The Story Behind Microsoft's Alcantara Type Cover

Microsoft's Surface laptop-tablet hybrid has gone through a huge number of small, often unnoticeable tweaks in its journey from the original Surface Pro of 2013 to the current Surface Pro 4. While the tablet itself gets a lot of attention for the evolution of its kickstand and touchscreen and angular slate design, the humble Type Cover, a nearly mandatory accessory, doesn't get as much love. Microsoft went to pains, though, in the creation of the Signature Edition version of the Type Cover -- a slim, slick, refined piece of hardware that represents the best of Surface and of Microsoft itself.

With a background in design at the London School of Fashion, Microsoft's Rachael Bell is a senior designer on the Surface team and was responsible for the development of the Signature Edition Type Cover on the Surface Pro 4. Bell splits her time between Seattle, where she took Gizmodo through the company's fast-prototyping and industrial design centre, and various regions around the world where she travels to find new fabrics and materials for Microsoft to work with.

The Signature Type Cover takes a full five weeks to build from start to finish, since the production process of alcantara is so time-intensive. Alcantara, a fully material used for the steering wheels and dashboards of many luxury cars, on the earpads of Sennheiser's Momentum headphones, and in the interior of the SpaceX Crew Dragon module, is spun from a combination of polyester and polyurethane exclusively by Alcantara SpA, an Italian company from an Umbrian village called Nera Montoro.

In the process of building the Signature Type Cover, Microsoft used a standard synthetic Type Cover as the basis for its design but searched for a unique material to complement the bright silver Surface the keyboard would be attached to. Because alcantara is spun, it can use material of two different colours and textures; that's what gives the Signature Cover its unique two-tone mottled light and dark grey look. During early prototyping, the material also had to be skived to reduce its thickness and pressed to suit the contours of the Type Cover keyboard. The end result is really, genuinely, surprisingly beautiful.

The cover commands a price premium over other Type Covers, but there's a reason for that: alcantara is only produced in limited quantities, and it's already highly coveted by other high-end technology and automotive manufacturers. It's also an especially luxurious material for Microsoft to be using on a mainstream piece of technology hardware like the Surface Pro tablet line, but there is a reason behind it: alcantara is sturdy like other synthetic materials, and can stand up to repeated regular use and abuse, but it ages like a natural fabric, and picks up a patina of wear like a quality handbag or leather jacket.

Gizmodo travelled to Seattle as a guest of Microsoft.

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