Reflective textile thread

Fibers incorporated directly into fabrics and other materials simplify the manufacturing process around reflective sewn products


Army scientists have invented a new reflective thread that may replace materials currently used in high-visibility clothing and safety equipment. The patented technology is available via license agreement to companies that would make, use, or sell it commercially.

New Army technology shows promise in replacing the reflective tape and sewn-on reflective material for civilian and military uses (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joel Pfiester/Released)

Retro-reflectivity causes incident light from a localized source, such as a headlight or flashlight, to be returned to the source even if the reflecting surface is not facing the source. These engineered surfaces increase visibility in low visibility conditions and are key enabling technologies in safety applications.

Typically, such surfaces are constructed from an array of miniaturized refractive elements bonded onto a reflective surface. Common retro-reflectors include metal-coated high-refractive-index glass spheres and cube-corner prisms with metalized back coatings. The retro-reflective surfaces themselves are sewn or otherwise bonded onto an article or piece of clothing. Unfortunately, that method has drawbacks. The two-step process requires more time and materials, and often the bonding itself fails after time, causing the piece of clothing or gear to lose the critical reflective component. Further, metallic coatings, in particular, suffer from premature wear. When used for friend v. foe identification on the battlefield, such deficiencies can be fatal.

To avoid such situations, Michael Ghebrebrhan and Landa Hoke, scientists at the Fiber and Material Division of the U.S. Army’s CCDC Soldier Center in Natick, Massachusetts, have produced a fiber thread with inherent retro-reflective properties. Unique to this solution is that fibers can be colored thus providing more options beyond the common yellow and silver. The retro-reflective fibers can also be woven into fabrics and thus garments enabling patterning of reflectivity, maintaining the physical properties of the primary materials, and eliminating the potential for reflective components to be easily torn or pulled off.

The new retro-reflective thread will potentially remove a process step from the manufacturing of reflective materials and ensure increased longevity in everything from high-visibility safety vests to athletic footwear.

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