks into the future of our super textile - wool - as well as finding out how Kiwi ingenuity is influencing sporting attire.

Wool - our super textile

John visits the Textile and Design Lab at AUT (Auckland University of Technology) to meet with Dr Peter Heslop and Gordon William Fraser. Here, he finds out about the cutting edge of textile design and manufacture. As Peter explains, New Zealand can't compete in the low cost apparel market, so their lab concentrates on high-end technology that gives us a competitive advantage.

Gordon demonstrates the whole garment knitting machine. This is an example of the best technology available in manufacturing. Previous generations of knitting machines knitted a sweater in pieces that then needed to be assembled into the finished garment. This required additional labour and time. John watches as a personalised sweater is made for him on the whole garment knitting machine in no time at all.

John goes to Lincoln University to find out why textile scientists are combining wool with Vectran", a material used in spacesuits. Dr Stewart Collie explains that, by combining wool with Vectran", they've created a new textile that feels like conventional wool but has the added benefit of being stab-resistant and flame-resistant.

John gets to try out the properties of this fabric for himself. He tries unsuccessfully to set it alight using a blowtorch and he tries to stab through the vest with a screwdriver. This fabric offers a considerable amount of protection, and Stewart thinks it would be ideal for security guards or ambulance officers who need protection but also need to be comfortable doing their jobs.

Nano-gold wool

John visits Professor Jim Johnston at Victoria University of Wellington. Jim leads a team who've developed proprietary technology to colour wool with gold nanoparticles. Their aim is to create a unique product for the high-end market.

Research Fellow Kerstin Lucas is a member of Jim's team. She demonstrates how to turn gold purple and explains how a range of colours can be created by varying either the size of the nanoparticle or its shape. Nano-gold wool is an expensive textile to make as each kilo of wool needs about $500 of gold to colour it.

They discuss applications for the wool and potential products. Jim tells John that he's running a competition to get young designers interested in creating garments out of the nano-gold wool. We meet some of these young designers and see their creations. John also hears about plans for this wool to be used in carpets for luxury residences, palaces and yachts.

Kiwi ingenuity

Wool tends to shrink when machine washed or tumble dried. John meets Dr Surinder Tandon from AgResearch who developed and commercialised an environmentally friendly way to make wool shrink-proof. Surinder developed a method that spins the yarn into a special structure where the fibres are well interlocked and not hairy. This process requires a simple modification to existing spinning machines, and the resulting fabric is known as Natural Easy Care fabric. It can be machine washed and tumbled dried without shrinkage. Top Kiwi designers stole the show at New Zealand's Fashion Week with their creations from Natural Easy Care fabrics.

Protective sportswear is a different niche market, and John visits Simon Barnett, founder and CEO of OBO in Palmerston North, to find out more. OBO designs, develops, tests and markets protective gear for hockey goalies. John meets Reuben Parr, the technical mastermind behind their lab and its design. He sees how a cannon is used to test the impact of a ball on a face mask and how the results are recorded on a computer. OBO has about 65% of the worldwide market in protective gear for hockey goalies. They have recently begun to investigate protective chest guards for martial arts.

Activity idea

In conjunction with this episode of Ever Wondered?, your students might like to do the following activities.

In this activity, students explore the microstructure of wool fibre and how it relates to the properties and uses of wool. This activity will help students understand how the microstructure of wool creates its properties and determines its suitability for particular products.

In this activity, students create felt from wool fibres to illustrate how the surface structure of wool fibres affects its washability. This activity will help students understand the microstructure of wool and how this knowledge has influenced the development of new wool fabrics and processes.

Intermediate school science teachers and secondary school technology teachers might like to refer to this unit plan, where students consider the performance properties of new stab- and flame-resistant fabric and design protective wear for new market opportunities.
Context link

To further investigate the new wool fabrics being developed and the technological innovations behind them, visit the Biotechnology Learning Hub to find out more about how the innovative wool textiles developed at AgResearch in Christchurch are meeting consumer demand for more functional fabrics and creating new opportunities for textile products.

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