Feeling textiles: investigations towards more sensible and sensitive selection

7th June 2015     Fabrics Future Fabrics Expo The Sustainable Angle Sourcing Future Fabrics Virtual Expo

Along with researching and showcasing materials and innovations with a reduced environmental impact, we have long been interested in steps being taken in academic and industrial research, which are encouraging the fashion and textiles industries to move towards more sustainable, progressive, and thoughtful practices. This has led us to showcase a range of PhD research and funded projects at our annual Future Fabrics Expos, as well as emerging project platforms and tools.

One project that stands out for its interactive and technical nature is PhD research by Royal College of Art student Bruna Petreca. Bruna has been exploring the nature of tactile fabric selection, participating in the past two Future Fabrics Expos to enable visitors to interact with the research. The research looks at ways we can combine traditional textiles sourcing with technology, which has the benefit of ‘physically’ interacting with materials with differing levels of sustainability, sourced from around the world, in the same ‘tactile’ digital space. This could have fantastic implications for resources like the Future Fabrics Virtual Expo, our online sustainable textiles sourcing resource. Bruna shares more on the project here.


Written by Bruna Petreca:

Feeling textiles: investigations towards more sensible and sensitive selection

Sourcing textiles is both an inspiring and a crucial task in the design process and we as designers need to be imaginative as well as fulfil technical and socio-environmental requirements. The Future Fabrics Expo (FFE) provides invaluable support to the fashion industry, which is highlighted by their unique work in selecting and curating sustainable textiles, and by establishing a platform that facilitates dialogue between researchers and the textiles industry. I have been fortunate to be able to immerse myself in such an environment for the past two years, by conducting live studies within the Expo to investigate the needs and opportunities for supporting sourcing activities from a sensory experience perspective – for designers, suppliers, and hopefully for the FFE.

While preparing this post I have been participating in puzzling debates. On the one hand, visionary trend consultant Li Edelkoort asserts that “fashion designers [are] being trained who are not familiar with fabric, who do not know how textiles work or how fibers react.” (Anti-Fashion Manifesto – Paris, February 2015.)[1] On the other hand, all the moving initiatives around Fashion Revolution Day are intriguing. As I stay with this thought about fashion designers’ knowledge regarding textiles, questions remain about how we are currently addressing this issue, and how we can address it in a future that demands creators who understand the impacts of their materials and production choices. Through this post, I wish to contribute to this discussion by sharing my story of working with FFE in supporting fashion designers in sourcing textiles.

I have been investigating people’s sensory experiences with textiles since 2009 when I began collaborating with the project Digital Sensoria. One of the goals of this feasibility study was to create digital tools that enable people to understand the multisensory properties of textiles through rich-media interfaces (more information at [2] and [3]). Supporting people in communicating their sensory perceptions is challenging, particularly for designers, as their expert perceptions require specialist tools[1]. This led me to focus on designers’ sourcing activities, and, considering technological developments, this issue becomes even more critical; besides being exposed to not always inspiring training in textiles, as suggested in the quote above, designers are increasingly working with digital tools, and occasionally risk losing material references in digital interactions for sourcing and designing.

Recently, I have been experimenting with tools to address some of these emerging issues. The collaboration with FFE arose from our shared interest in quality, performance, sustainability, and experience in textiles sourcing. The first published outcome from this encounter is a study conducted as part of FFE13 that investigated designers’ needs in textile sourcing. “The Future Of Textiles Sourcing: Exploring The Potential For Digital Tools” was presented at the 9th International Conference on Design and Emotion 2014: The Colors of Care. October 2014, Bogotá – Colombia. (pp. 366-377).

We also explored if sourcing activities could be somehow enhanced through the support of digital tools.

“(…) we considered that the visiting experts would be open to the idea of digital tools that could offer new more sustainable alternatives to the current market models for sourcing textiles. We wanted to understand experts’ perceptions of their current practice and how open they are to change to more sustainable conduct, provided that technology offers alternatives to gather the information they need about materials.” (Petreca et al. 2014)

Future Fabrics Expo 2013

Future Fabrics Expo 2013

The study reveals designers’ use of sensory information and experience in support of sourcing activities, besides highlighting requirements for designing future tools, which should provide a better experience while informing designers about materials and their behaviour and impacts. These also point to the need to enhance current technology if willing to communicate the sensory properties of textiles remotely, which should be desirable once the study shows that feeling samples is crucial. Hence, only if technology is further developed will the industry be able to experiment with changes on sampling processes towards reducing waste. As this was a small study, ultimately we were not able to verify if further support to sourcing activities digitally might reduce traveling to fairs, as designers value the social dynamics of textile fairs.

Further discussions with the research community when this paper was presented at the Design and Emotion conference showed interest in seeing a better use of sensory understanding within the digital context, for example, to enable a better communication globally in support of the dissemination of knowledge about traditional textiles, which are difficult to transmit through the tools currently available. Our learning from engaging with the FFE reveals diverse opportunities: through our design practice, in creating interactive videos using sustainable fabrics provided by the FFE, we learned that one can experience standard and sustainable materials comparatively using interactive videos, which highlighted that when representing the characteristics of the materials our concerns are fundamentally the same.

Reflecting on designer practice and training from this textile knowledge-sharing perspective reveals several issues and opportunities for change. As a researcher, I will keep working towards new understandings about our sensory experiences with textiles to hopefully support training and sourcing activities. From the trade fairs perspective, Future Fabrics Expo is a good example of how pushing the boundaries persistently can have great impact, besides nourishing and inspiring the industry. From a stakeholders’ perspective – as a designer, a trend-forecaster, a journalist, a tutor, a buyer, a manager, etc., how do you participate in this conversation? And what should our next question be? Let’s talk about it, but most certainly let’s keep doing it.

[1] This was proposed earlier by Charles Goodwin (1994) in relation to discursive practices within specialist communities. He shows how certain groups of practice develop tools and are expected to “see and categorize the world in the ways that are relevant to the work, tools, and artifacts that constitute their profession”. In: Goodwin, Charles (1994). "Professional Vision." American Anthropologist 96(3): 606-633.