Can this shirt get you through the workday sweat-free in Africa's heat? Meet hydrophobic fabrics

These are textiles that, through sorcery, or, more likely, science, repel liquids along with their smells and stains.

GIVE the scene a black-and-white filter, and I might as well be in a late-night infomercial.

“Has this ever happened to you?” Simardev Gulati, co- founder of fabric manufacturer Dropel, jokingly asks as he uses a turkey baster to spill merlot onto the sleeve of a button-up chambray shirt.

The red wine coalesces into beads. Gulati then rotates the fabric and most of the wine rolls right off. With a light splash of water, the few remaining drops disappear, and a few seconds later the sleeve is completely dry.

Such is the promise of so-called hydrophobic fabrics. These are textiles that, through sorcery, or, more likely, science, repel liquids along with their smells and stains.

If you’ve ever found yourself sprinting across town or standing on a sweltering taxi or bus platform, you know this is a big deal.

Our sweat glands don’t just produce liquid—they produce a liquid that, when it appears prominently on our shirts, can make just about anybody seem undignified and a little bit nervous.

“We’ve seen all sorts of use cases,” Gulati says of the fabric’s ability to block moisture. “There are the common red wine and coffee stains, but also business travelers who want a shirt that lets them pack lighter because they don’t need to wash as often, as well as people who want to conserve water from less washing.”

Dropel isn’t the only hydrophobic fabric out there, but it has a promising feature that others don’t: It feels almost exactly like plain-Jane cotton. I wore a shirt made of Dropel fabric for several days and found it to be as comfortable as anything else in my closet.

It’s somewhat surprising to see it shrug off liquid and then feel how normal and non-chemical it seems. In a lineup of fabrics, I’m not sure I could identify the Dropel swatch.

To achieve its magic, the fabric is infused with a protective layer of nanoparticles that give ordinary fabrics such as cotton these liquid-repelling superpowers, says Gulati. 

Smell-free utopia

Dropel’s founders tell me this process allows their gear to fend off just about any liquid, as long as no physical pressure is applied. So if you were dead-set on smearing that wine or coffee into the shirt, you probably could successfully stain it.

The company is introducing the fabric to the public through a line of menswear called Kelby & Co. Folks looking to ward off sweat stains—or just looking for a fun party trick when they “accidentally” spill wine on themselves—can preorder shirts that the company says should ship by September.

In the future, freedom from sweat may come at a higher price. Gulati says Dropel fabric costs 5% to 15% more to manufacture than untreated cotton, and products made with it will likely fetch a 25% to 40% price premium at retail. 

The company is pursuing partnerships with the eventual ambition of supplying fabric to the entire apparel industry, and perhaps beyond.

It’s not hard to imagine hydrophobic fabrics making their way into everything from bed linens to upholstered furniture to baby- and dog-proof car interiors—and the moisture- and smell-free utopia that would result.

-Bloomberg

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