My first exposure to prototyping with fabric was via my mom.
Every autumn she would take my sister and I to JoAnn Fabric and Craft in Pittsfield, Mass., to choose our Halloween costumes. The store was filled floor to ceiling with bolts of material and we loved running around touching the different fabrics. We would parse through bins of different pattern packs and search for one that we wanted. Like many kids, I was an animal geek, and was drawn to the shark and dinosaur costumes. My mom would read the pattern package and pick out the materials that she needed to execute, then it was back home to get started.
The costume packs were about an inch thick and had thin paper patterns inside to aid the cut and sew of the costume. I watched my mom skillfully layout the patterns, cut the fabric and run the panels through the sewing machine. It was mesmerizing. A few weeks of sewing through episodes of “Hill Street Blues” and “China Beach” and voila – I was a shark and ready to crush trick or treat. Little did I know that the same techniques my mom used for making my costumes would be relevant to my career many years later.
In the first of this two part series, I am going review some basics about what soft goods are and how they are used and characterized. In part two, I will reveal some prototyping techniques that you can use on your next soft goods prototype.
What is a Soft good?
A soft good is any non-rigid material that is also non-durable.
Fabrics, textiles, rubbers and papers are some examples. Like the name suggests, many are soft to the touch, but there are plenty, like paper and Scotch Brite pads that are far from comfy to the skin. The properties of soft goods are immensely diverse and can be deployed a number of different ways in a product.
The most common reason to use a fabric or textile in a product is when it needs comfort or flexibility. Most products that come in contact with skin are made from soft goods, and clothing is obviously one of the most common as it requires both of these attributes to move with our bodies. Even wearable products that have hard plastic components often use fabric liners for comfort. For example, the interior lining of a soccer shin guard or the padded liner of a baby car seat.
Soft goods are not limited to clothing and linens. Porous soft goods are great for applications that require absorption or fluid transfer like sponges or filters. Other types of soft goods can be used as a barrier layer to keep moisture away from the structure of houses, like Tyvek House Wrap. The uses are as diverse as the material properties.
As diverse as soft goods are, they can be categorized into two broad categories called wovens and nonwovens. These names are derived from how the material is processed, and either type can be made with natural or man-made materials. Wovens are made from weaving strands together in an interweaved pattern. Cotton, wool and nylon are examples of woven fabrics. The material is processed into thread before it is woven together into sheets or finished goods. By contrast, nonwovens are formed by mechanical, chemical, heat or other treatments to create a cohesive substrate. Fleece, leather, foam padding and even dryer sheets are examples of nonwoven materials.
In general, woven fabrics are stronger since the threads are mechanically locked together in overlapping chains. However, they can require complicated machinery to weave them. Nonwovens are often less expensive to make as they do not need to be formed into thread thus saving a manufacturing step. Unlike wovens, nonwovens can be processed with cutting equipment like die cutters or Gerber machines without the edges fraying and unraveling. This makes them inexpensive to make and gives them applications in disposable products like diapers and filters.
You may have noticed that on the tags of your clothing it lists the makeup of the garment by percentage of different material. For example, socks may be a 90 percent cotton, 10 percent nylon blend. This is great information and gives us a clue about its characteristics, but it is not the complete picture. Here are a few of the primary properties that are considered for fabrics and textiles in consumer products.
The amount of stretch is important in applications where the material has to fit over something. Clothing is an obvious application where stretch is important. Yoga pants and socks need to fit snugly over curvy parts of the body and are made with materials that have good elongation. Materials can have little to no stretch (dryer sheets, fleece), two-way stretch where the material is stiff in one direction and stretchy in the other and four-way stretch where the material elongates in all directions.
In applications where a soft good is exposed to the environment or being used as a friction surface it is important to have good wear resistance. For example, the material on the exterior of running sneakers will come in contact with branches, rocks and other abrasive surfaces. So the outers are made with tough synthetic materials that will not easily rip or shred.
An important characteristic for materials that come in contact with skin is breathability. Skin needs access to air to regulate temperature and dissipate sweat. Materials without any air transfer are uncomfortable, especially for performance wear.
Breathability in the form of porosity is an important characteristic for materials used for filtration, as they need to let fluid pass while trapping solid particles. Filtration materials are often given a size rating based on how big of a particle can pass through it which is typically quoted in microns. Filters for fish tanks are a great example.
Absorption is the amount of liquid a soft good can absorb. The outer layer of a jacket needs to have very little absorption so it keeps rain and snow from penetrating the interior insulating layers. In contrast, a sponge or towel needs to have as much absorption as possible to soak up water and stains.
For woven materials, the density of a fabric is often expressed in units called denier which is the weight in grams of 9000 meters of fiber. While seemingly arbitrary, denier uses silk as its natural reference which is one denier. Consumers will be familiar with denier as it is commonly used to describe hosiery. Pantyhose have a low denier (10-30) and look sheer, while tights (~80 denier) are heavier and look more opaque. The higher the denier, the heavier, thicker and more durable a material will be.
Some products require special properties based on their use scenario. A common special property is flame retardance. Fire suits for race car drivers and firefighters need to have a high flame resistance to protect the user and often include a material called Nomex. Kids pajamas and household goods like curtains are often made from flame retardant materials or coated with a flame retardant additive to slow the spread of fire.
Sustainability is also a major concern for many products, and consumers are becoming more and more desirous of having green materials in their products like cotton and bamboo.
The world of fabrics and textiles is enormous and can be overwhelming if you do not know what you are looking for. Knowing some of these basic concepts will help you explore and describe soft goods in a more meaningful way and help you choose the right family for your prototyping needs. In part two I will discuss some techniques for how to prototype with them.