Natural Fiber Wovens for Automotives

A photo of the Natural Fiber Wovens for Automotives team working on their projectSponsor: Lear Corp.

Team Members: Gillian Armstrong, Annali Evling, Sally Gross, Tony Oh

Project Description: Polyester (PET) has been used in 95% of automotive seat covers since the early 1990’s. Concerns have arisen over its continued use due to the fact that PET is not derived from renewable resources and takes 20-200 years to decompose. Natural fibers offer a green alternative to PET as they are renewable materials, and those derived from plants absorb carbon dioxide instead of releasing it into the environment. With these things in mind, Lear Corporation approached the team with the goal to create a more sustainable automotive car seat fabric with at least 30% natural fiber by content. The group is also tasked with exploring the use of recycled PET, which is growing in availability yet seldom used in automotive components. 

Conceptualization of the project started with benchmarking existing PET automotive upholstery fabrics to determine baseline performance properties for the new fabric. Natural fibers were ranked by most feasible for this particular application, as well as how well they aligned with the group definition of sustainability. Wool and hemp ranked the best in performance and sustainability categories, respectively. After securing the right yarns, we researched which fabric structures would best allow the incorporation of the natural yarns into a fabric. Inspiration was taken from traditional denim, a fabric which uses natural staple fiber yarns, yet is known for its strength and durability, and thus the first prototype was created using a denim twill weave. The team also created a prototype using a hopsack weave, as this is an industry standard. Once testing was performed on these prototypes, it was found that the twill weave performed best in the wool fabrics in terms of both tensile strength and abrasion resistance. We settled on a wool/PET twill fabric, which was proven to meet the most important requirements for a car seat fabric. There has also been significant progress and research into the feasibility of a hemp/PET fabric, as there were promising results that indicated the possible success of a hopsack fabric constructed from these yarns. We hope to change the way manufacturers and consumers evaluate the upholstery in cars and bring a more sustainable future to the industry.