Watch: A Low-Tech Technique For Making High-Tech Fabrics

The New York-based textile expert has created mesh for Humanscale chairs and reflective gear for Nike apparel. Here, she talks to Co.Design about her process and inspiration.

The pre- and post-work hours of dawn and dusk are prime times for runners to fit a few miles in a busy day; the shadowy visual effect of the sun rising and setting can make it especially tough to see these athletic pedestrians on the move, though, making it a particularly dangerous time to take to the streets. In collaboration with Nike Running, Elizabeth Whelan’s solution was a fabric composed of both glow-in-the-dark and light-reflective yarns, combined together into a variety of patterns that shimmer into action in low illumination.

That’s just one of the innovations from the textile specialist. From a bright, window-lined penthouse in the heart of the Big Apple, she conducts her experiments with warp and weft on a hand-wound, 24-harness, computer-assisted loom, imagines new possibilities from components that range from wool to silk, copper wire to thermoplastics, and comes up with new hues in an on-site dye lab. The RISD grad established her studio almost 15 years ago and has since built up an impressive roster of clientele that includes some of the industry’s biggest names such as Humanscale and Nike.

She cites nature as a major inspiration with regards to structure, motif, and color, and despite the often industrial makeup of her efforts it’s not hard to see the implicit connection; these are materials that unite a kind of effortless functionality with inherent beauty, born for use—sustained, genuine use—in our real-world, everyday lives.

Perhaps her most famous collaboration to date is also most representative of that connection. For nearly a decade, she and (recently passed) "godfather of ergonomics" Niels Diffrient created some of Humanscale’s most iconic task chairs; her form-sensing mesh tech made major strides in a field that only continues to grow, thanks to our heightened collective interest in making sitting as easy on the body as possible.

For Whelan, the spirit of innovation and curiosity fuels her search for new ways to apply her craft to enhance the way we live now. "Design does not just move from our head to a machine to a mill or a loom," she explains in a video interview for Co.Design. "It’s not so much a process of imposing and implementation—it’s a real process of discovery."

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