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Thread technologies breaking through barriers

Features | March 1, 2019 | By:

Close-up bobbins with blue colored thread for industrial textile machines.

The future of fabric or any manufactured product boils down to the components that make it up. For fabric that means yarns and threads—the building blocks of fabric possibilities.

It’s an exciting time to be a part of yarn and thread innovations—innovations that include conductivity, protection, sustainability and comfort. Imagine that yarns and threads can break through the barriers and limitations formerly accepted as reality. That the twisted strands of fiber can be manipulated to do more, preserve more and provide more comfort. Innovators are creating new thread technologies every day.

Places for innovation

Demand from customers is pushing innovation, and companies are investing more time and money into creating the next new thing. “Innovation is taking an ever more important part of our strategy
going forward,” says Richard Ridewood, head of group innovation for industrial thread manufacturer Coats Group plc, headquartered in the U.K. “We’ve invested considerably in it recently.”

Coats invested in Israeli-based technology start-up Twine Solutions, which created the world’s first standalone digital thread dyeing system. The system applies the features of small-scale digital printing to the traditional dyeing process. Photo: Coats Group.

Coats is ramping up its innovation strategies by opening Coats Innovation Hubs in three textile manufacturing strongholds—North Carolina, U.S.; Bursa, Turkey; and Shenzhen, China. The hubs will develop pioneering new products and processes in apparel and footwear as well as performance materials, which encompasses high-tech products for automotive, oil and gas, protective wear and telecom markets. The U.S.-based hub opened in 2018, with the Turkey- and China-based
hubs on track to open this year.

Power up

For markets including military, protective, medical, automotive and even fashion, perhaps one of the most sought after yarn innovation trends is conductivity. Hickory, N.C.-based Supreme Corp. launched VOLT Smart Yarns after its CEO, Matt Kolmes, recognized the increasing demand and that the company already had the necessary equipment and capabilities. “We were approached by some military defense contractors that wanted conductive yarn and they were very secretive,” Kolmes says. “We worked on that project for them, and then a second and a third. After that, I realized that we probably have the perfect equipment for making conductive yarn. It was a real wakeup call. I thought, ‘We can really be in this space if we want to be.’”

Naia™ cellulosic yarn from Eastman Chemical Co. is made from renewable wood pulp, sourced from sustainably managed forests. The closed-loop production process allows recycling and reuse of safe solvents and water. Photo: Eastman Chemical Co.

Kolmes approached one of Supreme Corp.’s senior scientists and asked him to develop a highly conductive yarn—and it couldn’t be based on anything they’d worked on before. “He hadn’t been on
any of the other projects, so he agreed,” Kolmes says. “We’re partners on a FR [fire retardant] sewing thread that’s a ceramic fiber not a para aramid fiber, and he realized that our FR sewing thread would be the perfect delivery mechanism for tiny copper wires the diameter of a human hair.”

The resulting product was a highly conductive sewing thread and yarn that launched as VOLT Smart Yarns in 2017—which won the 2017 Industrial Fabrics Foundation (IFF) Innovation Award for best new product for wearable smart yarns. “That award catapulted us into conversations with first-class worldwide companies that wanted to use the yarns to make things,” Kolmes says. “And within about 90 days I came to the shocking realization that most textile companies don’t have the bandwidth to make electronic prototypes.”

Since that time, the company has developed one yarn a month and now has 12 versions of the VOLT Smart Yarns, including two-, four-, eight- and 16-wire. “The 16-wire was a real breakthrough because now we can use the yarn as an electrical busbar system [a group of conductors for collecting electrical power],” Kolmes says. “Now that we can get 16 wires in a sewing thread, that thread becomes a busbar.”

The breakthrough brings with it a much-needed benefit: smaller battery sizes for wearable technology. “With the 16-wire busbar we can run power wherever you want on your clothing, and by varying the resistance we can heat up a very small area of the fabric, so designers can create fabrics and drastically reduce the battery size,” Kolmes says. “It’s really a leap forward for wearable tech.”

Coats is also developing conductive threads and yarns with partners under its Magellan brand (a range of uniquely conductive composite yarns capable of modulating currents and leading away electrostatic charges). “We’ve developed a product that at its basic level is static dissipation and on its upper level is conductive, allowing sensors to be attached to garments, furniture, medical devices, etc.—and quite often it’s yarn,” Ridewood says. “We’ve developed a product for automated vehicles that has gone into prototyping. The product is for steering wheels that indicate hands on and hands off.”

VOLT IoT LEDs are brilliant LED lights that light up at intersections and blink rapidly. Photo: Supreme Corp.

The yarns are a combination of polyester, nylon and highly conductive materials, such as silver. “We’ve made a number of products that have connected RFID [radio frequency identification] tags to the garments so retailers can track what’s in their stores, allowing a continuous traceability,” Ridewood says. “The conductive yarns are also used in hospital mattresses to indicate if a bed is wet or soiled.”

Shield from harm

On the side of protective yarns for firefighter and military uniforms, Coats has also launched a number of new products with Patrick Yarn Mill, a company it acquired a year ago. “With them we’re launching a new family of cut protection yarns—X13™ and X15™ Glove Yarns—a combination of various substrates with high-density polyethylene fiber blended with nylon,” he says. “The yarns give a superior cut protection compared to the market leader, which is para aramid—but the fabrics produced are also lighter and more nimble.”

VOLT is developing prototypes and products for the protective markets, using NASA’s SansEC technology (an open-circuit, resonant sensor that needs no electrical connections). Through a partnership with Textile Instruments, the fabric VOLT developed won a world textile award at the WTiN (World Textile Information Network). “Every other wearable tech device that I’ve seen, including a couple we’ve developed, have an LE [low energy] Bluetooth® device and either a lithium ion or lithium polymer rechargeable battery,” Kolmes says. “The batteries need to be recharged. They’re plastic. They’re hard. And they need to go in your pocket or strap to your arm. SansEC doesn’t rely on batteries, and is
the next level of wearable technology.”

VOLT is also working on a wearable GPS feature for soldiers, police officers and firefighters that will send their GPS location to another device if they’re unconscious or not moving, and this year will develop shirts with hospital grade sensors to monitor body functions in real time and allow intervention before critical and fatal exertion leads to heart attacks and strokes.

Conscientious creativity
Bags of plastic bottles are processed at Unifi’s REPREVE® plant in Yadkinville, N.C., before being made into branded recycled performance fibers.

Consumers and environmental groups continue to ask the textile industry to develop sustainable products and processes, and many companies are committed to moving that initiative forward. “As an industry, the growth and commitment around sustainability is impressive,” says Ruth Farrell, marketing director, textiles, for Eastman Chemical Co., Kingsport, Tenn. “Brands from across the apparel industry have made significant stances on reducing environmental footprints, retooling their supply chains and using 100 percent sustainable fibers. We are very happy to be a part of this movement.”

One of Eastman’s developments is Eastman Naia™, a cellulosic yarn that is manufactured in the U.S. and made from renewable wood pulp sourced from sustainably managed forests. Naia can be woven and knit into fabrics that have a soft hand, excellent drape and high luster. “Our closed-loop production process for Naia allows recycling and reuse of safe solvents and water,” Farrell says. “The result is a yarn with a low environmental impact, which meets the sustainability needs of the industry. Naia-based fabrics are also easy to care for, can be laundered at home, have excellent wrinkle recovery and pilling resistance with impressive stain removal.”

Emeryville, Calif.-based Bolt Threads harnesses proteins found in nature to develop programmable fibers. After studying the properties of silk proteins found in nature, Bolt developed proteins through fermentation, using yeast, sugar and water, which it spins into Microsilk™ fibers. What makes the fibers sustainable, according to Bolt’s website is the process: “The main input in our fiber-making process is sugar from plants that are grown, harvested and replanted. Compare this renewable process to polyesters, which are made from petroleum. Currently, more than 60 percent of textiles are made of polyester and other non-renewable, petroleum-derived fibers.”

Unifi has transformed more than 13 billion plastic bottles into recycled fiber for new apparel, footwear, home goods and other consumer products. Photos: Unifi.

Since 1971, Greensboro, N.C.-based Unifi has been manufacturing synthetic and recycled performance fibers. “Unifi continually innovates technologies to meet consumer needs in moisture management, thermal regulation, antimicrobial, UV protection, stretch, water resistance and enhanced softness, just to name a few,” says Meredith Boyd, vice president, brand sales for Unifi.

Some of the company’s most recent yarn developments are in the areas of thermal comfort and inherent color through solution dyeing. TruTemp365™ is the company’s thermal comfort technology that adapts to hot or cold conditions. “Thermal comfort technology creates a warm layer when it’s cold; and when it’s hot, moisture wicking technology keeps the wearer cool.” Boyd says.

Unifi’s TruColor™ technology provides inherent color through solution dyeing. Plus, Boyd explains, it “is better for the environment by saving water and energy in the process versus other types of traditional dyeing through wet processes.”

From manufacturing processes to the yarns and threads themselves, innovative developments in the thread and yarn industry are showing no signs of slowing down. Their capabilities are just waiting for manufacturers to develop fabric products that meet the needs of
forward-thinking clients.


Sigrid Tornquist is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor, and a frequent contributor to Review.

"The future is all about sustainability. Also, the value of using sustainable and performance technologies together, such as incorporating recycled and moisture-wicking polyester into denim, which was historically a 100 percent cotton product."

-Meredith Boyd, Unifi

"I believe there is a collective responsibility to improve our industry and make available exciting and interesting, yet sustainable, choices for the consumer."

-Ruth Farrell, Eastman Chemical Co.

"We really want to push the envelope on safety and using conductive yarns to help keep people safe. We’re incorporating wearable tech into our Tuff-N-Lite® cut-resistant safety jackets. We’re making heated safety jackets and jackets with intelligent LED lights that connect to the IoT [Internet of Things]. We’re also designing jackets now that light up when headlights hit them."

-Matt Kolmes, VOLT Smart Yarns, Supreme Corp.

"There’s a lot of work being done around biometrics, to track what’s going on in the body. We’re working with a number of software entities and that is going to be the key—to get a value chain partnership software development and someone to provide the textile connectivity. We have those products but the challenge we’re still facing as a whole is: What is the key need?"

-Richard Ridewood, Coats Group

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