Tale 2 — A History of Smart Fabric
In 2015, 3D printing was seen as one of the most exciting new spaces to explore. From desktop Makerbots to industrial machines, a new groundbreaking discovery in the space was popping up weekly. The interesting thing about additive manufacturing (another name for 3D printing) is that stereolithography (a specific kind of 3D printing) was first developed in 1986 by Charles Hull. By 2015, it had been almost two decades before consumers began to get excited about the space and understand how it could affect them.
Looking into the e-textiles space, it seems as though we might be experiencing a similar trajectory. This month alone, press has been covering a $302 million DoD and M.I.T collaboration and the U.S Commerce Department’s first ever smart-fabrics gathering. As we’ve seen quite a bit over the past couple years, everyone from brand names like Ralph Lauren to startups like Ravean have been announcing products in the space.
However, as new as e-textiles may seem, this space has been around for decades. The real difference between 2016 e-textiles and 1986 e-textiles is that we now consider the industry to have real, industrial potential and previously, we saw this space as craft, R&D and eccentricity.
Wearable Computing vs. Smart Fabric / E-Textiles
Steve Mann is known as “the father of wearable computing”  and often refers to the abacus ring as one of the first pieces of wearable technology.
Personally, I like to draw a line between wearable technology and wearable computing as technology is a broad term that applies to not just electronics, but also material and design innovation. With that in mind, wearable technology seems like a much broader category of innovation that isn’t as focused on electronics as it is materiality. In the timeline below, we’ll be focusing on textile based electronic innovations (under the category of wearable technology) that aren’t smart watches, health trackers, or other devices that we know more commonly as “wearables” (including the abacus ring. Sorry guys).
- 1600 — Early conductive threads are said to date back to the Elizabethan era when gold threads were woven into garments for a gleaming accent. Now, we often use silver, or nickel threads for conductivity, but the concept of metallic threads has existed for centuries for decorating garments.
- Early 1990s — MIT students started researching smart apparel for military use.
- 1996 — Less EMF, the conductive fabric superstore (for EMF blocking purposes) , launches
- 1998 — Sabine Seymour launches Moondial, making a practice of merging “silicon and style”
- 2000–2009 (year unknown) — E-textile Lounge launches as a resource for e-textile craft.
- 2000 — Whitepaper “ E-broidery Design and Fabrication of Textile Based Computing” features popular projects before year 2000 from embroidered keyboards to fashion tech garments .
- 2000- Plug and Wear launches, selling conductive materials for knitting and sewing
- 2003- Georgia Tech Motherboard shirt appears in press
- 2007 — Leah Buechley develops the Lilypad, a microcontroller made specifically for textiles. (Adafruit later makes its own version called the Flora)
- 2008 — Sabine Seymour publishes Fashioning Technology
- 2008 -Mika Satomi and Hannah Perner-Wilson Launch Kobakant
- 2009 — Forster Rohner launches the Climate Dress using their innovative embroidered techniques
- 2011- MICA Fiber department begins to explore conductive thread and electronics, creating the Midi Puppet Glove
- 2012 — Drexel launches their Haute Tech Lab exploring smart fabrics and additive manufacturing for textiles. (date inferred)
- 2013 — Machina Launches the Midi Controller Jacket on Kickstarter
- 2014 — Dupont presents their stretchable, conductive ink at Printed Electronics 2014
- 2014 — The Next Black, highlights the future of apparel featuring companies like Studio XO and the Unseen.
- 2014 — The MIT Biosuit creates a strong use case for e-textile in industry
- 2014 — Bebop Sensors launches wearable tech and textile circuits (coincidentally printed using Dupont’s conductive ink)
- 2015- Fast Company features innovators like Switch Embassy speculating the possibility of commercial fashion applications for e-textiles
- 2015 — Ralph Lauren and OMSignal team up for the Polotech Shirt
- 2015 — Google’s Project Jacquard directs tech eyes to e-textiles at Google I/O
- 2015 — The Department of Defense put out a RFP for developing smart textiles and innovative fabrics
- 2015 — ZSK embroidery reveals conductive thread and sequin LEDs compatible with their machines
- 2013-2016 — Studios such as Wearable Experiments, Interwoven and The Crated (shameless plug) create practices around e-textiles and making invisible wearable tech.
- 2016 — IDTechEx launches a report speculating about the future of wearable tech into 2026. They breakdown how people are using conductive textiles, inks and threads
- April 2016 — $302 million DoD and M.I.T collaboration and the U.S Commerce Department’s first ever smart-fabrics gathering.
As with any industry, it’s important to learn from the past as we move into a strong future for e-textiles. Thanks to suppliers like Less EMF, Adafruit, Plug and Wear and Sparkfun, E-textile makers and innovators can continue to prototype and research into the future and thanks to institutions like University of North Carolina, Drexel and MIT the future looks bright for R&D and innovation in the e-textiles space.
Tune in next time for Tale 3 — Current Thought leaders and E-textiles in Art
- Naturally, I’ve missed quite a few notches on this timeline. If you’d like to see a landmark in e-textiles history added to this list, please reach out at maddy[at]thecrated.com