When describing the human body, words such as flexible, malleable, and soft come to mind, and the same can be said about textiles. In the same way that our tissues are formed by certain cellular compositions, textiles are made with specific materials and patterns that are fit for a variety of uses. Therefore, it feels intuitive to apply textiles to the production of human prosthetics. One of the many ways in which textiles, technology, and the body interact is in the prosthetics industry, where the use of textiles can help achieve design results that improve a patient’s emotional and physical wellbeing. By combining cutting-edge technology with textiles, scientists, engineers, doctors, and designers work together to create prosthetics that can function as and sometimes look like a human limb.
A crucial aspect of a prosthetic’s design is the contact that it will have with the person’s body, starting with the skin. Most prosthetics are made of hard materials such as plastics or carbon fiber, so having a soft layer in between that and the skin is necessary. Many people use prosthetic socks so they can have a more comfortable fit to the prosthetic, and Knit-Rite not only provides several designs, but they also developed a fabric that will relieve skin irritations. X-STATIC is an ultra-thin fabric made with silver fibers, which “transports heat and moisture away from the limb” (1), helping reduce odors and skin irritations. They also provide postoperative socks made with the same silver fibers with antimicrobial technology, which is important to keep limbs from getting infected, something that is common after these surgeries.
Avoiding infections when dealing with prosthetics is extremely important, not only for external but also for internal ones such as knee or hip replacements. There is a high rate of infections when dealing with orthopedic surgeries, which can result in bone and tissue damage leading to other aggressive surgeries. How could these infections be prevented and treated more effectively? Doctors at Johns Hopkins University developed antibiotic-releasing nanofibers that can be used to coat the metal prosthesis used inside patients’ bodies. Once again, textiles' techniques meet technology to achieve unique results. By using an “electrospinning nanotechnique” that is a needle, syringe pump, and aluminum-collecting screen, they were able to “prepare vancomycin-coated titanium implants” (2), that are implanted into the body and release the antibiotics gradually. This helps prevent and/or treat any infections caused by the implant surgery, drastically improving the patient’s rehabilitation.
Aside from taking care of the skin and infections, patients also need a prosthetic that will fit perfectly and fulfill their purpose – to help them live the most comfortable life and reach their desired goals. For this reason, researcher Jordan Tabor from the North Carolina State University uses flexible sensors that can be worn between the limb and the prosthetic. With a focus on lower limb prosthetics, Tabor created a sensor that can fit without causing further discomfort, like rigid sensors do, and still monitor the points of pressure and discomfort. She used conductive yarns to sew perpendicularly, and shaped unique fibers that “were transformed into pressure-sensing arrays through the weaving process”. This way, the sensors cover a larger surface area and are thin and malleable, giving the patient feedback in a less painful way.
Finding the most comfortable prosthetic fit is imperative, and the formerly mentioned textile applications assist in achieving this. However, tactile sensations are also important and are much harder to replicate on a prosthetic. By experimenting with smart textiles, ProCover developed socks prototypes with biometric sensors that could help amputees feel the ground they were stepping on. They use a piezoresistive fabric that “can detect touch, pressure variability, and the bending of a prosthetic limb” (3), assisting in certain movements. The piezoresistive fabric is sandwiched between two other conductive fabrics that send signals to an armband that vibrates according to the person’s steps and movements. The sock is also connected to a mobile app where the touch, pressure, and bending can be measured more accurately. This textile innovation provides an easy and financially accessible way to improve an amputee’s quality of life.
Lastly, textiles are also used to make the prosthetics' outer layers, and some of the best materials used for prosthetics have a braided structure. The braided carbon fiber is commonly used for its lightweight and durability, and some companies are developing their own braided structures. Coyote, for example, has created the Coyote Composite, made from basalt (volcanic rocks) since it is lighter, more resistant, non-toxic, less expensive, and it itches less than carbon fibers. Furthermore, the fibers’ braided structure is more flexible and can be molded onto a limb more successfully.
Science and textiles continue to overlap, resulting in innovative solutions to several quotidian and less common dilemmas. In the world of prosthetics, textiles have already played a role in improving the lives of those who live with amputations or are born without a limb, and there is still a lot to be explored and to improve. From the malleability and versatility of textiles, prosthetics can become progressively more accessible, comfortable, and sensorial. It is very interesting to see how textile technologies and more specifically weaving techniques are ancient knowledge, yet modern technology still borrows concepts from them to innovate.
Footnotes and Links
Giovanna Pedrinola is an artist born in São Paulo, Brazil and currently living in New York City. Her most recent mixed media works explore connections between the physical body and the subconscious mind in an attempt to comprehend our existence. This combined with her fascination with ancient traditions, architecture, dance, music, textiles, rituals, and cosmology, generates continuous research currently archived as text and images.