The upcoming yarn

When talking about fabrics one inevitably ends up talking about fibres and yarns. The same happens when talking about innovation and evolution in the textile industry. In short, regardless of whether it’s furnishing or clothing, the high end of the production chain in our sector – that in which one finds the most important raw material or semi-finished product of the entire process – in one way or another is always the leading actor on stage.

This justifies the need to understand what the situation is with the production of yarns, the research in the field of raw materials (be they natural, artificial or synthetic), and, most importantly, what the outlook is for this sector. To achieve this we have asked the opinion of one of Italy’s most distinguished and competent figures in the field of textile development and research, Aldo Tempesti, who since 1998 has been the director of TexClubTec (Italian Association of Technical Textiles) and today is in charge of the research and innovation area of Sistema Moda Italia and is Cluster Manager of the Italian Technology Cluster “Made in Italy”.

Q. – Mr. Tempesti, let’s start by painting a picture of the current situation concerning materials and yarns…
A. – In order to understand where we stand at the international level with the production of and research in yarns, we must take a step back and briefly relate the history of the last few decades of this sector. Let us say that in the 1980’s the large chemical groups were veritable giants that dominated the market and called the shots. The R&D of these groups would create new raw materials and place them on the market that was then supposed to find possible applications for them. When these giants started breaking up, a period of chaos ensued, creating some disorientation in the users of the chain downstream. After a necessary period of adaptation, the end users themselves became drivers of innovation by indicating to the teams of producers the lines of research to be developed based on market requirements. Thus we went from the classical ‘product oriented’ situation to a more modern ‘customer oriented’ one. This evolution has led us to pay greater attention also to global environmental issues, seeing that they have become pressing and urgent and that the pressure comes from the ‘bottom’ and doesn’t fall down only from the heights of the marketing departments of the giants of the chemical industry.
In the last few years we have seen research focus ever more intently on whatever concerns sustainability, recycling and environmentally compatible processing procedures. Very simply put, if we consider the set made up of natural/artificial/synthetic fibres as a straight line with three stops precisely in that order, we could say that research is pointing increasingly towards the centre in order to find a solution to the issues met with when operating at the ends. This means more artificial fibres in order to lessen the problems arising with natural and synthetic fibres. This is an absolutely general picture, however, that leaves room for myriad clarifications.

Q. – Does this mean, for example, that natural fibres are not as virtuous as they seem?
A. – You see, there’s always the need for many explanations when discussing these topics. The problem is not whether cotton is good or bad. It is obviously good, but today we know that the cultivation of many vegetal raw materials may create issues too when related to the planet’s general conditions. It is not by chance that the European Commission within the Horizon for Europe (2021-2027) program is financing a large number of study and research projects pertaining to sustainability. Take cotton, for example. What with pesticides used, high water consumption, large cultivation areas, the question arises as to whether there could be some alternative natural materials that have less impact on the environmental system. Similarly, as regards synthetic fibres, the issues concern their disposal and possible reuse and recycle. But let’s take one thing at a time. Within the sphere of natural fibres, much experimentation is being made with materials alternative to cotton and that have less negative impact when cultivated, from all points of view – i.e. fewer pesticides and less water – and that, in Europe, are already being cultivated on our lands. I’m talking about flax and hemp. And not just them. The fragmentation of the giants I was talking about before, along with the “4.0” evolution of enterprises, has allowed for the blooming, in Italy too, of a set of extremely interesting start-ups proposing absolutely cutting edge projects. I am thinking of a new enterprise in Sicily that is working at the production of an artificial fibre obtained from orange peel, or even another firm also in Italy that is conducting advanced research in the production of fibres made from wine processing waste. Another very interesting project is the one regarding the improvement of the production process and of the application of fibres made from weeds, such as nettles.

Q. – You have mentioned “Industry 4.0 and Digitization”. Very popular topics. Are they important in the textile sector too?
A. – They are fundamental. Their importance is due to the fact that they are the main tools in providing small and medium-sized enterprises with the means for meeting the needs of a market that now features small quantities and short delivery times but wide ranges of requests and applications.
And more. Digitization allows for the birth of small companies that study and design entirely computer-aided processes – comparable to a sort of evolved and modern craftsman that uses new technologies – but also allows large-sized companies to plan the production processes focused on increasingly smaller and diversified production lots. In this case, I am thinking, mostly, about paint. Then there’s the management aspect. “4.0” allows for a simpler adjustment to the requirements of the circular economy and therefore of the management of waste. Lastly, the digitization of production processes, precisely because it allows to create small production lots, provides an enterprise with the flexibility and speed required to dialogue fluently with the world of design. In short, “Industry 4.0 and Digitization” allow to create new business models indispensable for the survival of the textile industry.

Q. – Let’s talk more about the future of fibres and yarns. You have spoken about the natural ones, so now let’s look at the synthetic and artificial ones…
A. – Let us say that in this field the passwords could be two: as regards polyester and polyamide yarns, research is being conducted on bio polymers that limit the use of fossil-based raw materials in favour of renewable resources. This means we can say that, once again, we are shifting away from the synthetic towards the artificial. The other password is ‘recycling’, a topic pertinent to all phases of the production processes. The challenge consists in reutilising end of life products instead of what is usually done, namely downgrading them and throwing them away instead of upgrading them and giving them new life. The latter concept applies to anything, such as polyester that, once retrieved and treated, is transformed into new chips that are used to make yarn again, or the dust resulting from the processing of marble that they are attempting to use to colour the fibres. Without moving away from Italy, here is another example: there are sunshade producers that retrieve and recycle production scraps to make new shades, thereby limiting to the utmost the environmental weight of textile waste.

Q. – In conclusion, you have painted a rosy picture full of investments and innovation. Are you really that optimistic?
A. – It’s not a question of optimism. Your question was, where is research on fibres and yarns going, and that is what I have described. We still have to see what will become truly applicable and what will remain just a dream. The trends, however, are exactly those I have described. There is also a question of inevitability: it is an indisputable and uncontestable fact that the European industry, and the Italian one in particular, must remain state of the art in terms of production processes in order to provide the market with efficiency, innovative solutions and flexibility. Another inevitable fact is that the main problems to be solved for the world’s textile supply chain, at a global level, regard the sustainability of the natural raw materials’ cultivation processes, the increasingly lower use of fossil-based raw materials (oil and its derivatives, editor’s note), the recycling and management of textile waste. These themes are essential and are the objectives of our research and innovation activities, both as Sistema Moda Italia and as Technology Cluster “Made in Italy”.