URI professor tracks use of fibers from prehistoric times to future uses

The evolution of textiles continues

KINGSTON — December 7, 2011 — That $300 pair of designer jeans you bought last fall may be “so yesterday,” but it’s part of a long tradition of innovation stretching back to the earliest humans who needed to cover their naked bodies to protect them from the cold as they moved out of the plains of Africa. It’s also just one step along an evolutionary chain that is driving technology and innovation into the future.

Martin Bide, chairman of the University of Rhode Island’s department of textiles, took attendees of the “Rhode Island Defense and Textile Day” on a brief tour of the history of textiles from its earliest origins, to its current high-tech uses, to the mind-bending ways it may be used in the decades to come.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee was among several state leaders and military officers on hand to open Monday’s event in the Memorial Union Ballroom with welcome remarks.

Bide’s presentation, titled “Textiles: Past, Present and Future,” showed how the textile industry has paced innovation and growth across more than just fashion.

“Any country that wants to enter the global economy is going to do so by cutting and sewing first,” Bide said.

Bide pointed to the Industrial Revolution as a chief example of the driving force textiles provide, noting how, as factories filled with workers began cranking out fabrics, other industries and cities grew around them. Food service grew to feed the rising populations, construction flourished as housing was built to accommodate the hundreds of factory workers and their families and retailers opened shops to take advantage of the growing number of consumers.

Today, many advances in chemistry and manufacturing are made as textile companies seek cutting-edge dyes and efficient machinery to make their products.

But the textile industry isn’t solely making the fashionistas of the world look good. It is saving lives with high-tech bandages that promote blood clotting, flame-resistant clothing and bullet-resistant armor. The industry has even made inroads inside the human body, with artificial ligaments and arteries made of micro-fibers.

Researchers are even trying to find ways to replicate the strength and flexibility of spider silk strands using genetic replacement therapy on goats to produce webs from their milk.

Bide said that as the industry continues to advance and expand, it is creating a generation of thinkers who can apply their knowledge to any number of facets of the world economy, whether in chemistry, manufacturing, defense, business and, yes, even fashion.

“Innovation requires people,” he said.

For more information about the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design, call Bide at (401) 874-2276