By: Bronwen E. Roberts

The world of fabric has become an exciting industry.

Remember the story of Lycra, which was developed in the late 1950s, but was relatively unknown for another 20 years. Innovative materials often have a long period of conception. But, fortunately most of the world has cottoned on and we now have fabric specifically designed to protect bodies from the stress of commuting.

Travel wear is waterproof, wrinkle proof and in some cases temperature proof: each garment has a specific function that improves uncomfortable travel conditions. There is fabric that monitors and adjusts to the wearer's body heat, so people traveling between different climates remain comfortable. Running shoes are now available made from material that allows your feet to breathe; stockings impregnated with Vitamin C to keep our legs healthy during winter months, and health-giving fabric made from milk protein fiber. Now, you can have all this...from a fabric!

Japanese Innovative Fabrics

There has always been a high degree of innovation coming from Japan in terms of fabrics and fashion. Designers and manufacturers originally concentrated on the high-end market and the quality justified the price. Many manufacturers had originally produced natural fibers and fabrics, but much of the raw material had to be sourced from elsewhere in Asia. This fact combined with high labor costs, rendered it uncompetitive in a global market. The world became intrigued by the innovation of the Japanese, even in use of natural fabrics. The use of banana and pineapple fibres, are still produced in Japan, but due to production costs are costly even to the local Japanese.

'Health-Giving' Fabrics

Japanese manufacturers have turned circumstances to their advantage, moving from the production of natural to mainly synthetic fibers and fabrics. But synthetics produced in Japan need something extra to make them competitive in the global market: standard polyester can be produced anywhere and labor costs are lower in other parts of the globe. What has emerged is a range of highly engineered fibers and fabrics that are quite unlike anything being produced in Europe or North America. The trend focuses on one market in particular - "health-giving" fabrics.

These fabrics are imbued with properties that are said to provide protection against ultraviolet rays or bacteria. In Europe the tendency is to apply a protective coating or finishing treatment to fabrics, but while manufacturers in Japan also make use of coatings they innovate further by engineering the fibers themselves. At the fiber�s molecular level they are effectively manipulating the fabric's DNA, an approach that presents many more possibilities than procedures involving basic single-application coatings.

Combining Tradition with Technology

Most waterproof clothing in Europe relies on lamination technology for the application of a special coating. An alternative technology that focuses on the structure of fiber and fabric to provide the bulk of its performance has been developed in Japan. A waterproof, breathable fabric comprising a polyester micro-filament: there are also fabrics developed that provide thermal insulation. Air is one of our most effective sources of insulation, we use it naturally when goose bumps cause the hairs on our arms to rise and trap air as a layer of insulation in an effort to keep us warm. A fiber that traps air for us in our clothing can provide further insulation and now there is a sophisticated filament yarn for use in active sportswear. New fiber�s performance levels have a 10% improvement rate on fiber�s used in conventional fabric.

Technical innovation in Japanese manufacturing goes beyond the coating and engineering of the fibers. The same technology may be used to very different effect by several companies. Ceramic fiber used by one provides protection from ultraviolet rays, while another incorporates ceramic to intensify the whiteness of its fabric; a third takes heat from the body then reintroduces it instantly making it suitable for clothing and bed linen.