The Textile Technologist’s Tale

This guest post is contributed by Professor Julian Ellis OBE of Ellis Developments Ltd

We all take textiles for granted, yet they pervade every aspect of our lives. Not only do we wear clothes, and decorate our homes with carpets and curtains, but we sleep on textiles, we have them on car seats, in carpets in the boot, and use textiles as sound insulation in cars. Then there are textile surgical products, such as sticking plasters, artificial ligaments and vascular repair systems, defence products, like bullet resistant clothing, ground stabilisation textiles and …… I could go on and on for hours.

So as well as becoming involved in the usual sort of commercial dispute of contract failure, and general failure to supply goods that are not of merchantable quality, a textile expert witness comes across problems in the criminal field.

Most commercial matters are fairly mundane, but occasionally there is something unusual. I clearly remember the lady who bought a badly designed navy and white striped swimsuit from a chain store, and then wore it sunbathing. The resulting striped lady claimed for the embarrassment caused to her over a lengthy period - since the stripes lingered for months as well as loss of her earnings as a part-time model. The store’s insurers took the view that a swimsuit was for swimming only and she should not have worn it while sunbathing. I developed a different argument.

In a very tragic case, a baby was badly burned when a Moses basket caught fire. The textile covering had not been selected from the available wide range of fire resistant fabrics. A series of tests I carried out in the county fire training facility demonstrated clearly that better fabrics with the same appearance were available. The purchased baskets burned with such ferocity that the cassette in the video camera distorted in the heat, and the fire would have engulfed any baby within a minute and a half. The case settled on the court steps.

The number of commercial disputes has dropped dramatically in recent years, since much of the industry has moved abroad, and disputes handled there. Most of recent work in that arena has involved more technical fabrics.

A more unusual case involved sitting with a judge in the Social Security Court, in the case of a man who claimed industrial injuries compensation for deafness caused by working with knitting machines. The law relates to looms and false twisting machines only, which tend to be amongst the noisiest machines around. The dispute lay in the definition of a loom, which was soon clarified, as has happened in a number of intellectual property cases, by reference to my library of dictionaries, particularly a range of specialist textile dictionaries of various ages.

A complaint from a hotel about damaged curtains looked to me as if they had been splashed and discoloured as a result. I suspected Champagne, but the supplier of the curtains insisted that people in 5 star hotels would not behave badly like that (she had obviously not come across wild rock groups!). I disagreed, but sent the fabric for specialist analysis of the stains: it transpired that my initial ideas were completely wrong, and that the fire retardant required on the fabric had been badly applied.

Fire retardants and other fabric coatings often provide a problem when applied after the fabric has been formed, rather than using inherently fire retardant materials. It can be difficult to assess if the coating was badly applied, if the coating was dried on to the fabric improperly, or if the company who dyed the fabric left on a chemical which prevented the finish from adhering to the fabric properly. Lawyers like scientists to give a definitive answer, but that is often impossible, although an answer as to which party was probably at fault can usually be given.

When beginning an investigation into an allegedly inflated insurance claim for losses following a serious fire, I remarked to the instructing solicitor that the Luddites smashed the frames of textile machines because otherwise the machines could be rebuilt by replacing damaged parts. While working my way through a huge number of computer printouts of production figures and other documents to calculate the company’s normal output, I came across a fax which indicated that the machines had not been completely destroyed in the fire, but that a full loss insurance claim would be made but that the machines could be rebuilt –the frames were undamaged. The looms were traced to the Eastern Europe and found to have been restored to full working condition. The company’s insurance claim was not, of course, paid.

Forensic cases are more varied, and case histories can make more interesting reading.

The textile aspects of rape tend to be the most interesting to investigate. Working out how clothing came to be damaged is easier to reconstruct, and thus can be used to help the court prefer one of the two stories told as against the other.

It is often possible to work out how a garment has been torn in an attack, by establishing the tear pattern, and where the tear started. This enables one to work out the tearing mechanism and whose story is true and answer questions such as “Were her trousers caught on a nail and ripped, or were they torn forcibly from her, while the female victim held on to them at the sides as her story suggested?”

In one sad case, 14 years after the accused had served most of his tariff for a life sentence for rape, the original complainant had complained of yet another rape. The police not only did not believe her story this time, but somebody remembered the earlier case. That case was reopened, and found wanting. At the trial the forensic scientist had said that the fibre evidence was weak, and he had been criticised in open court by the trial judge who accused him of being so wishy-washy in his evidence that a guilty man might have gone free. The accused had been selected from an identification parade, but there was little other evidence: just a few fibres from clothing of the accused taken from his wardrobe were found to be similar to fibres on the bra of the complainant. The complainant had said that the rapist had worn a workman’s overalls which she had described in some detail. Sadly, until the case was reopened, nobody had noticed that when wearing the garment described workmen have to slip the overalls from over their shoulders when using a urinal. A rapist could not do his work without doing the same. The unfortunate accused man, who had not been near the site of the alleged crime, had his conviction quashed, and received meagre compensation for the long years of his incarceration. In this case, the fibre evidence had been taken too much for granted, and wider consideration of the whole clothing involved has not been considered.

In a case of manslaughter, two thieves had broken into a factory yard to steal a lorry. The owner of the business chased them away over the fence, but not before an altercation with a knife held by one of the thieves. The thief was stabbed in the artery behind the knee, and lost a considerable amount of blood. He was dumped outside the accident unit at the local hospital, where he subsequently died. The police asked me to work out how quickly a blood trail would have been left as the two thieves left the site and climbed over the fence. It was possible to calculate how quickly the jeans and socks would become saturated with blood before a blood trail was likely to have started, and hence the initial rate of blood loss. This was achieved by soaking an identical pair of jeans and socks with water to the same extent as the blood stains, and allowing for a number of factors, such as blood viscosity, making calculations.

In a case of strangulation with a pair of tights, the defence asked how the tights might have shrunk during a subsequent attempt to destroy the body by fire. The construction of a neck shape using flesh simulant, and a pair of similar tights tied around it provided a framework to demonstrate how tights would react to fire, to dry heat in an oven, and to the application of a blowlamp.

In some cases, stabbings through several layers of clothes can indicate the angle of the attack, for example whether the fighters were in a clinch and the stab was from over the victim’s shoulders into the back, or if the attack was from lower from a rush assault from behind. Such evidence from textiles is rarely conclusive, but, as usual with such evidence, tends to reinforce one story or another.

The fibre evidence of the Forensic Science Service and others is generally excellent, although there can be differences in opinion of the interpretation of the evidence. In one case the fibres were identified as being from the carpet in the boot of a Mitsubishi Carisma, but none of us involved in providing textile opinions were told that there were two similar cars involved in the drug importation case: I was pleased that the evidence I gave was less positive than others: I had said that the fibres came from the carpet of a Carisma, and not the particular car from which counter samples were taken as an inexperienced scientist had suggested.

The life of a textile expert is varied, interesting and challenging. It is a specialist field, but one which is usually easy to explain to the layman, because most textiles are so familiar to us all.

About the Author

Julian Ellis holds the degree of Master of Philosophy for research into the technology of fabrics. He was elected as Fellow of the Textile Institute (a body incorporated by Royal Charter) in 1985 in recognition of his major creative contributions to the advancement of knowledge in the field of textile technology.
He has been awarded an OBE for Services to the Technical Textiles Industry, and for services to the welfare of prisoners.
He is an Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. 

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