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Textiles of the Future: Meet Metamaterials

Art World News

Aidan Ware, Gallery Director | March 23, 2016

The term metamaterials comes from the Greek meaning "to go beyond" and they are materials engineered from composite sources such as metals or plastics that are arranged in repeating patterns, at reduced scales that are much smaller than the wavelengths of the phenomena they influence. Their geometry, orientation and arrangement gives them the property of being capable of manipulating electromagnetic waves - defying the properties of conventional materials. Metamaterials can even achieve the act of cloaking an object.

A recent article titled Islamic art inspires stretchy, switchable materials by Jonathan Webb appeared just recently on BBC. It talks about the birth of “auxetic” materials that are engineered to getting wider when stretched instead of just longer and thinner. The example they show is a rubber sheet with holes made by a Canadian group which “due to their internal architecture, when you pull in one direction they expand in the lateral direction.”

The most fascinating part of the discussion in the article is the fact that the science of metamaterials is actually not new. It’s found in art – in the ancient Islamic motifs, where there is literally a compendium of geometries and several examples of “bistability” patterns.

This is truly where we witness that science and art are married. The art of the peoples that lived 1000 years ago has inspired the science of a space-age, tablet toting, world of wifi generation. The artists that lived and worked so long ago somehow discovered the science of metamaterials - and had indelibly inscribed it into the design of their urban landscapes and their lives.

We think of textile art in a straight-forward way – as a material consisting of natural or artificial fibres, something we weave or braid or knit. But the definition is changing with the times and textiles are being spun out in new contexts. One enterprising group has even developed a company that turns plastic bottles into fabric.

Metamaterials offer us a new way to think about materiality and textiles. By manipulating the electromagnetic waves, like the threads of an object, we are essentially re-knitting, re-weaving, and renewing the definition of textile…. and challenging our understanding of the nature of the visual and physical object.