The company, which is an established manufacturer of textiles in PPE and fire protection, is among a list of 51 companies who have received the innovation award.

Heathcoat Fabric’s Managing Director Cameron Harvie, said: “Innovation underpins the technical textiles that Heathcoat develops, with new opportunities frequently emerging in niche markets such as PPE where needs are not fully met by existing methods and products.

“For many years we have looked at how to make textiles stronger, and capable of withstanding fire and heat, leading to our range of market leading fabrics in firefighter outer shells and underclothing. When we met NASA at a symposium in 2015, they saw the potential of a new lightweight, heat resistant fabric we had developed suitable for parachutes on missions such as the Mars landing, and we began trials a year later.

“NASA’s standards have been challenging to say the least, and we have been able to draw on our experience in PPE as well as other applications to deliver a fabric that needed to be twice the strength of standard fabric, within a tight air-permeability window and able to withstand extended heat and cold treatment.

“In a similar way that we test the fire-retardant properties of our firefighting suits, the fabric underwent a series of wind tunnel, land-based mortar and sounding rocket tests after which the fabric was selected and used for the successful Mars mission. The fabric even needed to be baked before any rocket was launched, to avoid sending bacteria or micro-organisms to another planet.

“By the nature of the yarn, it is difficult to weave and finish, and it needs to be perfect. There is no second chance opportunity on landing a multi-million dollar space probe. The fabric that resulted demonstrates our innovation on the global stage, which has been key to us being given the Queen’s Award for Enterprise. The lessons we have learned will be valuable as we look at the yarns and chemistries that make up the next generation fire protection and PPE.”

Peter Hill, Director of Woven Fabrics at Heathcoat, and Richard Crane, Technical Director, have steered a team that centred around three female development engineers: Eleanor Newsome, Lotte De Leeuw and Nicola Willey.

The Queen’s Award for Enterprise is now in its 56th year and is widely recognised as the most prestigious business award in the UK. The 2022 awards recognise excellence in categories including innovation, international trade and sustainable development.

About Heathcoat Fabrics

Heathcoat Fabrics is a market-leading manufacturer of apparel and technical textiles – engineered, knitted and woven fabrics – based in Tiverton, Devon. Heathcoat employs more than 460 staff.

With more than 200 years’ experience, the company’s focus on research and development has been a pivotal component in the manufacture of new technical fabrics across multiple industries.

The DecelAir parachute fabric, around which the innovation award was centred, needed to be twice the strength of standard fabric, within a tight air-permeability window and able to withstand extended heat treatment.

Sector applications: Heathcoat made its name in fabrics for apparel including fine English tulle, and is still a leading manufacturer in this area. Heathcoat textiles are used widely around the world in under the bonnet automotive applications such as hoses and timing belts, protective apparel for military and services applications including ballistic protection and firefighter suits, geotextiles, healthcare applications including developing antibacterial Ag+ treatment, textiles for digital printing, and heat and moisture dispersing textiles such as spacer technologies that are used in baby and nursery products.

Sustainability: Heathcoat is also working on exciting avenues in recycled and sustainable textiles, including textiles forming the outer skin of commercial vehicles, knitted fabrics made from recycled marine plastics, combining post-consumer waste and coffee grounds in deodorising yarn, and formaldehyde-free dress net made from pre-consumer nylon and polyester. Heathcoat is also developing solutions for hydrogen regeneration by producing textiles to be used in Alkaline Water Electrolysis systems, actively supplying into the hydrogen economy (decarbonising economic sectors that are hard to electrify) across the globe – including in space exploration.

Heathcoat’s growth means they are recruiting, including for new textile development engineers and other graduates. Successful candidates undergo a two-year in-house training programme. Eleanor, Lotte and Nicola are products of this programme.

Eleanor Newsome was instrumental in creating the original concept fabrics for NASA and developing the final product used for Mars2020. She is now leading a development team for automotive and industrial belting fabrics with a focus on achieving energy-saving in drive systems.

Nicola Willey’s focus has been on an incredibly challenging project with the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory teams to integrate optical fibre technology for future space mission parachute fabric research.

Lotte De Leeuw is a development engineer in woven fabrics, and is continuing the work in parachute development – working with all of Heathcoat’s space customer development teams for current and planned missions.

She said: “I have a masters in textiles, and rather than moving into fashion like many do I was interested to see textiles in areas you wouldn’t expect. At Heathcoat Fabrics we ask ‘what can we do’ with fabric, and our work is heavily calculations based, analysing how fabrics could work in new applications. We’re experimenting with different yarns and weaving patterns, and often this means challenging customers on what they expect from textiles. Can we get them to move their viewpoint from what they know to what could be possible to achieve their objectives.

“As textile engineers we’re unique because we work across technical fabrics in so many areas. We know for example that some of our textiles under the bonnet in automotive applications operate for hours and hours at extremely high temperatures, so we can learn from this to ensure we achieve no loss of strength at high temperatures in other applications such as space.

“I’m now working new developments in parachute fabric for space that are in testing, making chute fabric that is up to twice as strong as the Mars chute fabric without significantly increasing weight and still achieving the required porosity. Our work is in commercial as well as space and military uses. Every day is new.”

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