Rajiv Rai Sachdev is excited about his new underwear. To the naked eye, the dove-grey women’s briefs that Sachdev lays out on his desk look like any other pair of underwear.
They’re made from organic cotton and the colour comes from natural herbal dye.
This range of briefs, says Sachdev, has unique abilities — the fabric has been treated in a way that it protects the wearer from bacterial infections. Also, it doesn’t wrinkle easily.
In 2002, Sachdev, founder of Advantage Organic Natural Technologies Limited (AONTL), approached a team of textile scientists at IIT Delhi with the idea of blending Ayurveda and technology to create a line of clothing with the healing properties of traditional herbs.
“We tried to standardise the application process to impart some of these properties to textiles,” says Mangala Joshi, associate professor in the department of textile technology at IIT-Delhi. Joshi is an expert in nanotechnology, the science of very, very small particles. Joshi is one of the eight scientists working with Sachdev on his project.
She reduced an extract of the antibacterial neem leaf to microscopic droplets, which were embedded deep in the surface of the cotton fabric.
The scientists also experimented with droplets of tulsi, flecks of silver, and tiny particles of gummy sericin, a silk protein. Silver has strong anti-microbial properties and sericin traps moisture and prevents wrinkling.
“The challenge is to apply the herbs in such a way that they don’t wash out,” says Joshi. In lab tests, AONTL’s clothes could be washed up to 30 times without losing their germ-resistant coating.
In two months, AONTL will begin selling briefs and socks treated with neem, tulsi and sericin. The clothes will be the first in the country to incorporate IIT-Delhi’s technology. Sachdev says they are a lifestyle item, which means they won’t come cheap — about Rs 500 a pair for a high-end line and Rs 200 each for the mid-range line.
But non-IIT experts are divided on the efficacy of the briefs.
“In principle, the technology could work,” says Shantikumar Nair, Head of the Amrita Centre for Nanosciences in Kochi. “Neem, for example, is a known antiseptic.”
But Ashima Goel, a Chandigarh-based dermatologist, is more circumspect. “Neem and tulsi have antibacterial effects when eaten. I don’t know about clothing. In fact, some patients’ skin reacts badly to neem,” she said.
AONTL’s clothes may be the first to feature the IIT technology, but organic clothing is already finding many takers. “Organic clothes that use natural dyes and processes, need less chemicals,” says Arun Baid, founder of Aura Herbal Wear, makers of organic spa-wear and towels.
Environmental concerns have kept Sachdev from embracing one of the IIT scientists’ most potentially lucrative technologies — nanosilver finishing, in which they deposit tiny flecks of silver over a textile’s surface.
Silver has strong anti-germ properties, but there is ambiguity over nanosilver’s environmental impact.