“Why can’t we wear computers on our bodies?” asks Michelle Lei, Raw Materials Sourcing Manager at Kit and Ace.
Think of responsive fabric that adjusts to your body temperature and materials engineered to eliminate any hot, sticky symptoms on your commute. Imagine temperamental natural fibres – that once required an intimate relationship with your drycleaner – suddenly going in your washing machine while you relax on the couch. Lei creates these futuristic possibilities for your clothes.
The Raw Materials team works hand-in-hand with Kit and Ace’s technical designers and fabric mills around the world to make innovative fabrics a reality. Her team boasts a chemical engineer, a colour scientist and Lei’s own 10 years working for Nike in textile development. Needless to say, they are up to some mad scientist shit.
If you are puzzled by the term “raw materials,” you are not alone. You typically see fabric in its whole form: spun, woven, knit or bonded into material that covers us from head to toe. Before these fibres become fabric, Lei’s team works with materials in their original form – when cashmere is a light, fluffy cloud and wool is a dense, crimped cluster.
Lei is at the front line of fabric development at Kit and Ace, and has been from day zero. She was the passionate face representing bold ideas that had never in history been executed at the mill level. Before Kit and Ace produced its first prototype fabric, Lei approached more than 30 mills around the world with the company vision.
“Everyone laughed at me,” she recalls. “They all said cashmere is not machine washable and dryable – and these are world-class mills. Finally, a few mills came on board. They were adventurous, innovative – they were crazy,” Lei laughs. “They were the crazy suppliers that joined us in our venture of producing machine washable and dryable Technical Cashmere™.”
While almost every other industry has seen rapid advancement in our lifetime, textile production is still using archaic technology. “A tech company would never claim that their new phone works 97% of the time.” Yet a high quality fabric might shrink up to 3% after washing. “Even though it’s the oldest industry in the world, it’s the least consistent in quality delivery, product stabilization and consistency – and that’s not something we can change overnight,” explains Lei.
For her team, developing a viable prototype requires constant communication and problem solving. A fabric mill might present Lei with 10,000 different yarns to choose from and it’s up to her to select the right combination. After the mill produces a prototype it undergoes a lot of testing. “If you go into a fashion company, most of their products are dry clean only, which is like a free pass because you have no testing requirements. It doesn’t matter if it shrinks, if the colour fades, or if it pills – it doesn’t matter if anything bad happens to the fabric. We guarantee the quality of our fabrics by saying you can machine wash them because we test them at a higher level.”
Lei puts each of the prototypes she develops through a third-party laboratory to test for pilling, snagging, shrinkage and colour loss. Once they pass her strict requirements, all the samples are lined up like contestants at a beauty pageant. The design team selects the victors and then they begin assembling test styles out of the fabric.
Their pursuit of innovation is relentless – her team has produced 49 iterations of Kit and Ace’s first proprietary fabric Technical Cashmere™ alone, never settling for their latest attempt. “Is it improving? Is it getting better? Yes, the tests prove it,” Lei explains.
The next time you pull your t-shirt over your head, run your hand along a rack of knit sweaters or put a load of laundry in the machine, take a moment to consider the very fabric of what you are touching. For as long as there have been clothes, there have been people making fabric – creating something from nothing. With 3D printing, adventurous fabric mills and Lei’s inability to accept “no” for an answer, you might just be wearing futuristic fabric sooner than you think.