A knitted bag holds a weakened heart, helping it pump blood. Electricity flows through the threads of a battery-powered fleece jacket, keeping the wearer warm. Carbon fibers are braided into structures that look like mushrooms, but are actually prototypes of automotive engine valves. Other fibers are shaped into bicycle frames and sculling oars.

Textiles are no longer just the stuff of clothing, carpets and furniture covering. Made of high-tech threads, they can also be found in lifesaving medical devices and the bodies of racing cars. One architect is proposing building a skyscraper out of carbon fibers.



“I think there’s more areas that are using textiles than there were before,” said Matilda McQuaid, head of the textiles department at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, where 150 items showing the advances of materials science are on display in a show called “Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance.”



In fact, textiles have long been used for more than clothes and rugs, said Dr. Peter Schwartz, head of the textile engineering department at Auburn University. “The Romans used jute fabrics for road stabilization,” he said.



Many textiles are never seen, like those that are embedded in the rubber of automobile tires. “Not many people are quite aware of it,” said Larry Q. Williams, business director of Invista, a company that makes a polyester fabric used in tires. “It’s the polyester that’s forming the shape of the tire and holding it together.”



Otherwise, a tire “would immediately blow apart,” Mr. Williams said. “Textile reinforcement of tires has existed as long as pneumatic tires have been built.” Cotton textiles were used initially, followed by rayon and then nylon. But nylon had the problem of “flatspotting”: when a car was parked for a while, the section pressed against the ground would harden and roll bumpily until the tire warmed up.



In the 1970’s, polyester replaced nylon, and continual improvements in the textiles explain in part why tires now often last 80,000 miles instead of 10,000 to 15,000 miles.



Threads made of a wide variety of new materials, including metals, carbon fibers and high-strength materials like Kevlar, have further widened the use of textiles. Chemical coatings stiffen them or add additional properties like fire resistance.



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