Where do you go to find the world’s strongest fabric? The military, of course. That’s where Neil Bell found Dyneema — a revolutionary fabric that, when embedded into the cloth of denim, increases the strength and durability of jeans twofold.
As the Global Fabric Innovation Manager at LS&Co. and a denim innovator for more than 20 years, Neil has a finger on the pulse of new and emerging fabrics.
Unzipped spoke with Neil about how the Dyneema jean was born, the thrill of working with denim at LS&Co. and exciting innovations in fabric that are yet to come.
Neil Bell: Dyneema is a man-made fiber designed for strength and durability. It’s manufactured mainly for high-performance sports, industrial uses, and even for armor, so it’s basically engineered to be an incredibly strong military-grade fiber.
Most of the other high-performance fabrics we’ve used in the past perform really well in their particular area. But with Dyneema, we used only 4 percent and were able to get a very big impact and retain a cotton touch, which was critical. It’s this cotton touch that we like — it feels like a pair of 501® jeans.
We also don’t need to use more cotton and materials to make more. We see the innovation of Dyneema jeans in the fact that they last two-and-a-half times longer than a normal pair of jeans. By doing this, people don’t need to buy a second pair of jeans.
How did you get involved with Dyneema and incorporating the world’s strongest fabric into LS&Co. jeans? That sounds like a pretty tall order.
I work in global fabric and fiber innovation for LS&Co. The design team came to my team and challenged us to make the strongest fabric we’ve ever made. We did a partnership with Dyneema because they claim to make the world’s strongest fiber. We tested a lot of different fibers, but our strength testing proved that this is an amazingly strong fabric.
It was a challenging project for us; we had to figure out how to spin this fiber in a completely different way. Normally what happens with these fibers is they are synthetic and shiny and it’s very difficult to spin in a consistent way, so we had to take great care when we spun the yarn to make sure we really embedded this Dyneema into the center of the fiber. That’s really where the innovation was. We worked with one of our partner spinners in Pakistan and we did an exclusive partnership to manufacture the fabric just right.
More broadly, what does your role at LS&Co. entail, and how do you seek out new discoveries and innovative breakthroughs in the fabric and fiber sector?
I’m responsible for seeking new technologies that can help LS&Co. That can mean researching military wear, sportswear or high-performance outerwear. That can involve going to a lot of textile shows, or meeting with spinners who aren’t normally involved in the textile or apparel business but who have maybe been involved in other businesses. What we do is we go and we talk to them about their process and their supply chain, and from there, we get a little spark and we say, “My god, those guys are doing something incredible — let’s try to do this for denim.”
What innovations in the fabric and fiber world are you most excited about? Is there anything on the horizon that piques your interest?
I’m very excited about the role and increased use of biomass fibers, which are created from natural waste streams. For us, this is really exciting because there aren’t a lot of synthetic fibers that can be made from things like sugar base, corn base and other sustainable materials.
We’ve also seen a lot of innovation within the indigo dyeing world and new forms of dye coming to the market. We’re very excited about that — and also about reducing the amount of water we use in indigo dyeing.
We’re also strongly pursuing recycle and reuse methods — finding a way to either recycle our own product or recycle waste. These are all things that we’re actively researching and that I’m personally excited by.
So how did you get into your line of work, and what do you love best about what you do?
I’ve been making jeans for over 20 years. I’ve just got a passion for making jeans. I’m a textile graduate and I’ve worked in denim since day one. I love the challenges of denim, the challenges of indigo, and I love the challenges of making jeans. Above all, I love discovering new ways to make them.
Jeans look great and they feel comfortable. You can use them with any kind of apparel. You can use them in a casual or professional environment. And really, you shouldn’t have to buy an extra pair or have designated pairs — one for casual and one for professional. I think jeans ought to cover both. And with Dyneema, I think we’ve achieved that.
Editor’s note: The first jeans made with Dyneema — the Levi’s® 501® Strong series — went fast. If you don’t find the jeans in your favorite Levi’s® Retail Store or on Levi.com, check back soon.