The Weave of Possibility

By Thom Parry

The Jeff Bruner Materials Characterization Lab is letting students in on a secret.

Fabric has endless potential.

This singular and expansive truth blew Jeff Bruner’s mind back in 1969. Bruner had just begun his studies at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, and his professors were explaining that textile engineers could, for example, weave a fabric that was supple enough to patch wounded veins.

In fact, cardiac surgeons had been using these patches—knitted vascular grafts—for over a decade.

“It was eye-opening,” says Bruner. “I was hooked.”

The secret to unlocking the possibilities of a fabric, Bruner discovered, was in the science. By understanding the character, the chemical properties, and the microscopic make-up of particular fibers, a textile engineer could create virtually anything.

“I knew so little coming in, but the professors, the research, the experience, it showed me an entire world.”

For almost 50 years, this revelation has driven Bruner. He remains fascinated.

“I never get bored. I’m amazed every day,” he says. “The challenges and opportunities are endless.”

Take the ocean. A few years ago, Bruner began working on a project commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy to create a power source that mimicked the look of kelp beds, those forests swaying in the sea. Specifically, Bruner helped create the fake-kelp leaves from a polymer fabric that would absorb uranium.

There are, apparently, invisible masses of uranium floating about the world’s oceans, 3.3 parts per billion, which is potentially enough to meet world’s electricity needs for a few hundred years, according to researchers from the Department of Energy and Stanford University. 

Uranium-absorbing kelp forests that solve humanity’s energy crisis remain an aspiration. Much of Bruner’s other innovations are closer, more tangible. Most likely, you’ve recently sat on one of them.

In the 1980s, while working out of his living room, Bruner developed a way of layering elastic fabrics within car seats for General Motors that allowed the car maker to stop using coiled springs. Gone are the squeaks, the lumps, the pokes down below.

About 10 years later, Bruner partnered with Herman Miller—manufacturing titan of office furniture—and changed the way we sit at work. To complete Herman Miller’s new “Aeron” chair, Bruner created Pellicle®, a durable yet pliant woven fabric that stretched across the plastic frame. Before the Aeron and Pellicle, comfort had meant upholstery, wood, and foam. The design was so radical that New York's Museum of Modern Art put the chair on display. While you may not have an Aeron at your desk, virtually all office chairs now suspend us with a body-conforming, breathable fabric.

Bruner’s journey along the edge of what’s possible with textiles began, he says, at his alma mater, a place he calls “that incredible campus at the corner of Henry Avenue and Schoolhouse Lane.”

He’s taught its students as a professor and has given generously to support its growth. More recently, to usher students into the hidden realm of textiles’ potential, he made a gift to name the Jeff Bruner Materials Characterization Lab.

The university has had a textiles testing lab since 1976. For decades it was known as the Grundy Lab after the Bucks County-based Grundy Foundation, a charitable organization that made crucial donations in the lab’s early years. In 2004, the lab moved off campus and became part of the Philadelphia University Research Center (PURC). While it remained a source of innovation and industry, the lab was tough for campus-bound undergrads to access. Eventually, the building that housed the PURC sold, and the lab equipment returned pell-mell to Henry Avenue and Schoolhouse Lane.

“When we came back, I literally had equipment in five different rooms in a building,” says Janet Brady, Associate Professor of Materials Technology. “A lot of it went into storage.”

The Hayward campus—a site of changing names but steadfast reputation in textile science—was without a central, fully operational fabric research facility.

That is until fall 2019, when Jefferson opened the Kay and Harold Ronson Applied Health and Applied Science Center and, with the help of a certain textile alum, the campus got a new lab.

Professor Brady’s office door opens to onto the Bruner Material Evaluations Lab. In addition to her teaching load, she runs the place. It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited.

“Are you kidding me? This is the most fun. I rip things apart all day long,” Brady says.

With a gleam in her eye, she explains the lab’s tensile testing machine.

“I can pull apart a fabric and it could take 10 pounds before it ruptures, or it could take 22,000 pounds,” Brady says. Tensile strength is key to understanding how a fabric behaves, where it might fail, and where it would succeed.

Brady raises another favorite of the lab: “We have a walking, sweating mannequin.”

The mannequin is six feet  tall, olive-colored, and smooth. He sports cables from his eye sockets. Within a large control chamber, he walks over a metal track and perspires, helping Brady and other East Falls researchers discover what fabrics might, for example, protect a soldier’s skin against toxic gas without overheating the body.

“It’s pretty unique,” she says with a smile.

Like Bruner, Brady was a young student when she discovered hidden potential of textiles. She had begun undergrad at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City with plans to become a fashion buyer. “But the course that sparked me was a textile science course,” she says. “It drove me into textiles, textiles technology, and I found my way here.”

Brady knocked out her bachelors at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science and became the first graduate student in the college’s new textiles engineering program. Soon after, she began teaching undergraduate textile students, passing along the spark that lit up the likes of her and Bruner.

On a Monday morning in late January, the Bruner Material Evaluations Lab is hosting its first class. The lab, composed of two large rooms separated by a glass partition, is not entirely set up. 

Along its worktables, counters, and shelves, some of the devices are still wearing bubble wrap. Among the exposed devices are metal boxes with cylinders, hoses, and dials, heavily footed illuminated microscopes, and Da Vinci-esque contraptions of spindles, wheels, and gears. The mixed vintage attests to our millennia-long fascination with fabric.

At the moment, the Bruner Lab’s inaugural class has gone Stone Age: The students, nine undergraduates, are lighting strips of fabric on fire and watching the fabric burn.

Professor Brady advises the students to keep a close eye. The way the fabrics reacts to the flame—whether it melts, sputters, or leaves ash—reveals a clue.

Brady has given the students swatches of mystery fabric, and it’s up to them to identify the fibers that make it up.

“Identifying fibers is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, but without the picture on the box,” Brady says.

If they know what fibers compose a fabric, they’ll begin to know what it can do.

“That thing lit up!” says one student in a blue sweatshirt and a single black earring. “Professor Brady,” the student says, smiling, “what’s the most flammable fiber?”

Brady, a teacher with nearly four decades; experience, answers with a question: “Was there an afterglow?”

The student pauses, nods, and then twists another strip of the fabric into his blackened tweezers. He brings it near the flame again.

Identifying fibers is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, but without the picture on the box.

Janet Brady Associate Professor of Materials Technology

Farther down the work table, a trio of students get a waft of vinegar from the burning fiber. The swatch is glossy and gray. Likely acetate, the students say. Brady runs the swatch between her fingers.

Another group is working on a rayon hypothesis. They’ve teased out strands, and beneath a microscope, those strands are remarkably uniform. As a final step to test their hypothesis, Brady releases a touch of sulfuric acid from an eye dropper onto the microscope slide.

Each fiber, Brady has explained, has particular solvents under which it liquefies.

The microscope is connected to a monitor that shows the magnified weave to the entire class. The students fall silent, captivated by the change taking place on the screen: The fibers fade into ghostly impressions.

The vanishing is basic chemistry made visible by simple technology, yet it feels like a secret. The silence holds for several moments longer. 

The student in the blue sweatshirt captures the mood: “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says.

Among the students, there’s likely another Brady, another Bruner, another devotee to the hidden potential in the fabric all around us.