Smart Textiles: Not Just For Superheroes

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Kony Chatterjee, PhD Candidate
Wilson College of Textiles
North Carolina State University

While I watched the Black Panther ride atop a car fighting off adversaries and chasing his enemies I had an epiphany – he would win in a fight against Iron Man. His futuristic suit made of a fictitious element called “Vibranium” could absorb energy from anything making impact with it and redistribute this energy to result in a powerful pulse. This allows the him to not just toss cars out of his way but also gives him the flexibility and breathability he needs to move stealthily. Both Iron Man and Black Panther have suits that combine strength and electronics, but the Black Panther’s fabric-like Vibranium suit gives him an edge over Iron Man’s rigid armor, combining form with functionality.

While our clothes right now may not be able to convert kinetic energy to superhuman abilities – progress in materials-based research and the textile industry is pushing the envelope for what our clothes can do. Traditionally, clothing has been used to cover our bodies, insulating us from the environment around us. However, it is also an extension of our identities and our cultures. But scientific development could make clothing the next step in connected living – allowing us to interact with our environment in a way that seems straight out of a science fiction movie. This new paradigm in the textile industry – called electronic textiles (or e-textiles for short) or smart textiles, depending on who you ask – is an exciting market to watch. My first experience with a wearable device was the Casio Calculator Watch, and it’s surprising how quickly we have come to Project Jacquard – Google’s smart jacket made in collaboration with Levi’s, that enables you to use swipe gestures on your sleeve to operate your phone.

Google’s Project Jacquard Technology, Image by Google

Ben Cooper, founder of IOClothes – a company that aims to build a vibrant community of professionals working in technological fields as well as in the textile industry – expresses great optimism in the field of e-textiles, pointing out that human beings spend almost 95% of their lives interacting with textiles in one form or another and hence textiles make an obvious choice for the next frontier in technological development. He reminisces of the time when his wife was pregnant with their first child, and the understandable anxiety that comes with the prospect of becoming a new parent – ensuring that your child is safe and healthy. Monitoring a baby’s breathing is imperative for this, but baby monitors can be quite unreliable and have a limited range. Cooper decided to induct the monitoring system into the onesie itself – an obvious choice if you think about how many hours a baby spends wearing one!

Ministry of Supply’s Mercury Jacket with integrated heating systems built into the pockets, Image: Ministry of Supply

This is just one of the many ideas that are being explored in the world of e-textiles. Think about the ease of mind we could have with integrated biometric information, touchscreens, or even being able to generate power from your clothing. All of these are happening at a fast pace in the research field, and it’s only a question of how rapidly and seamlessly traditional manufacturing can keep up with it. Aman Advani, co-founder of Ministry of Supply, tackles this aspect with WholeGarment – a 3D printing machine by Shima Seiki, that his company is using to 3D print entire textile garments. The company has also developed an intelligent heated jacket that can heat the person wearing it, when it senses a drop in the body temperature in cold conditions. Advani is optimistic about how this shift away from traditional manufacturing could definitely be a game changer when it comes to e-textile mass production.

Although the future of smart textiles is promising, there are quite a few hurdles to overcome. Cooper agrees, adding that there is a burgeoning need for standardization by an independent third-party in this field – a code that can help steer what a good e-textile product should function as. Additionally, Advani raises the question about how we can push the envelope for even faster and better production, something that traditional technology is doing so well right now? One answer could be 3D printing but there is the obvious problem of materials and comfort – something that prevents 3D printing from completely democratizing textile manufacturing and moving it into the hands of the people. At the moment, 3D printed garments can be uncomfortable and impractical. Clearly, there is a gap to bridge between what we think of traditionally as clothing and textiles, and what the industry regards as electronic components. Till that happens, I’m still going to be rooting for the Black Panther in the upcoming Infinity Wars, as he suavely and comfortably fights off bad guys.