Customizing textiles to design formfitting face masks | MDO – Medical Design & Outsourcing

MIT form-fitting masksMIT form-fitting masks

Image courtesy of MIT and Lavendar Tessmer

Researchers at MIT have developed an active fiber and process that uses heat to activate face masks and conform to an individual’s face.

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of face masks that effectively seal around the nose and mouth. However, faces and their features vary and make standard one-size-fits-all face masks less effective.

Lavender Tessmer, who is a doctoral candidate in MIT’s Department of Architecture, created an active fiber and process that uses heat with specific knit textile architecture to activate a mask to conform to specific faces. It uses standard textile equipment and a new customization process that allows any manufacturer to create a customized mask.

Prior to the pandemic, Tessmer was working with associate professor Skylar Tibbits in the department of architecture on programmable materials that can be activated to sense, respond and transform with the intent to create high-tech apparel. Focus shifted for the researchers in the spring of 2020.

“Lavender was already trying to make textile apparel with a customized fit, so we could quickly transition to making customized masks,” Tibbits said in a news release. “But the main challenge with any customization is that you cannot make each mask unique. It becomes a factory logistics problem. You have to be able to mass-produce these. Customers don’t want to wait weeks or months for their unique mask.”

The mass-produced mask is tailored for an individual face using a two- or three-dimensional knitting structure created by Tessmer. She also created one of the two active fibers needed to respond to heat so that the fabric moves in a predictable way.

Active fibers in the knit structure can help provide a tight fit around facial features. [Image courtesy of MIT]

“There had to be a clear relationship between how much heat is applied, the method of applying it with the robot, and having a predictable result in the dimensional transformation of the fabric,” Tessmer said. “That was an iterative process between developing the multi-layered fabric, measuring its dimensional change, and then eventually being able to have the robot apply heat in a repeatable and predictable way.”

The starting shape of the mask is large enough to fit almost every face prior to wearing it. Tessmer input dimensions from an individual’s face, and the knit masks were activated with a robotic arm and a heat gun that applied heat in specific patterns to tailor them precisely to the unique facial measurements.

“The objective was to transform a mask to achieve the perfect fit for anyone’s face, which is a major challenge with masks and other pieces of clothing,” said Tibbits. “No one has really figured out how to do that, other than hiring a tailor or having lots of standard sizes that don’t fit perfectly.”

The group, in collaboration with the Ministry of Supply, designed, tested and developed a mask in five days and have produced 4,000 masks in two weeks for healthcare workers.

Like many masks that were sewn at home during the pandemic, Tessmer and Tibbits’s formfitting masks focus on how the mask fits and not the properties needed for the material to filter airborne particles, but filters can be included to enhance efficiency, the researchers said. The form-fitting masks are reusable and washable.

“Our goal was better fibers and a controllable, repeatable process to create a custom-fit mask,” Tessmer said.

“At the end of every project, there are always things you find that need to be improved upon. There’s a lot of future fabric development, for example. But I’m happy with the project because it is a working proof-of-concept for my idea, and I’m confident that it works.”

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