With the current consumer demand for performance, how are fabrics tested, and who does the testing?
How do I know that this fabric does what it says it’s going to do?
In the highly competitive market of multifunctional textiles, it is imperative that manufacturers provide evidence that their products work. But how do they accomplish this? Textiles, whether for safety, sports, medical, military or other applications, are highly complex products consisting of a number of components manufactured in different segments of the global marketplace. This complexity, coupled with the fast pace of innovation in the textile market, makes it difficult to decipher legitimate product characteristics from marketing claims.
While many manufacturing sectors, such as the automotive industry, have established procedures for quality control during product development, the apparel and textile industry is so highly segmented among fiber, yarn, fabric and finish producers that similar quality control procedures are less common. Fortunately, a variety of relevant standards exist worldwide to ensure that textile products are safe and reliable, protecting the interests of both consumers and manufacturers.
A standard “is a document that provides requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose” (International Organization for Standardization). In industry practice, a textile standard can refer to an actual test method or to a minimum acceptance level of performance on a test. Standards are developed through voluntary consensus by groups of individuals within a common industry, or disciplinary interests such as textile scientists, researchers and business professionals. Standards may be developed in response to the needs of a product manufacturer, product user or a consumer group. Their merit lies in the degree to which they are accepted and used in the industry.
For example, if you have developed or are using a fabric that provides heat and moisture transmission and you want to make that claim for your end product, you would look for a standard test or tests that can measure those properties, such as the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 11092: Measurement of thermal and water-vapour resistance under steady-state conditions. If you are interested in evaluating a number of candidate fabrics for a particular end product you are developing, standardized test methods can provide information about the performance properties of those fabrics.
In the United States, there are two main organizations that provide standards for the textile industry. ASTM International (formerly known as the American Standards for Testing and Materials) provides specifications and test methods for the physical, mechanical and chemical properties of textiles. The organization publishes an annual book of standards for textiles that can also be accessed online.
The American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) publishes an annual technical manual that includes textile test methods and evaluation procedures, also available online. Test methods between these two organizations do not overlap.
On the international level, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a global network of national standards bodies that identifies, develops and adopts international standards. One hundred sixty-four countries belong to the ISO and represent thousands of technical bodies involved in standards development. Many ISO standards related to textiles are identical or analogous to those developed by AATCC and ASTM International.
Additional standards are constantly being developed as new textile innovations arrive in the marketplace to fulfill consumer needs. It’s anticipated that the pace of globalization will bring most if not all of these standards under the ISO, with the goals of facilitating trade, advancing knowledge and most importantly, improving the user experience.
While the use of standards is voluntary, they do serve an important role in minimizing risk and protecting the interests of both consumers and manufacturers. Standards can help an end product manufacturer to select the best fabric for its intended purpose by helping with understanding the physical, structural or performance properties of the fabric. A company designing uniforms for a national sports team, for example, might be interested in which compression fabric is most durable and abrasion resistant, or has the greatest bursting strength. This company might examine a wide range of fabrics for suitability for their uniforms, and in doing so may want to know how a particular fabric meets the claim of “antimicrobial.” Fabric manufacturers that can show evidence that their fabrics have been tested or evaluated for these qualities using accepted industry-wide standards such as ISO, ASTM International or AATCC, have a leg up on the competition in this respect.
This is only one example of how using a standard can lend credibility and evidence of performance to fabric manufacturers and help an end product manufacturer evaluate candidate fabrics. A fabric manufacturer that can provide evidence of the qualities the end consumer demands—through the use of consensus standards in the textile industry— will not only enhance the value of that product, but will better meet the needs of its target customers.
Who does the testing?
Testing can be performed by any company link in the supply chain, including the fabric manufacturer or the end product producer. A fabric manufacturer may not always anticipate the range of products for which a particular fabric may be intended by an end product manufacturer. Unless a fabric needs to meet particular flammability or safety requirements, it may not be tested for performance at all, or until requested by the end product manufacturer. Many end product manufacturers do not request specifications from the fabric producer beyond the chemical, physical or structural properties of the fabrics. It is not unusual for an end product manufacturer to use its own performance specifications, developed internally, when sourcing fabrics. These in-house performance specifications indicate the minimum level of performance that is acceptable for a designated end use.
When performance specifications differ among fabric manufacturers or suppliers and end product manufacturers, problems can easily arise. It becomes extremely difficult for the end product manufacturer to compare fabrics and to determine which fabric is best suited for its intended purpose when different metrics are used. Voluntary consensus standards, such as those developed and delivered through an industry-specific standards body (ISO, AATCC, ASTM International) go a long way in helping to alleviate such problems.
Independent testing firms and select universities with textile programs perform textile testing, evaluation and consultation on a contractual basis. Some manufacturers have their own in-house testing laboratories. Communication is key in helping to determine the goals of testing or performance evaluation. Is there a standard test method available that can answer the questions a user has in regard to the performance of a particular textile? With new innovations arriving in the marketplace daily, and textiles being used in materials and products never before anticipated, there are still many fabric attributes for which no standards exist. Fabric manufacturers should try to work with a standards body to develop test methods for these new materials and capabilities. In fact, many test methods originate with the company that developed the textile innovation in the first place.
Making it work
Test methods should meet the criteria of being simple, reproducible and valid. The process of developing a new test method starts when the idea for the new test is shared with an industry-wide organization, such as ASTM International, that works through committees to develop and refine the new method. The process can be lengthy and labor-intensive, requiring interlaboratory trials and a great deal of cooperation among interested parties, but it eventually leads, ideally, to approval as a standard test method by the standards organization. As laborious as the process sounds, ultimately standards serve all segments of the textile industry to expedite communication, conserve costs, increase efficiency and improve product quality.
Industry manufacturers have a responsibility to provide evidence that their products perform in a manner that is consistent with their marketing claims and consumer expectations. The use of standard test methods and specifications will lead to improved product quality and enhanced safety, while facilitating trade and building consumer confidence.