Choosing The Right Material - Part 1

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Designing soft goods is like baking a cake. You start with a lot of different ingredients that need to be combined in the right order and blended together to make a perfect product. A crucial part of this process is choosing the right materials to use. There are hundreds of different types of material that can be blended, coated, dyed and treated in thousands of configurations. So much choice can be daunting. So how to start? Let’s begin with the fundamentals.


What’s the context?

As a discipline, we always begin with the customer. To make products that people truly love you need to deeply understand their likes and dislikes. Building and maintaining accurate customer profiles is a good habit to get into. If you are an existing brand that has an established customer base its the perfect time to research who that is. If you are a startup or early in your business you might need to develop customer profiles. Your customer profiles need to be detailed and they need constant attention because the market moves quickly.

Ok, so you have your customer profile, now you need to look at your to-market strategy. At this stage, you should have a decent idea of where your customer is looking to make a purchase who and the competition is. Your material choice needs to be compelling. For example, if your product is only available online then your product photos need to be great. Some materials really respond well to photography and others do not. Your selling environment dictates which characteristics of the fabric to prioritise.

A fundamental piece of the puzzle when choosing materials is the use-case. Materials need to be fit for purpose. Soft goods purchases are always functional, they are either being worn, carrying something or keeping the elements off you. A great example of purpose driving materials choice is hiking vs camping. Hikers want lightweight, campers want durability, compromises need to be made to ensure the materials are fit for purpose.   

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There are hundreds of different types of material that can be blended, coated, dyed and treated in thousands of configurations. So much choice can be daunting.


Narrowing the field

We now have a customer, a market and an idea of how the product is going to be used. let's have a look at where to start when choosing materials. Broadly materials can be grouped into two major families. Synthetics and naturals. These terms are very broad as there can be blends of both and defining what is synthetic or natural is even controversial, but it’s a good place to start. At Soft Serve we define synthetics as any materials that are oil or polymer-based such as Polyester, Nylon (Cordura), Polypropylene, and Polyethylenes (Dyneema). Natural materials are either plant or animal derived such as cotton, hemp, silk, wool, banana (Banantex), Pineapple (Pinatex) and leather. All these materials require a level of industrialisation to get them to a state that they can be used to make modern materials.

Making an early choice between natural or synthetic materials is a useful way to narrow down your material options. To make that decision it's worth considering your customer taste, the required durability and minimising your environmental footprint.

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Customer perceptions have a significant impact on materials choice. What does your customer see as valuable or important? Traditionally luxury brands have driven materials trends dating all the way back to Roman times with their use of Royal purple. In modern times luxury brands have focused on the use of exotic leathers, cotton and silk. These materials are expensive and exclusive because of their seasonality and difficulty to manufacture. Synthetic materials, on the other hand, are available year-round, easier to manufacture and are long-lasting. Also, synthetic materials have traditionally been used in industrial situations or as a cheaper alternative to natural materials, therefore, making them less desirable.  

Another consideration to make at this point is durability. What your product is being used for, how often and in what environments makes a big impact on whether natural or synthetic fibres are more suitable. If you want your products to have a long lifespan you need to consider how different fibers age. Natural materials vary to synthetics in that regard. A natural material will begin to break down over time. This is a positive part of the material as it can be biodegradable and better for the environment but it is also negative as more products need to be made to replace the products being worn out.

An aspect of materials choice that is now of critical importance is environmental credentials. This topic is incredibly complicated and nuanced due to the different use cases of the materials. Synthetics are super durable and last a long time. They are great for products with a long life. The major issues with them being that they are extracted from the earth in the form of oil and most are difficult to recycle. Natural materials, on the other hand, are a renewable source of materials (and can be a positive to the environment) and are also biodegradable depending on the industrial treatment. The negatives being the number of resources that are required to grow and harvest them, pollution from farming and lower durability.

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Choosing the right material for your soft goods project is exciting. It's the part of the process where you get your hands on the product for the first time. By fully understanding your context and deciding on your priorities you can enjoy the process without getting overwhelmed. Having narrowed down your choice of fibres there is still a world of variables to navigate. We'll be getting stuck into those in future posts so stay tuned.