Watch: Knitted muscle could power the supersuits of the future

Knitting isn’t just for grandmas: Scientists are using the process to make artificial muscle that moves more like we do. In a study published today in Science Advances, researchers created a textile actuator, or textuator—a new kind of smart fabric that can control movement. They coated cellulose (an organic compound found in plant cell walls that makes up everything from plastic to cotton fibers) “yarn” with a special polymer called polypyrrole that shifts and stretches in response to electricity. The team found that woven smart yarn was able to withstand great force, whereas a knitted pattern was able to stretch. To put their new tech to the test, the scientists knitted the material into a sleeve and placed it on a small Lego lever “arm.” Thanks to the textuator, the arm moved easily and smoothly, and even lifted 2 grams of weight. The researchers conclude that this is just the beginning for such technology, and they suggest its abilities can be expanded by weaving other materials like metals, carbon fibers, and cotton thread into the fabric to make it more practical and efficient. They envision the fabric used as an exoskeleton bodysuit to ease motion kind of like a wearable prosthetic for people who struggle to walk and in simpler clothing items like tights, socks, and sleeves to relieve edema.