Meeting Military Needs One Fabric and Finish at a Time

If there's one vertical market that demands and deserves innovation in apparel, it's the armed forces. The military requires lighter, more durable uniforms and apparel loaded with high-performance characteristics to meet the needs of today's men and women in arms. Garments must protect soldiers while keeping them as comfortable as possible.

Eugene Wilusz, a senior scientist at Massachusetts' U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center who has helped to develop numerous military apparel innovations, says improvements to uniforms and protective clothing are driven by user demands as well as by advances in fields such as nanotechnology and intelligent textiles.

"Protection must be provided against threats such as ballistic and blast events, flames, chemicals, biological agents, punctures, insects, rain, cold, ultraviolet (UV) radiation and extreme heat," Wilusz explains. "To maximize effectiveness it is necessary for textiles used in protective clothing to be multifunctional. 

"Super-repellent coatings for shedding water droplets and hazardous liquids, extruded bicomponent fibers and those with unique cross-sections, textiles with integrated electronics, and electrospun nanofibers are just a few of the new technologies which will be contributing to future generations of military and protective clothing," he adds.   

Based in Ashland, Ore., Massif, an apparel firm specializing in flame-resistant (FR) products, was formed by search-and-rescue professionals who sought a better line of protective gear, according to Dave Bywater, vice president of government sales. Bywater says Massif got its start in 1999 by enhancing  military and government uniforms that offered little functionality and failed to keep up with the pace of textile innovations. This included designing high-performance clothing systems to protect against sudden infernos.

"We went after the high-performance garment market for situations that could be involved in flash fires," Bywater says. "By doing that we revolutionized the FR clothing industry. The U.S. military is one of the biggest purchasers of FR clothing for aviation. They adopted some of our products and incorporated it into their requirements for uniforms."

As Massif's products evolved, designers added new performance characteristics such as breathability and durability. The company recently partnered with W.L. Gore to create a line of products called Battleshield and Battleshield X, nylon-faced, flame-resistant and water-resistant laminates for military markets. These garments feature Gore's FR stretch technology, which boosts breathability while also improving water repellency and water-entry pressure.

"We don't usually talk about our partners, but this product goes into one of the key cold weather soft-shell products used by the Navy and Marine Corps," Bywater adds. "The other services are looking at it as well."

Massif and its partners rely on a variety of processes and approaches to achieve flame resistance, including coatings and fabric construction. "We use all of the options that are available to create the most high-performance garments," explains Bywater.

Massif designs all of its garments in-house and then partners with American textile and cut-and-sew companies for finished products, manufacturing in the U.S. to comply with the Berry Amendment. The company works closely with researchers at Natick during product development.

"Sometimes when we have a new innovation that we think will be interesting, we will take it directly to the military," Bywater notes. "With the partnership with Gore, we came up with a brand-new material that we thought would be very exciting. We went directly to the military with that, and they have shown a lot of interest. There are also times when the military defines and publishes the requirements and we will design to the specifications they have outlined."

Masiff also recently expanded into what it calls its "civilian line" of products for law enforcement agencies and the general consumer market. The company is approaching this market cautiously to see how it develops, Bywater adds.

Textile industry giant Milliken & Co., with its diverse manufacturing capabilities, has long been a specialist in developing fabrics for military applications. Cathy Hands, marketing manager for Milliken's military business, says leaders in the armed forces are adamant about downsizing the weight in the apparel and packs carried by soldiers.

"One of the key concerns is reducing weight," explains Hands. "During briefings we had with the Army at Fort Benning, we talked about the need to reduce the load soldiers carry. It's 57 pounds at a bare minimum. That's what they start with and sometimes they carry twice or three times as much, so every ounce that can be saved counts."

Flame resistance and climate protection top the list of performance qualities in high demand, Hands says. The military also is pushing for improvements in modular, bullet-proof protection for essential areas of the body such as the neck, groin and femoral artery.  Milliken is working with different materials to achieve lighter-weight garments, Hands says, and has moved beyond traditional apparel constructions, tapping into the expertise of some of its other divisions, including industrial products.

Before the war in Iraq, flame-resistant garments were not the biggest priority for the military. That changed quickly as improvised explosive devices (IEDs ) began taking a significant toll on soldiers, and suddenly, FR soared as a primary military need.

Recognized by R&D magazine in 2012 as one of the year's top innovations, Milliken's ResQ fabrics target the FR market. "ResQ has been approved by several branches of the military," explains Hands. "It holds up better so it doesn't run the risk of tearing."

To achieve lighter-weight fabrics, Milliken works with lower denier yarns and innovative weave constructions. "We are really pushing the envelope on some of our fabric constructions," she continues, adding that the company employs an array of technologies in its military fabric development.

"Sometimes you have to use a fiber or a weave type or a finish to overcome something else," she says. "We try to combine the fiber and construction and chemicals to create synergy."

Milliken works closely with Natick and its product developers but also the military personnel who wear the garments. "Our focus is to work with them, interacting with end users," says Hands. "You can get an insight into what their needs are. We then work with the program managers at Natick to come up with solutions to meet their needs."

DriFire, a division of Optimer Brands, is a Columbus, Ga.-based performance fabric specialist that targets military and industrial markets. It is probably best known for its DriRelease products. One of its latest developments is Fortrex, a fabric developed in concert with DuPont.

"We have taken the protection from DuPont's Nomex and the performance of DriRelease and combined the two to develop Fortrex to create a more comfortable FR fabric as compared to plain Nomex," says Rob Hines, DriFire's vice president of product development.

Johnny Bailey, DriFire's military fabric specialist, says Fortex is being used for the multi-country joint strike fighter initiative for flight suit fabrics to be worn by pilots flying F-35 fighter jets.

"The whole mechanism is aimed at driving comfort and performance to a new level," says Bailey. "These are fabrics that have not been seen before."

Fortrex combines rayon with Nomex to provide a softer hand. The DriRelease technology, which is incorporated into the fabric, is permanent and gives garments increased wickability. 

According to Bailey, various branches of the military have ongoing apparel needs. For example, the U.S. Navy is currently exploring options for development of an FR uniform to wear aboard ships. "The Navy is also going through an extensive wear trial for flight-deck shirts," he says. "DriFire is part of that wear trial to see what is best in the industry."
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