Consumer technology has never changed our world as much — or as frequently, or in as many ways — as it does today. Everything from how we communicate to how we relax, all the way down to the materials that we touch thousands of times a day, comes back to decisions made by consumer tech brands like Samsung or Apple.
So when one of the big players moves away from one material to a new one, especially if it is a high-touch protective textile, it has huge implications for the cabin interior world.
Enter Apple’s replacement for leather in every accessory it makes: FineWoven. As Apple describes it, FineWoven is “an elegant and durable twill made from 68 percent post-consumer recycled content”, and replaces leather in the company’s accessories lineup that includes iPhone cases, snap-on magnetic cardholders, Apple Watch bands, and so on.
Aftermarket repair specialists iFixit (the tech equivalent of an MRO provider) went deep with a powerful microscope, discovering that the product is comprised of 6-micron fibers in 25-fiber, 150-micron threads, most similar to Arc’teryx’s Atom LT and slightly less so to Patagonia’s TechFace materials. The FineWoven layer in cases is about 0.17mm on top of the foam and plastic protective structure, and iFixit suggests that it is likely polyester-based.
Apple says that “FineWoven offers a subtle luster and a soft, suede-like feel”… but that description does not appear to have gone down very well.
Overall, the reception for FineWoven has been a cold one. Even long-term Apple boosters are less than impressed (“the worst accessory Apple's ever produced”, says one; “categorically terrible’ says another reviewer).
The problems people are having as they interact with the material seem to be two-fold: feel and durability.
Feel is of course the more subjective issue, and the main complaints seem to be that it is less pleasant to the touch and more slippery than the leather it replaces. It will be interested to see how this evolves during the lifespan of the product. A two-year-old leather case looks and feels very different to a brand new one, thanks to the patina of wear and the way that patina changes the surface texture of the case, so what will FineWoven look like two years on?
Durability, though, is the bigger problem. While the fabric is itself quite sturdy — scratching, as opposed to cutting with a knife, doesn’t appear to create rips or tears — it does mark permanently when scratched with something as light as a fingernail. Stains set in, and cleaning shows little effect.
Taken together, FineWoven-type materials are unlikely to be suitable for passenger-facing use within the aircraft cabin environment.
Yet there are wider implications for aviation designers, suppliers, and airlines.
Apple isn’t infallible, as anyone with one of the MacBook Pro Touch Bars knows: sometimes the company makes a zig when, in hindsight, it should have zagged. But Apple isn’t stupid. It will have tested these materials and decided that, even with their drawbacks, the overall benefits are greater than using leather for carbon reasons — or, indeed, for being seen to use leather, for carbon reputation reasons.
The introduction of FineWoven comes as part of a series of sustainability moves, which is notable in and of itself. Companies across industries are making sustainability-driven choices in their product line — and, as here, are even doing so where the more sustainable product’s performance is lower than the less sustainable product it is replacing. A substantial segment of public opinion is moving faster than aviation on sustainability. What will be the airline interior version of FastWoven?