Smart & Modern Materials: Let’s Learn 

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What is a smart or modern material?

A smart material is defined as one which is able to react to external stimulus / changes in the environment without human intervention (AQA

A modern material has been engineered to have high tech properties but the material doesn’t ‘change’ in response to stimulus. 

Examples of smart materials


Dyes that are micro encapsulated into fibres, yarns and fabrics which change colour in response to heat


Dyes that are micro encapsulated into fibres, yarns and fabrics which change colour in response to UV rays in light


  • Biomimicry refers to design that is inspired by how nature works
  • Speedo Fastskin is an example of biomimicry as the fabric and design are inspired by shark skin 
  • Stomatex is another example of biomimicry. It copies how a leaf transpires and releases body moisture through tiny domes with holes in, creating a breathable fabric

Examples of modern materials


Bullet proof vest
  • High performance aramid fibre (which means it is from the nylon family) that is very strong, lightweight, flame and chemical resistant and five times stronger than steel of the same weight
  • Used for bullet proof vests, to strengthen tyres, lining aircraft petrol tanks, safety gloves, skateboards, oil rig cables


  • High performance aramid fibre that is flame and chemical retardant, durable, anti static, low shrinkage and resistant to oil
  • It is used for fire fighters clothing, racing driver suits, seating on public transport, oven gloves

Fluorescent fabrics

fluorescent trainers 3692 copy 2
  • Fluorescent fabrics look ultra bright because of the way the colours absorb and emit light. UV rays react with the colour making them appear bright to the eye. Note that the colour itself never changes, it is just the way our eye sees them, which is why fluorescent fabrics are modern and not smart.
  • The colours appear brightest in low light and dull weather conditions. 

Reflective fabrics

IMG 1547 copy
  • Minute glass beads are embedded into yarns, fabrics, dyes and coatings
  • When light is shone on the surface the beads reflect light back into the viewer’s eye making the fabric appear shiny and bright
  • Note that the fabric itself never changes, it is just the way our eye sees them, which is why reflective fabrics are modern and not smart.
  • Reflective fabrics are often used for safety and protection e.g. uniforms, workwear, cycling wear
  • Reflective and fluorescent fabrics are often used together in products as both work in different types of light


  • Phosphorescent means ‘glow in the dark’
  • Phosphorescent pigments are micro encapsulated into yarns, fabrics, dyes, beads etc.
  • The pigments absorb UV light which is then released as a glow when there is no light around
  • AQA classify phosphorescent as modern although not everyone agrees with this. You should use AQAs classification when answering questions. 

Breathable fabrics

  • Breathable fabrics allow body moisture to evaporate away from the body. This process is called wicking. 
  • Gore-Tex is an example of a breathable membrane that is laminated between layers of fabric. It has microscopic  holes big enough to let body moisture through but too small for rain. 
  • Coolmax is another example of a breathable fabric. It works by moisture being wicked away through specially shaped fibres. 

For a summary of smart and modern materials, including additional ones to those listed above, look at AQA’s list

Take care!

Be careful when using the classifications of smart and modern as there is some disagreement about which category some materials fit into. You are advised to use the classifications that AQA use on this sheet as although not everyone agrees with what it says this is how most exam questions are marked. 

Designers who are inspired by smart and modern technologies

Cute Circuit

Hussein Chalayan

Alexander McQueen

Iris Van Herpen

Interesting links

This is an area of textiles that is constantly changing with new technologies and products being developed all the time. Exam questions might refer to examples that are up to date so it is important you stay up to date with new materials. You should also be able to give up to date examples of your own to back up your answers. This is particularly the case at A level. 

You might use some of these high tech textiles products to help add detail to your answers: - suit worn by Pharrell Williams made out of 3M reflective fabric that looks like it changes colour when flash photos are taken - Tommy Hilfiger clothing with solar panels - Designer who works with wearable solar panels  - Astroskin shirt that monitors astronauts health and how this has real world applicaitoions for people living in remote areas with doctors monitoring their health remotely  - Seymour Powell smart jacket for extreme environments - hoodie designed so that headphones can be worn on top of the hood. The hoodie uses a fabric that won’t muffle or distort sound - footwear that allows you to keep track of your child - a revolutionary new energy absorbing material, designed to alter the way we think about protecting the human body from impact and injury -  a company who make body armour protection for a variety of extreme sports using Armourgel technology - a company who design and make ‘airbag jackets’ that inflate when a ripcord is pulled instantly creating a padded jacket that reduces impact and injury - Impulse jackets for bikers that use wireless technology to display the bike’s indicator and brake lights on the biker’s jacket - the history of the cricket helmet

  • Take photos of at least 2 products that use smart materials and 2 products that use modern materials
  • Explain why the examples you have chosen are considered smart and modern 
  • Use a diagram to explain how breathability works. Visit to find out more
  • Compare a non breathable product with a breathable one (e.g. a sports top). What are the differences in how it will feel to wear each product? Which will be more comfortable and why?
  • Summarise how smart and modern materials might add value to a product in the eyes of the consumer
  • Design a product of your own that uses smart or modern materials. Label your product to explain the technology that is used. 

Click here to see example questions on smart & modern materials


Click here to see more #ThinkDo activities on smart & modern materials

Also take a look at these Pinterest boards on smart and modern materials and use them to help you revise

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