Five years ago, Nike set out to rethink apparel manufacturing: what would it look like if it was designed entirely for sustainability? “We tried to start from scratch, from nothing,” says Carmen Zolman, vice president of innovation apparel design at Nike. “And then make every decision as if we were making clothes from the start with sustainability in mind, instead of taking existing things and trying to make them more sustainable.”
This didn’t just mean thinking about factors like material and dye, but also how the fabric itself is made. Knitting or weaving a material normally involves a series of several steps including processing the raw material into fiber, spinning it into yarn, knitting or weaving, and finishing. But the company has now developed a new simplified process, which it calls Nike Forward, to turn the fiber into a textile with a reduced carbon footprint.
Nike’s innovation team looked to other industries for inspiration. “We were very intrigued by a manufacturing method that we found in heavily industrial spaces, like automotive and medical,” Zolman says. An N95 face mask, for example, is made with a process called needling. (Felt is often made the same way.) The team realized that a similar process could make fabric for clothing. “At a very basic level, there are fibers on the inside and fabric on the outside,” she says.
On a large machine, a bed of hook needles punctures the fibers from top to bottom, bringing them together. “Depending on the speed, density, etc., that we put on the machine, we can control the tightness, the fluff, the hand [feel] material that comes out,” she says. “But these are literally just needles poking into the fabric.” Over the past five years, the company has developed a proprietary design for the needles, adjusting shape, density, speed, and other factors to achieve desired results.
The process also facilitates the use of recycled materials, which may require further processing in traditional equipment. The first Nike Forward product to hit the market, a gray hoodie available September 8, is designed without zippers or other additional parts. So when it wears out, it can easily be shredded and the fiber can be reused in the needle punching machine. “We built it with that circularity in mind,” says Zolman.
By simplifying manufacturing, the process saves energy. It also makes it possible to produce a fleece fabric which remains warm but which is much less dense than a traditional knitted fleece, which reduces the carbon footprint. The new hoodie also uses 70% recycled fabric. In total, the material has a 75% lower carbon footprint than traditional fleece.
The designers started with a hoodie because it’s an iconic symbol of sportswear, Zolman explains. But the process can be modified to make materials thinner, smoother, or with other characteristics. (The new hoodie’s fabric doesn’t feel like traditional fleece; it’s thinner, more structured, and covered in a small stitch pattern from needling.) Nike plans to use the platform to manufacture a range of new products in the future.
The company has a history of other innovations to improve sustainability; when it first used digital knitting to make sneakers, for example, the process reduced waste by 60% compared to traditional sneaker manufacturing. But his clients want him to continue to go further. “Now that the athlete is telling us that climate change is impacting their access to sport, we have no choice but to take action and represent our commitment to a better world,” Zolman says.