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Tech + Textile: Project Jacquard and Bolt Threads

Lizzie HarperComment

There have been a couple big “textile tech” headlines in the past few weeks: Google debuted Project Jacquard, a new ‘hardware’ for creating conductive textiles, and a new company called Bolt Threads announced their breakthrough development of a new protein fiber based on spider silk.

These are both big exciting splashy launches, neither of which I expect to change the apparel business anytime soon. Conventional cotton and polyester supply chains aren’t going to be budged by these guys for a while. It is cool, though, to see ideas from the tech world on how our industry can and will evolve. After all, some of the world’s most ancient technologies (looms! spinning wheels!) were developed for the creation of textiles. And the jacquard weaving method is itself based on binary programming, an early version of computer code. Which makes it a very appropriate name for Google’s new project.

What Google has done, as I understand it from the sweet video linked below, is collaborate with an industrial yarn manufacturer to incorporate a superthin thread of metallic alloy into regular yarn as it is spun. Until now, this process was possible, but apparently had not been refined enough to make the yarn size, quality, and price suitable for industrial production.  The main body of the yarn remains cotton, polyester, silk, whatever – indistinguishable from other yarns without the conductive thread – and can be woven or knit into fabric on regular machines. The only difference is that this fabric can be connected to micro processors (in a button, for instance - Google is developing those too) and programmed as an interactive garment. Since Google is partnering with Levi’s for the launch, it seems likely that the first Project Jacquard-supported garment will be jeans. And as for the reason I’d want to wear interactive jeans, I’ll leave that to Google and Levi’s to develop as well.

For Bolt Threads, on the other hand, I know exactly why we need their product. The most popular modes of fiber production we currently have on Earth – growing cotton and manufacturing polyester – are unsustainable. The resources consumed and trash produced by virgin cotton and polyester throughout their life cycles just can’t be supported forever. It will be great when all cotton, polyester, and for that matter viscose, nylon and acrylic can be recycled continuously in a cradle-to-cradle loop, but that’s not happening anytime soon. I expect to be wearing interactive jeans long before that happens.

In the meantime, we need new fibers and smarter, lower-impact modes of production. What Bolt Threads is doing is synthesizing a new protein-based fiber that genetically copies the structure and properties of spider silk – soft, stretchy, strong, great at regulating temperature, all the reasons we love silk – but without actually involving any spiders. It’s all done in a lab using bioengineered bacteria and fermentation. Smart guys. What’s more, they’re planning on going beyond the basic fiber business and bringing finished fabric to market next year with the help of US yarn giant Unifi. I’m curious to see if this spider-replicant silk really does perform better than regular silkworm silk.

Either way, it’s an attention getter. And even if they’re just headlines right now, attention to these stories is what’s going to make them come true.

One last thought.... what if Project Jacquard and Bolt Threads teamed up to create a conductive synthetic spider silk?! Project Bolt x Threads Jacquard. Bring it on!