Summertime: A true test for textiles

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KINGSTON, R.I. – July 28, 2010 – When he drives by the local beaches during the summer months, University of Rhode Island Professor Martin Bide sees fashion coming under attack. Bide isn’t judging the content of the fashion, mind you. Rather, he sees materials that are being assaulted by nature’s elements from all angles.

As the former president of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC), the textiles, fashion merchandising and design professor had a direct impact on setting the standards that all clothing materials and dyes must meet in this country and around the world. The AATCC – founded in 1921 – is the world’s leading not-for-profit professional association for the textile design, materials, processing and testing industries.

With the summer season in full swing, we sat with Bide to discuss the science of swimwear to find out what works when it comes to beating the heat.

When it comes to an effective bathing suit, nylon is the way to go. “Nylon is an effective material for swimwear because it stretches and it recovers very well,” said Bide. “It allows for more comfort whether wet or dry.”

Nylon also is more effective at blocking abrasive materials, such as sand and saltwater, from the skin.

Cotton, on the other hand, changes drastically based on its condition.

“Cotton is very comfortable as long as it stays dry and doesn’t get too hot,” Bide said. “With heat, an individual is going to sweat, which makes the material very heavy and absorbent. Cotton becomes very abrasive to the skin when it gets wet, especially if the material is taking in sand or saltwater from the beach.”

More challenging than the sand and saltwater found at beaches is the chlorine found in pool water. The chemicals that keep a pool clean relentlessly attack the materials and dyes in swimwear.

“Chlorine is an oxidant that is used in bleaches,” Bide said. “It is a challenge to the bright colors and the spandex in bathing suits. The colors suffer significant fading the more they are exposed to chlorine. This is why bathing suits that are solid in color do much better than the multi-colored or print-style bathing suits. When you have multiple colors, you will notice the fading much sooner because the colors are more likely to bleed, or one part of the suit fades faster than another. When you have one solid color, the fading is more consistent throughout and less noticeable.”

All students in URI’s textiles program are required to take laboratory classes to gain better understanding of durability for materials and dyes. Among the tools the students work with is a Q-Sun Xe-3-HS Xenon Test Chamber, donated by Cleveland-based Q-Lab Corporation in 2009.

With the Q-Sun, Bide and his students are able to test for resistance to damage from light, heat and moisture of virtually any material used indoors or outdoors. Its three xenon-arc lamps simulate full-spectrum sunlight, and different filters produce the wavelengths necessary to test each material with the light conditions of its service environment. Since moisture is an important factor in damaging textiles, the Q-Sun also has relative humidity control and water spray.

“Whether they are looking to go into designing, dyeing, quality control or retail, our students have the experience to understand whether fabrics are going to fail or survive in a given environment,” Bide said. “In the lab, they learn the various elements that impact the materials. If they are working as a designer, they’ll be able to communicate with a manufacturer in China to identify the dye level needed for a piece to work. Likewise, if they are a dyer, they can help a designer understand why something will or will not be effective from a materials perspective.”

Students today also must account for a material’s ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). With skin cancer awareness increasing in the last decade, the textiles industry rates clothing for its UPF. Hats and other accessories have become far more prevalent in beach fashion as a result.

“The UPF of fabric is impacted if it is wet or dry,” Bide said. “When material gets wet, its UPF goes down, leaving the individual more susceptible. Materials that hold out water, rather than soak it in, are more protective.”

One important factor to keep in mind is that swimwear is meant to be a temporary piece of clothing.

“Whether it is sunlight, sand, saltwater or chemicals, swim wear is under constant assault,” Bide said. “The more it is exposed to the elements, the less effective it becomes. That’s why you don’t buy bathing suits and expect them to last for years.”