Finding Inspiration for Functional Design

Blog post by Professor Susan M. Watkins.

One of the mistakes I think beginning designers make is assuming that old technology and old designs have nothing to offer them.  As a functional clothing designer, I found endless inspiration for new designs by looking at ways people have protected themselves in the past.

At Cornell, design students are asked to complete research before beginning to design. What’s the nature of the problem? Who are the users? What will they be doing? What hazards will they face?  When I helped students begin their research, I frequently used a pair of Swedfor logger’s pants that are in the Cornell Costume Collection.  For years, clothing items that protected loggers from being injured by chain saws were based on providing a material that was as cut-proof as possible and finding a way to place it over the thighs, the most likely area to be cut if a logger dropped a saw.

When designing clothing, it’s important to explore the whole cycle of a garment’s development — from fibers to yarns to structures (weaves, knits, etc.) to finishes to the ways in which materials are combined or layered to the placement of materials in a garment. Most of the pants or chaps covering the thighs of loggers at that time were comprised of several layers of thick, stiff, woven Kevlar® aramid.  Aramid fibers are extremely strong ones used for items such as “bulletproof” (ballistic) vests, parachute cords and tires.  Functional designers generally strive to make protection more comfortable and flexible. One way to achieve this for loggers’ pants was thought to be the use of a softer, stretchier material.  Kevlar® aramid was made in knit form, but it didn’t seem likely that a knit Kevlar® panel could provide as much protection as a stiffer, woven one. However, when designers tested the cut resistance of several aramid knits, something very interesting happened.

Knits contain a lot of loops and looser threads than woven materials do.  When a saw was dropped onto one loosely knitted aramid in particular, it snagged and pulled individual aramid fibers out of the knit.  The strong fibers tangled around the chain and pulled it right out of the saw, thus deactivating it. (See Figure 1)  Designers often have to accept compromises or “trade-offs” when developing functional apparel.  For example, if you make something warmer or more impact-protective, it often will end up restricting movement.  However, these Kevlar® knit-filled loggers’ pants completely prevented penetration by the chain saw.  They were also lighter and more comfortable and moved far more easily with the body.

Figure 1. Knit Kevlar®-lined logger’s pants. The loose fibers of the knit snag in the chain and eventually jam the chain or in some cases, pull it completely out of the saw before it can cut through several layers of the material.

The lessons I wanted students to learn from this example were these:

  1. Explore all aspects of both materials and garment design and don’t take any solution as a “given” — even one thought to be the best available.
  2. While it may in the end be necessary to compromise (give up a bit of mobility, etc., to achieve the necessary protection) first try to “maximize”, i.e., generate a design that meets all of your criteria to the fullest.
  3. Explore all of the events in an injury cycle.  How can you break that cycle at a different point or in a different way than current designs do? (Jamming a chain was at a different point in the cycle than was defeating a saw blade.)

There are dozens of examples of items in the collection that provided inspiration in similar ways.  One student looked at the design of overlapping metal plates on a ballistics vest used in the Korean War and applied it to create a more flexible, mobile ice hockey pad.  Another student noted the way in which an early football helmet liner distributed the energy from a blow to the helmet and used that basic theory to develop an elbow brace that provided variable amounts of elbow movement post-surgery.

Figure 2. Cornell students model two firefighting garments made with of woven aramid laminated to Gore-tex®. The materials used in these garments and other unique design features were later adapted by various firefighting garment manufacturers.

The Cornell collection also houses two prototypes of firefighting garments that illustrate the first use of a microporous membrane (Gore-Tex®) as a steam barrier in firefighting apparel. (See Figure 2.)  In 1976, two Cornell apparel design students, Mary Valla and Laurie Rosen, participated in ARMCO Steel’s Student Design Program on firefighting.  As part of their design research, they explored possible fabric layering systems for firefighting gear.  Gore-tex® was in the early stages of being marketed to outdoor retailers, but because steam burns are a significant hazard in firefighting, and Gore-tex® allowed vapor to pass through, it had not been considered for firefighting apparel.  Hoping to use micropores to relieve heat build-up in firefighting ensembles, the students talked to people knowledgeable about burns and determined that the rate of vapor transfer allowed by Gore-tex® negated the possibility of steam burns.  One of the students drove to the Boston area to pick up 10 yards of aramid fabric that Globe Firesuits was willing to donate to the project and then drove to the Gore facility in Maryland, where a company representative who was interested in the project came in on a weekend to laminate the aramid yardage to Gore-tex®.  The resulting suits made from this material were of great interest to industry representatives who attended the ARMCO design review. Within a year, Gore-tex®-laminated materials became the state-of-the art for all firefighting apparel.

These firefighting garments incorporated many other innovative design features:  specialized pleats that improved mobility for the joints, more effective placement of reflective materials, unique pocket structures and new methods of bridging the gaps between the boots and pants and the gloves and coat.  It is hoped that these features will provide inspiration as future Cornell designers interact with the Collection.

Susan M. Watkins is a Professor Emeritus of Apparel Design at Cornell University. She is widely considered to be the founder of the discipline of functional apparel design and was the author of the first textbook in the field, Clothing: the Portable Environment. This text was first published in 1984 and revised in 1995 and has been translated into Japanese and Korean. It has been used by academic programs and government research laboratories around the world. She is also a co-author, with Dr. Lucy Dunne, of Functional Clothing Design: From Sportswear to Spacesuits, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2015. She is a Fellow of the International Textiles and Apparel Association; held the Tyner Eminent Scholar Chair at the Florida State University from 1999-2000; is the subject of a biography in the Encyclopedia of Human Ecology and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Minnesota in 2014. She is currently Designer and Manager of Portable Environments, LLC, a consulting company focused on protective clothing design. 

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