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The science of knitting may be the future of sophisticated materials

Knitting dates back thousands of years, but new research suggests that it may be more than just an old way of manufacturing materials. According to Elisabetta Matsumoto from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the underlying mathematical rules of knitting could inform the development of groundbreaking materials.

Matsumoto believes that understanding how stitch types regulate shape and stretchiness will be invaluable for designing new “tunable” materials. For example, a flexible material could be created to replace biological tissues, such as torn ligaments. The shape and stretchiness could be custom made for different individuals.

“By picking a stitch you are not only choosing the geometry but the elastic properties, and that means you can build in the right mechanical properties for anything from aerospace engineering to tissue scaffolding materials,” said Matsumoto.

After knitting as a child, Matsumoto developed a new appreciation for the hobby later in life when she became interested in mathematics and physics.

“I realized that there is just a huge amount of math and materials science that goes into textiles, but that is taken for granted an awful lot.”

“Every type of stitch has a different elasticity, and if we figure out everything possible then we could create things that are rigid in a certain place using a certain type of stitch, and use a different type of stitch in another place to get different functionality.”

Image Credit: Elisabetta Matsumoto

Applying the mathematics of knot theory to a huge catalog of knit patterns is a challenge for Matsumoto’s graduate student, Shashank Markande.

“Stitches have some very strange constraints; for instance, I need to be able to make it with two needles and one piece of yarn – how do you translate that into math?”

The team is building the knit algebra into larger, more complex patterns and feeding them into the elastic modeling of simple lattice-like knits. The researchers hope to soon discover how knits behave in 3D.

Matsumoto will present the research at the American Physical Society March Meeting this week in Boston.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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