By Tony Angelino
Are the days of sewing lingerie with needle and thread numbered?
Times are changing, and the apparel industry in the United States, where sewing operators used to number more than 700,000, has become a small fraction of its former size. The up-and-coming centers of clothing production are now located in Asia, Central America, and, increasingly, Africa. Traditional sewing production techniques using needles and thread have been continuously enhanced for some time through the addition of faster sewing machines and more automated processes. So what will the future bring? Faster and more automated sewing production?
No. Adhesives will be used more and more in place of thread in apparel manufacturing. This transition is now in its early stages, but advances are being made daily. Why adhesives? There are four reasons. Bonding with adhesives creates a stronger connection than sewing with thread. Adhesives also create seams that are smoother than those created by thread. And we all know how important the elimination of panty lines is to most intimates consumers. Since they’re normally clear, adhesives also eliminate the traditional problem of matching the color of thread to that of fabric. Tints can be added for color-matching purposes if particular applications call for them. And, as the use of adhesives continues to grow, their prices relative to those of thread continue to fall. Inevitably, they’ll be less expensive than thread.
Adhesives can be applied in many ways. They may be layered as film, or sprinkled as powder, and then pressed onto fabrics with heat. They can also be pre-heated as liquid and sprayed onto materials. There are also “epoxy-like” adhesives that are made by mixing chemicals together. These don’t require the addition of heat when applied to fabrics.
Adhesives have many uses in clothing production beyond simply bonding together two pieces of material. For example, they may be used to finish garment edges. They may also be used to restrict the stretch of fabrics. Conversely, they can be used for seams that must be able to stretch. Adhesives may even be applied so that finished seams and fabrics mold to the contours of the human body. These properties are all particularly useful when it comes to the creation of intimate apparel. Finally, some adhesives help repel water, while others can actually aid in wicking it away from the skin. The list of uses goes on and on, and the associated research has only just begun.
Think of all of the advantages of eliminating needles and thread. If needles don’t have to be used, holes don’t have to be made in material. Not only can water resistance be maintained, but air penetration can be prevented, keeping heat inside and cold outside. These outcomes have tremendous advantages in the production of all-weather gear. Of course, when fewer alterations have to be made, the strength of the materials used is better maintained. Such results have already been leveraged in the manufacturing of tents, sleeping bags, wet suits, and sails. They’re now being used in the making of everyday ready-to-wear, daywear, and shapewear.
Consumers commonly question how adhesive bonds can be as strong and long-lasting as seams created with needles and thread. Not only has their superior strength already been proven, they’re even stronger than the materials onto which they’re applied. They’re so strong that they’re now used in the construction of the bridges and roads over which we drive every day. Thread is simply not as strong as adhesives because its strength depends on its diameter and the fibers used to make it, and in order to easily penetrate fabric, it must be made sufficiently thin and non-abrasive. Thread also loses its strength as it ages since its fibers deteriorate with time. Adhesives, however, can be made to last a very long time. The integrity of thread is also affected by soap, bleach, fabric softener, and even water. Adhesives, on the other hand, can be made to withstand almost any day-to-day washing or wearing demand, including the application of dryer heat.
The superior smoothness of adhesives is incredibly advantageous in intimate apparel production. When two fabrics are put together, the finished seam must be as smooth and non-abrasive as possible. After all, it will be lying and rubbing against the skin. But thread’s thickness and the fact that to work it must pass completely through both pieces of material mean that stitched seams feel abrasive as garments rub against the body throughout the course of a day. The fact that thread must be twisted for the formation of loops during sewing only makes this situation worse. Seams created using adhesives are much smoother and less-abrasive. Unlike thread, the adhesives have virtually no thickness and don’t penetrate completely through the fabric. Only the garment’s material touches the wearer’s skin.
Finally, consumers sometimes question the safety of adhesives. After all, they’re “made of chemicals.” But medical-grade adhesives are already being used directly on the human body to hold tissue together. They’re applied without causing rejection, rashes, and other harm to patients. If adhesives can safely be used in direct applications to the body, they can certainly be safely used in clothing production.
We now live in a world in which stitch-free garments are available. The needle and thread have not yet disappeared, and may be around for a long time to come. But be on the lookout for those new technical marvels, adhesives, in your undies. It looks like you’re gonna be stuck with ‘em.