Clothing that stretches or shrinks to fit you

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Can you imagine a T-shirt with cooling vents that opened when exposed to moisture and closed when dry or one-size-fits-all clothing that stretches or shrinks to a person’s measurements? Now, researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a biocompatible material.

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Figure: Researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have developed a biocompatible material. Courtesy: Harvard

The material can be 3D-printed into any shape and pre-programmed with reversible shape memory, which is made using keratin, a fibrous protein found in hair, nails, and shells. The researchers extracted the keratin from leftover Agora wool used in textile manufacturing.

The research could help the effort to reduce waste in the fashion industry. As the fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Already, designers such as Stella McCarthy are reimagining how the industry uses materials, including wool. The material may also have medical uses.

“With this project, we have shown that not only can we recycle wool but we can build things out of the recycled wool that has never been imagined before,” said Kit Parker, the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at SEAS and senior author of the paper on the subject published in Nature Materials.

The implications for the sustainability of natural resources are clear. With recycled keratin protein, they can do just as much, or more, than what has been done by shearing animals to date and, in doing so, reduce the environmental impact of the textile and fashion industry.

When a fiber is stretched or exposed to a particular stimulus, the spring-like structures uncoil, and the bonds realign to form stable beta-sheets. The fiber remains in that position until it is triggered to coil back into its original shape.