Textiles and technology: An innovative process rooted in tradition

Edinburgh Napier reader Sam Vettese is on a mission to reinvent the Scottish textile industry

Scotland’s textile industry is synonymous with the country. A key trade for generations, many can still be found operating to this day, with their clothes and items continuing to furnish the fashion capitals of the world.

But like many industries, the wind of change is blowing and manufacturers are looking to diversify in an effort remain at the forefront of the textile world.

For Edinburgh Napier’s Dr Sam Vettese, she has made it her mission to help them achieve this and has embarked on a journey of her own to showcase how new technology can be harnessed to support the Scottish textile industry.

After identifying a demand to find a solution for unused textiles and offcuts, Sam and her research assistant Ari Loughlin have devised a process that can turn leftovers into a 3D printable material that not only withholds the aesthetic provenance and desirable storyline of the craft of Scottish textiles, but can also be used to manufacture new products.

A simple process

The process is simple – if you have the correct equipment. The leftover textile is laminated between two sheets of plastic and is turned into a pellet type material before being extruded to produce a filament. The result? A material that not only holds the same colour as the original textile but one that can now be used to 3D print intricate and ornate objects.  

Sam explains: “Many offcuts are down cycled for things like carpet underlay and cushion fillings, but we want to help produce something that is of a higher quality that allows the material to stay front and centre rather than being hidden away for a practical use.

“What we have at the moment are two types of filament – one is flexible that could be used to weave with come time and another is slightly more rigid that can be used to 3D print. Both consist of 10% wool and 90% ecoplastic. The process is quite time consuming but we’re making improvements all the time.

“We’ve sourced material from a range of Scottish textile brands including Bute, Calzeat, Begg and Co and the Scottish Leather Group, with our filaments holding many of the attributes that have made these materials recognisable throughout the world.”

An introduction to the process...

The research, funded by Textiles Future Forum, is set to enter its next phase. Sam is working with Kathy Vones and Sarah Taylor, jewellery designer and woven textile designer respectively, to use the two filaments to produce items with a view to taking them to a commercial market.

There’s also an educational angle to the work. This method of using offcuts that would be disposed of otherwise is a new way of thinking about sustainability and upcycling. Conversations are underway with manufacturers throughout Scotland regarding the new technology with the research already helping encourage what is a very traditional industry to think of ways to innovate and to embrace the digital world.

Sam added: “Scottish design isn’t just about hand-woven heather. Our work would add an extra dimension to what people relate to as the traditional Scottish experience. If you could buy a Harris Tweed bangle that had been 3D printed, you would think about tradition, innovation, the changing world and sustainability all at once – it would be amazing.

“On the whole, Scottish mills are pretty good at recycling but it’s nearly always a down cycle process; very few have actually used their offcuts to upcycle to a product of higher value. Kathy’s jewellery work and Sarah’s woven textile work could help them, with time, to do that. We’ve already had manufacturers that have expressed an interest in working with our flexible filament and I’m sure that this interest will continue once we have our initial products made.

“We’d love to see the technology we develop to eventually make its way back into the mills. It’s very much an educational process at this stage but it could very well be the future too.”

If you could buy a Harris Tweed bangle that had been 3D printed, you would think about tradition, innovation, the changing world and sustainability all at once – it would be amazing.

Read more from Edinburgh Napier