Discoveries of a novice: Intelligent/smart fabrics – they do WHAT?

I had absolutely no idea that there were fabrics in this world that could do the sort of things James Bond could only dream of. I came across the subject in the intro of my fab swatch book, Swatch Reference Guide for Fashion Fabrics. I read about the cross-breeding of spiders with goats to make spider silk. Yes, that’s what I said: spiders with goats. I assumed this was some sort of weird joke, but when I read it out loud to my husband, he said “Oh yes, I remember that in the news”. WHAT? So maybe I’m the last person in the world to know about it (and I regard myself as a reasonably well-informed person), but if the goat/spider phenomenon (and others to follow) passed you by, here’s what they are talking about.

I’ll be honest – I had rather nightmarish visions about how this could possibly be achieved. I mean, where would the silk come from? Would it be painful to extract? Why a goat anyway? Spider silk is a material that would obviously be very valuable in the fabric industry. It’s strong, beautiful, but impossible to harvest. So strong in fact, that there are articles about making body armour from it. As it turns out, the process is not quite as Frankensteinian as I’d imagined. The goats are genetically modified to carry an extra protein that can be extracted from their milk and then processed to form spider’s silk. The goats are, in effect, the “carriers”. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that this is still far from a natural process, even if the goats behave, feed and milk exactly as normal, according to their farmers.

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Performance-enhancing yoga pants from Delfinspa.com

Whether you’re resolutely anti or pro GM animals and goods, (and it seems plenty of people have goat-free plans for producing it) the concept is an interesting one and this story got me delving deeper into the smart/intelligent textiles subject. And man, it’s a big one. I had little idea that so many areas of life could potentially be affected by the smart textile industry. I’m sticking very closely to the theme of actual smart apparel as otherwise I would need 10 posts to cover what I’ve found, but even here there are many, many new innovations. For example, of course you know there is clothing that is anti-wind and anti-rain – you probably own some yourself. But did you know there were garments available that can help you control unwanted odours? Or to take it one step further – to add odours, such as your favourite perfume perhaps? Do you do yoga? How about some mineral-infused yoga pants that “reduce muscle fatigue and increase circulation”?

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Micro-encapsulation visuals are somewhat dull…

These effects are mostly a result of “micro-encapsulation”, which is not a new idea, and has in fact been around since the 50s.It’s basically the process of adding a layer of micro capsules of an element to a textile (perfume in the above example) with a slow-release mechanism, such as a semi-permeable layer that ensures a slow release over time. It’s the sort of thing that controls time-release medicines, for example. There are all sorts of applications you wouldn’t necessarily immediately think of:  how about the Buzz Off clothing range that protects the wearer against insect bites (mosquito, etc.) by means of a natural insect repellent?

Fad or the way forward?

I mentioned James Bond in the intro and one thing that was interesting to me was that when I started looking deeper into the actual product companies, I came to a lot of dead ends, (with the exception of all the moisture-wicking, athletics-related fabrics, but I was looking for something a bit more unusual). There are lots of articles mentioning innovations, but not much hard evidence around, at least for the novice hunting around on the internet. Perhaps I should have used Sherlock Holmes as an example instead. It appears there was a bit of a boom in the early 2000s, but several companies I looked into had since gone out of business. Perhaps much of the enthusiasm for this area has been diverted into “sustainable” fabrics and textiles for the time being, which is of course no bad thing, and something I’ll maybe look at separately another time.

This situation inevitably led me to another question – are these “innovations” simply a result of a tech-fashion fad that will disappear as quickly as it balloons? Think about 3D cinema and how much money was poured into it over the years before it finally stabilised and became a feasible tech in maybe the last ten years. Is buying expensive clothing that dispenses sun tan lotion or make-up really so much better than just applying it yourself? Wouldn’t you have to wear that item the entire time to make it worth it? So many questions…

New applications

So I changed tack a little and decided to look at very current projects to see if I could find some hard evidence of real projects – and I found that there are some seriously worthy applications of the intelligent fabric technology around. Take the Bruise Suit, for example, This suit uses pressure-sensitive film and colour-changing properties to alert paralysed atheletes or sports-lovers when they have sustained an injury to a limb or area of the body where they may have no or reduced sensation. This is a great example of using existing tech to really make a difference to someone’s life.

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I’ve seen something similar discussed in regards to armed forces too, where an injury could be spotted quickly on a battlefield. Speaking of the armed forces, one of the more way-out things I’ve found is the apparent development of an “invisibility fabric”. A company called Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corp. (yes, really) claims to have invented such a thing with its Quantum Stealth performance textile. It won’t reveal exactly how it does it, since it claims to be in talks with the US military, but there has been speculation about light-bending technology to accomplish this sort of effect for some time. Whether this is how it works or not, I have to say I expected a slightly higher tech website from such a potentially game-changing company – but what do I know? There are some interesting pics on said website at any rate. James Bond, eat your heart out!

The thing these textiles have in common is that they are performance-enhancing . They all allow a person to do a job better or more efficiently. But tech can sometimes feel a little clinical, and one of the many reasons people like to craft and sew is to get in touch with something deeper – whether it’s a glow of satisfaction from making something unique, or the feeling of happiness when you craft for someone else and they love it. So I was interested to read about a product which attempts to use tech to simulate something that connects at a deeper level of human interaction.

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The product is a shirt that was invented back in 2002, but high-end fashion house Cute Circuit added it to their roster of consumer garments in 2014. Based in the hip London area of Shoreditch, Cute Circuit have gained international recognition for innovations such as the Twitter Dress, that displays constantly updated Tweets on the surface; they are also known for their use of LED dresses, which have been used as show-stopping costumes by the likes of Katy Perry. But I was drawn to the Hug Shirt – a t-shirt that “allows you to hug a friend at a distance”.

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How does it work? Well, there are sensors embedded in the shirt that “feel the strength, duration, and location of the touch, the skin warmth and the heartbeat rate of the sender and actuators that recreate the sensation of touch, warmth and emotion of the hug to the Hug Shirt™ of the distant loved one.” Basically this information is transmitted by smartphone to your friend’s smartphone and they receive the info as a replication of your hug. Naturally, they also need a hug shirt, but isn’t that a unique gift idea?

Niche or mass-market appeal?

All this technical experimentation is fascinating to discover and it’s quite astounding to read about the ideas people come up with, but it will all be for naught, commercially speaking, if nothing ever makes the leap to mass market. In any new industry segment, the pioneers go out of business more often than I have hot dinners, but the real litmus test of a tech lifestyle innovation is if, and when, the big boys join in.

Well, I was intrigued to note that in May no less a pairing of companies than Levi’s and Google-funded Project Jacquard announced they were now going to go into production with their Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket, which should be available in 2017. Now if you’re thinking of who would be best to approach in order to best distribute your technology, Levi’s must seem like hitting the goldmine. I mean, everyone wears at least one item of denim, right? Maybe three or four if you count jeans, a denim jacket and a skirt among your wardrobe items.

What the project does is use specially-designed conductive yarns along with traditional yarns to weave a textile (denim in this case) like normal. These conductive yarns can be woven in specific areas, like the cuff area in this jacket, or across the whole fabric. These areas can then be synched with various devices, your mobile/cell phone being an obvious one and you can then literally “swipe” the sleeve to interact with your phone. See for yourself:

The example given is that of a biker commuting to work who doesn’t have to fiddle around with his phone, which seems a little niche to me, but I’m sure there are all sorts of interesting applications. What is interesting is that this is a REAL product, hitting stores next year and backed by two of the biggest names in fashion and tech, respectively. This stuff’s getting real! There’s a little video on how the fabric is too, which is worth a look. I was wondering if it would affect the feel of the material (stiffer, uncomfortable) but apparently there’s no discernible difference.

So there you have it. Once names like Google and Levis are in on the act, you can start believing that mainstream appeal isn’t far off. Whether the jacket is adopted in large numbers, who knows? Either way, it seems that the whole fascinating subject of intelligent and smart fabrics is only going to get more prominent in our world – and I for one can’t wait to see what comes next…

 

One thought on “Discoveries of a novice: Intelligent/smart fabrics – they do WHAT?

  1. This is incredibly interesting! I’ll be honest though: I had this post marked for a reread for a while because I was pretty tired the first time I read it and so not really up to thinking seriously enough about all the ideas in it!

    A lot of the innovation sounds useful and potentially revolutionary. So much has changed in the apparel industry in the past 150 years and it just makes sense that those trends would continue.

    But there’s something about simple woven cotton, linen, and wool that endures as a counterpoint to the innovation and I find myself thinking about that more and more (especially when struggling with hemming polyester or wrangling a knit fabric). It might be a matter of personal preference but I accept the wrinkling when otherwise the fabric is a dream t handle and it breathes when worn…

    I might also be partly influenced by my hobby of hunting down passages about clothing and fashion in sci-fi novels. There is a discernible trend there: tailoring skills (and often also natural fabrics) often function in the imagined far futures as status symbols. The human touch and its individualistic precision works as a sign of life in the void, among robots and machines.

    It’s clearly something I need to think about more.

    As a side note: I love goats! Even though they smell. They have an exceptional curiosity about the world.

    Like

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