The fabric of the future may not be driven by complex technologies, but by harnessing the power of natural chemistry.
That’s according to Portland-based startup Skyscrape, which is working to develop garments that regulate their wearer’s thermal comfort in a variety of indoor and outdoor scenarios from its base in the Pacific Northwest.
Brent Ridley, the company’s founder and CEO, has spent the past five years leveraging his background as a chemist and material science expert to develop a suite of fabrics that are responsive to temperature.
But unlike some of the other wearable technology on the market, Skyscrape’s strategy for generating warmth doesn’t rely on embedded sensors or smartphone apps.
“The technology is based on a simple classical mechanism, where there are two materials that respond differently to temperature,” Ridley told Sourcing Journal. “Those materials are intentionally paired together so that their differences are accentuated.”
Essentially, the two fabrics fight each other, he explained. One expands and contracts quite a bit, while the other remains rigid, resisting the movement.
Because they are held together in the context of the textile, “The only thing for them to do is bend,” Ridley said. Skyscrape has found a way to harness that motion, giving its fabrics the ability to shape-shift. That gives rise to changes in thickness and insulation value.
“It creates little air pockets,” Ridley said simply.
“Air is a great insulator,” he added, pointing to the concept behind traditional quilted puffer jackets. Down or synthetic filler serves to create lofting, or air pockets, which trap air that is warmed by a wearer’s body heat.
“It’s a combination between making a temperature-responsive yarn, and putting it into a certain fabric structure,” he said.
Currently, the company is working with exclusively synthetic materials to craft its yarns, though Ridley hopes to move on to organic or bio-based options in the future.
“We’re trying to get through this early stage where we prove the concept with synthetics,” he said, adding that Skyscrape is also currently working on a recyclable polyester formulation. Primarily, though, the company uses virgin polyester and nylon.
With vastly different origins than most textile companies, Skycrape was born at a San Francisco-based startup incubator called Otherlab, where Ridley found himself after taking a sabbatical from teaching chemistry at Biola University in California.
Fascinated by the chemical behaviors of materials like yarns and fabrics, Ridley had the idea to develop a mechanical mechanism for regulating thermal comfort in garments.
The yet-to-be-proven concept lacked the required funding to continue research, so Ridley and Otherlab turned to an unlikely partner: the federal government.
The Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, known colloquially as ARPA-E, runs a series of themed projects that are aimed at “impacting domestic energy, jobs, and technological competitiveness for the country at large,” Ridley said.
The agency had recognized that the heating and cooling of buildings like warehouses and corporate offices consumes a vast amount of domestic energy, he said. “They realized that if you could relax the heating and cooling set points in buildings, you could impact total energy consumption easily at the one or maybe two percent level.”
“We had this idea kicking around for a while about how to make a textile move based on ambient temperature change—so the core idea was already in place, it just had never been developed,” he added.
Skyscrape was awarded a grant to continue work on the technology, and ultimately develop a wearable solution that would allow workers to remain comfortable at their stations while building managers could cut down on energy costs and carbon impact.
Five years since the funding was awarded, the company has amassed a small team comprised of materials scientists, mechanical engineers and textile designers, and is hoping to release a capsule collection, or at least a suite of wearable prototypes, by the end of the year.
“Our goal is to create a technical solution that could be deployed as broadly as possible,” Ridley said, explaining that Skyscrape hopes to develop its own line of products in addition to licensing out the fabrics to other brands, like outerwear manufacturers, looking to a responsive alternative to down or synthetic insulation.
“Right now, we’re at a stage where we’re prototyping one-off garments,” Ridley said, adding, “For us to get to a place where we’re creating a capsule collection would be a meaningful step forward.” Currently, all fabric is developed in the company’s Portland lab.
The ARPA-E grant comes with an expectation that whatever material and manufacturing partners Skyscrape ultimately chooses will be U.S.-based, Ridley said, and he expects that at least 50 percent of the materials and products will be made stateside.
“If you can find a partner who can do what needs to be done here, that’s the best way,” he said.
Currently, the company is making inroads with a few East Coast-based factories that are willing to do the work to build out manufacturing processes that shirk the status quo.
“This is new to them. We’re asking them to basically misuse their machines intentionally, and to do things they’ve never done before,” Ridley said. “That’s a bit of an ask. Some have not been interested at all, and some have been interested initially, but found the risk was too high.”
“They have to shut down a machine that they could be making money with,” he added. “What we’re doing doesn’t justify limiting their output today.”
But just like with startups, some manufacturers end up being unicorns.
“Some are just game,” he said. Traditional techniques and technology used in textile manufacturing have been in place for decades, and some prospective partners are interested in learning new processes that could end up changing the future of the industry.
The development period for a product of this complexity isn’t short, Ridley said. In fact, getting the material concept from lab to factory could take almost a year. Anything with that long of a lead time requires real emotional investment on the part of the production partner, he said.
But Ridley believes that the potential payoff of investing in the creation of innovative, American-made materials is too great to overstate.
“Once people start to play in the new space and see a new thing coming together, there’s a virtuous feedback loop where it becomes interesting and exciting for everyone involved,” he said.