Knitting, weaving, and braiding are generally reserved for yarn thread1 and hair. Scientific researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia, however, are experimenting with applying these techniques to fibers of metals, ceramics, and polymers—and they’re making everything from cars to finger joints.

In the corner of a room in Drexel’s Fibrous Materials Research Laboratory—the only academic lab of its kind in the country—sits a 100-year-old machine originally designed to knit shoelaces. Instead of threads of cotton, the machine is strung with threads of fiberglass. The dingy tired-looking contraption is hooked up to a shiny, modern computer. The setup offers an example of the marriage of this age-old textile art with the latest developments in materials science.

Researchers in the lab, under the direction of Frank Ko, have developed a technique called three-dimensional fiber architecture. The researchers weave together strands of materials that aren’t traditionally processed in fibrous form: alumina fiber, silicon...

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