Tale 1 — Intro to Smart Fabric

For the purpose of this series, we will only be exploring the E-textiles category of smart fabrics.
Definition : “E-textiles, also known as smart garments, smart clothing, electronic textiles, smart textiles, or smart fabrics, are fabrics that enable digital components (including small computers), and electronics to be embedded in them. Smart textiles are fabrics that have been developed with new technologies that provide added value to the wearer.” [1]

A Tale of E-textiles

E-textiles live at the intersection of industries, often creating a linking bond between old world knitting, spinning, weaving or sewing and new-gen hacking, prototyping and opensource making. From knitted speakers to next generation space suits like the Biosuit , electronic textiles can be used for industries like composite architecture, aerospace, furniture, industrial wear and of course, consumer apparel.

Jsey on Instructables — Knitted speaker

Frequently, folks question what e-textiles can be used for, or why our investigation of them is worthwhile. A great mental model for imaging how e-textiles can be useful is to think about how standard PCBs (printed circuit boards) are useful. PCBs provide intelligence in your cell phone, your microwave, your car and much much more. Now imagine having even a fraction of that computing power on the soft surfaces around us. Intelligence in textiles has limitless possibilities. We’re excited about this space not just because of possible functionalities, but because fabric is one of the most ubiquitous materials in our lives and remains “dumb”.

When we begin to inventory our daily interactions, fabric is a material we sleep under and protect ourselves with, yet we have very low expectations of these materials when it comes to performance. Could you imagine if every fabric you slept under or put on your person could thermoregulate? Of course, this makes for civilian comfort, but this also means the difference between health and heat exhaustion for a construction worker or soldier. Beyond serving basic needs, experts in the space, such as Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, create a beautiful picture of what might be possible technically for the e-textiles industry-

“what makes smart fabrics revolutionary is that they have the ability to do many things that traditional fabrics cannot, including communicate, transform, conduct energy and even grow”.[2]

Other professors, such as Yoel Fink from M.I.T’s material science department, explain a future where fabrics can contain the intelligence of anything from a camera to a biometric sensor.

What we gather is that e-textiles are far beyond fashion, but more so a knot-like bundle of technical challenges that can be used across industries as a core enabling technology. Enabling technologies like the Arduino can spark change in an industry from the bottom-up, creating a tremendous impact. Many innovators such as Billie Whitehouse and Sabine Seymour predict that the next generation of wearable tech will be screen-less and woven into the fibers around us.

Navigating the Industry

E-textiles seem to be divided into different spheres. Makers, like Hannah Perner-Wilson from Kobakant are creating techniques and fabrication how-tos around homemade e-textiles. Kobakant is known as the holy grail of makery to many e-textile fabricators who gather annually for an e-textile summer camp.

At the other end of the spectrum, companies like Dupont and Forster Rohner are creating industrial methodologies for making conductive traces on material. From solderable conductive thread to nanoparticle inks, the industry as a whole is still attempting to understand the best way to make soft, flexible electronics on porous surfaces.

Forster Rohner Embroidered component

The New PCB

When making electronics for apparel, furniture and beyond, we have much more surface area than is available for a phone printed circuit board, for example. Between methodology for fabrication and design rules for designing circuits for larger surfaces, e-textiles are an exciting space with many problems to solve that dance between materials science, manufacturing, electronics and design. Combinatorial innovation tends to be best supported by university settings, and we’re seeing both North Carolina State College of Textiles and Drexel’s Haute Tech Lab chipping away at issues in the space by experimenting with non-wovens, wearable power and additive manufacturing for fabric using full garment knitting machines.

What’s Next?

E-Textiles need more infrastructure around industrial production to become a truly robust and impactful space. Great components like the Adafruit Flora exist on the market, but what is the best DFM (designed for manufacturing) next step for attaching microcontrollers to fabric? Industry trendsetters are still asking how we can break the hard-soft barrier (putting components on fabric without them popping off due to different tensile properties) and how we can make e-textiles easier to produce for fashion brands and fabric mills alike.

Tune in next time for Tale 2 of 24 tales of E-textiles

[1] Wikipedia — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-textiles

[2] Gaddis, Rebecca (May 7, 2014). “What Is The Future Of Fabric? These Smart Textiles Will Blow Your Mind”. Forbes. Retrieved 2015–10–16.

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