Factor fifty clothes put sun creams in the shade

THE EDWARDIANS had the right idea with their elegant hats and parasols, but technical advances in textile manufacturing have given rise to a new sun-protection factor.

In response to the depleting ozone layer, fashion designers are beginning to explore the use of sun-protective fabrics in their garments as a way of shielding the wearer's skin from the Sun's increasingly harmful rays. Just as sun creams have a sun-protection factor (SPF), so clothes are starting to have an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF).

Karen Scott, a graduate in fashion and millinery from the Royal College of Art and this year's winner of BT's pounds 8,000 bursary for outstanding personal achievement, has designed a line of hats and modern parasols with a sun- protection factor of up to 50 UPF - higher than that provided by the average sun cream.

Miss Scott's Chiaroscuro collection was inspired by her efforts to conceal her own pale skin from the Sun. "People don't realise how we can take fabrics into the future and find interesting and high-tech responses to this changing climate," she said. "I thought it would be a fun exploration, knowing how I feel in the Sun.

"I'm always wanting to shade myself, but I also want to maintain the grace of winter when I can feel good, comfortable and elegant. In summer, with the conventional sun hat plonked on your head, you don't feel very special. I'm trying to confront that situation."

Her hats fall into two categories: the structured pieces and modern parasols, which create a well of shade, and soft voluminous scarves, which veil the neck and wrap the shoulders, some reaching down to cover the hands.

Despite an increased use of sun creams, world skin cancer rates are still increasing. In Britain, there are about 2,000 deaths each year and, in 1992, a study reported an 82 per cent increase in melanomas in Scotland in the previous five years.

Miss Scott is concerned about the general misconception that textiles provide total protection against the effects of ultraviolet rays (UVR). Most summer clothing has a UPF of less than 15. The colour and shade of a fabric affect its UPF. A dark, heavy, closely woven fabric has the highest UPF - the exact opposite of what the wearer is looking for in summer.

These findings prompted Miss Scott, 28, to research how to increase the UVR resistance of light shades and her graduation catwalk show last month captured the serenity and grace of figures gliding through a bright white heat.

In order to achieve this blend of practicality and elegance in her "dress to protect" Chiaroscuro collection, Miss Scott used ultraviolet absorber products from a chemical company called Clariant UK. Once applied, the coating ensures that only 5 to 10 per cent of ultraviolet rays can penetrate the fabric. Wearing a UPF 50 garment would enable a fair-skinned wearer to spend an extra five hours in the Sun without burning.

Several companies have embraced the need for clothing with a high UPF factor, researching coatings and technical textiles which respond to the environment.

Two Australian companies, Kaola Konnection and Sting Ray, have produced a range of ultraviolet protective clothing, including swim suits for children. As part of its Sun Know How campaign, the Health Education Authority in Britain has teamed up with the clothing company Retro UK Ltd to produce children's summer clothing out of fabrics with a UVF of 50.