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Mass. Could Play Lead Role in Reviving Textile Industry

Textiles photo by Globe Staff photographer Wendy Maeda

Boston Globe
By Steve Maas

Massachusetts, which two centuries ago gave birth to America’s textile industry, could play a leading role in its revival.

The University of Massachusetts Lowell and MIT are each members of competing teams of universities, nonprofits, and businesses seeking federal money to establish a center for developing innovative technology for the nation’s textile industry. The winning consortium will receive a five-year grant totaling $75 million, which its members must match.

UMass Lowell is partnering with Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, the University of Maryland, the University of Oregon, and companies based in and out of the state. MIT has declined to disclose its partners.

The Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute, as the project is known, will fund labs across the country where textile companies can test-drive new techniques and machinery. The labs also will work with manufacturers on the factory floor.

The institute is one in a series of US initiatives to promote domestic manufacturing.

“We’re not trying to bring heavy-duty hand labor back to [the] US,” said Julie Chen, vice provost for research at UMass Lowell. “We’re thinking about how to use skilled workers, combined with technology to make wearable electronics, medical textiles, and adaptable apparel. It’s not the 10-cent T-shirt.”

Examples include shirts that can measure heart rates, firefighting outfits that can withstand the hottest flames, and antimicrobial compression bandages for battlefield first aid.

MIT provost Martin A. Schmidt said new technologies and innovations could fuel a rebirth of a US textile industry.

If either of the universities’ teams gets the grant, the state will be a winner, Schmidt said. “We’re not trying to create one large physical presence,” he said. Rather, the goal is to promote cooperation among businesses and researchers as they explore ways to innovate.

The grant, which is to be awarded by the Department of Defense by year’s end, is intended to promote military and civilian applications. UMass Lowell and MIT each have relationships with the US Army Natick Soldiers Systems Center, which develops and tests new clothing, food preparations, equipment, and shelter for the military.

The government has not disclosed finalists for the grant or when the winner will be announced.