A woman in a traditional abaya.
A woman in a traditional abaya. (Getty Images)

A VCU professor is redesigning the abaya to absorb good light and block the sun’s more harmful rays

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A Virginia Commonwealth University professor in Qatar is redesigning the abaya — the loose, robe-like garb traditionally worn by Muslim women — to absorb vitamin D-rich light while also blocking the sun’s more harmful rays.    

Khaled Saoud, Ph.D., teaches at the VCU School of the Arts Qatar campus, where his students inspired him to update the garment. However, Saoud’s field is not fashion, or even the arts for that matter. Saoud is an associate professor of physics.

Saoud’s courses satisfy the students’ general science requirement. He said he loves teaching physics to nonphysics students, such as designers and artists.

“One thing that we are missing in science is creativity and these guys have great creativity,” he said. “So most of the research I'm doing is actually driven by my students.”

Such as his research into improving the abaya.

Abayas are typically black, Saoud said, which means they absorb all kinds of heat and radiation from the sun. Further, because the garment covers almost the entire body, the wearer is not exposed to enough light, which contains important vitamin D.

So Saoud created a special coating for fabric that blocks harmful UV rays, while absorbing valuable light and transferring it to the skin. His next step is to work with some of the fashion design students in his class to design and make an abaya from the material. 

“We are in the early stages of this research, but the materials, which is my field, have been synthesized and I'm looking for a way to spray it on this textile and make it bind stronger to the textile,” he said. “Then we want to test it in a real abaya. So I'm actually exploring the different funding sources for this project right now.”

While the original idea was to create a material that absorbs good and blocks bad radiation, Saoud is looking at other functionalities for the textile. For example, he may use nanotechnology to make a self-cleaning textile.

Saoud has been working with nanotechnology for more than 20 years.

Last year, he was one of the winners of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy’s Challenge 22 competition, which called for ideas to use in construction projects for the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar. Saoud submitted a design for using sustainable materials to reduce the spread of fire in buildings.

“I noticed that polystyrene is one material they are using in all construction here in Qatar,” Saoud said. “It is cheap, with a good insulation property, but the problem with this material is it's actually flammable. So, in many cases it happens that this material that you put in the insulation in the building actually works against you. If it gets in a fire, it burns very fast.”

Saoud developed a coating with thermal insulation for polystyrene.

“This actually prevents any heat transfer and, hence, will be a good material to use to spray the polystyrene before they put it in the building,” he said. “All these materials I'm playing with right now to come up with a very good material to prevent flammability and also provide a good thermal insulation, and make this cheap material actually more valuable as far as safety in buildings.”

Whether it’s clothing or building insulation, Saoud’s research interests are driven by his efforts to use nanomaterials to solve problems within the energy, health and environmental domains.