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From a Silk Handkerchief to a Vascular Graft

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

Weaving, Knitting and Braiding to Create Medical Implants

5000 to 3000 BC. That’s when textile started being used for wound closures. At the time, the materials varied : it could have been linen strips, cotton, or even mandibles of soldier ants. The Indian surgeon Sushruta (around 1000 B.C.) mentions hemp, hair and flax, while the Greek Aelius Galen (150 A.D) speaks of silk and catgut. (1)

Suture may be the most obvious medical practice involving textile, but it is far from being the only one. In fact, from bandages to hospital gowns or cervical collars, textile seems to have a key role in most aspects of medicine. (2) This is particularly true with implants - human made devices or tissues that are integrated into a body in order to replace or enable the regeneration of a natural organ or function. Among them are sutures, vascular prosthesis, artificial ligaments, bones etc.

Artificial tendons made of polyester fiber

While some implants are made of metal or plastics, textiles materials are increasingly used. Their assets come from their versatility and from the ease with which they can be turned into 2D or 3D structures. They “are soft, flexible and spring, and thus resemble the physical and mechanical properties of many biological structures within the human body.” states Yimin Qin in Medical Textile Materials. (3)

What’s striking is that these implants are engineered through very traditional textile techniques. It is the case of the cardiovascular implants, that are artificial conduits aiming at replacing a diseased artery. (4) They can be woven, knitted, braided or electrospinned (electrospinning is a process in which polymer threads are spun in a strong magnetic or electric field).

Design patterns of a knitted Dacron® graft.

The first type of vascular implants were developed in the late 40’s and early 50’s by surgery student Arthur Voorhees, on his wife’s sewing machine. From his first attempt made of a silk handkerchief, he moved to woven Vinyon-N. (5)

Woven grafts interlace two sets of yarn oriented at 90° to each other. Just like in the rest of the textile or clothing industry, several kinds of weave designs are now in use : plain, twill, and satin.

Design patterns of a woven Dacron® graft.

Over the past years, and as medical procedures evolved, the medical textile industry largely expanded. The need for implants and material innovations is constant, and research is blossoming.

While most of the American STEM fields are dominated by men, biology and medicine are the ones in which the gender gap is the smallest. This, added to the fact that textile was traditionally a women practice, we can hope for the medical textile boom to enable even more women to thrive in this field.

STEM Doctoral Degrees Earned by Women in the US

Footnotes and links :

1. “An Insight to Medical Textile”, Dr. Deepti Sharma and Dr. Harvinder Popli (article)

Brief history of medical textile

To go further :

Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.

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