Over the past few weeks, we’ve celebrated cutting-edge innovation as part of our Material Monday column, shining a light on textiles and finishes that – by scientific advancement or the repurposing of existing matter – have the potential to become the materials of the future. It’s early stages, as we have seen: yet given the right conditions, who is to say that antimicrobial fabrics, working in harmony with the natural ecosystem of the human skin, couldn’t become commonplace in years to come? Who’s to say that the discarded waste of the Mediterranean’s citrus fruit industry couldn’t offer a sustainable vision for its future?
This forward-looking desire to explore the new, and re-examine the old, goes hand-in-hand with an appreciation of those materials that, through their versatility, provide a cornerstone for the modern world we live in. These are materials that were themselves fledgling creations at some point in history, and which have grown to become ubiquitous in a range of settings, both obvious and unseen.
Tyvek is precisely one of these materials. Mentioning it is likely to elicit a variety of responses as to its primary use; those in the construction industry might know it best as ‘housewrap’, a porous, protective layer used in house building; others, in logistics or distribution, might recognise it as the strong, tear-resistant material used to make envelopes; those accustomed to working around chemicals, meanwhile, are likely indebted to Tyvek for its role as the main material in protective, single-use disposable suits.
Like Perspex and Sellotape, Tyvek is in fact a registered brand name that has entered common usage as a catchall term for similar products. A synthetic material developed by American manufacturer Dupont, it is formed of a network of high-density polyethylene fibres, bonded (but not woven) by a patented process known as flash spinning, which involves a combination of heat and pressure. The resulting network of super-thin fibres (each of which is up to ten times finer than a human hair) provides an opaque, lightweight, tear-resistant and chemically stable product that has become sought-after in a huge range of industries.
Given its paper-like appearance and texture, it’s no surprise that Tyvek – above all in its flat sheet form – is routinely confused with its natural, wood-based counterpart. Compatible with a variety of different printing processes, it has been used as a durable, synthetic alternative to paper by everyone from design agencies and construction companies to national governments; Costa Rica, the Isle of Man and Haiti have all, at one time or another, had banknotes made from Tyvek. And while it cannot currently be recycled with paper, some Tyvek variants are nonetheless recyclable alongside plastic bottles and other HDPE products that fall under code #2.
With Tyvek now finding its way into everything from wallets to shoes, wristbands to industrial packaging, there’s an argument to suggest that it’s no longer the unsung hero it once was. But as a material that can at once protect our homes, our skin and our possessions, a hero it certainly is.