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Smart Fabrics

Published on Nov 30, 2023


Based on the advances in computer technology, especially in the field of miniaturization, wireless technology and worldwide networking, the vision of wearable computers emerged. We already use a lot of portable electronic devices like cell phones, notebooks and organizers. The next step in mobile computing could be to create truly wearable computers that are integrated into our daily clothing and always serve as our personal assistant.

This paper explores this from a textile point of view. Which new functions could textiles have? Is a combination of textiles and electronics possible? What sort of intelligent clothing can be realized? Necessary steps of textile research and examples of current developments are presented as well as future challenges.


Today, the interaction of human individuals with electronic devices demands specific user skills. In future, improved user interfaces can largely alleviate this problem and push the exploitation of microelectronics considerably. In this context the concept of smart clothes promises greater user-friendliness, user empowerment, and more efficient services support. Wearable electronics responds to the acting individual in a more or less invisible way.

It serves individual needs and thus makes life much easier. We believe that today, the cost level of important microelectronic functions is sufficiently low and enabling key technologies are mature enough to exploit this vision to the benefit of society. In the following, we present various technology components to enable the integration of electronics into textiles.

Electronic textiles (e-textiles) are fabrics that have electronics and interconnections woven into them. Components and interconnections are a part of the fabric and thus are much less visible and, more importantly, not susceptible to becoming tangled together or snagged by the surroundings. Consequently, e-textiles can be worn in everyday situations where currently available wearable computers would hinder the user. E-textiles also have greater flexibility in adapting to changes in the computational and sensing requirements of an application.

The number and location of sensor and processing elements can be dynamically tailored to the current needs of the user and application, rather than being fixed at design time. As the number of pocket electronic products (mobile phone, palm-top computer, personal hi-fi, etc.) is increasing, it makes sense to focus on wearable electronics, and start integrating today's products into our clothes. The merging of advanced electronics and special textiles has already begun.

Wearable computers can now merge seamlessly into ordinary clothing. Using various conductive textiles, data and power distribution as well as sensing circuitry can be incorporated directly into wash-and-wear clothing.

The term 'smart dresser' could soon acquire a new meaning. An unlikely alliance between textile manufacturers, materials scientists, and computer engineers has resulted in some truly clever clothingl-4. From self-illuminating handbag interiors to a gym kit that monitors workout intensity, the prototypes just keep coming. But researchers have yet to answer the million-dollar question, perhaps critical to consumer acceptance; will they go in the wash? Designers have been quick to jump onboard the high-tech fabric bandwagon, adopting electronic display technologies to create colorful, novelty clothing items.

For example, the Italian-made fabric Luminex®, which contains colore light emitting diodes (LEDs), has been used to make a glow-in-the dark bridal gown, sparkly cocktail dresses, and costumes for opera singers. Luminex is made by binding LED fibers into the ends of ordinary fabric, which then form the seams of tailor made clothing. The fibers are powered by tiny, rechargeable batteries that are turned on by the wearer via a hidden switch. Flicking the switch causes the fibers to glow in one of five different colors, giving Luminex garments an overall appearance of shininess when the lights are dimmed.

France Telecom has gone one step further, developing a flexible, battery-powered optical fiber screen that can be woven into clothing6-7. Each plastic fiber-optic thread is illuminated by tiny LEDs that are fixed along the edge of the display panel and controlled by a microchip. The threads are set up so that certain portions are lit when the LEDs are switched on, while other sections remain dark.

These light and dark patches essentially act as pixels for the display screen. A prototype version integrated into a jacket displayed crude but readable symbols.

More sophisticated versions may support advertising slogans, safety notices, or simply a range of different geometric patterns can be switched on and off. The marriage of woven fabric with electronics is finding favor in the world of interior design as well. Maggie Orth, cofounder and CEO of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology start-up, International Fashion Machines, is currently producing one-of-a-kind, electro-textile wall panels. Instead of self-illuminating optical fibers, she is working with a fabric known as Electric Plaid™ that exploits reflective coloring. The novel fabric contains interwoven stainless steel yarns, painted with thermochromic inks, which are connected to drive electronics. The flexible wall hangings can then be programmed to change color in response to heat from the conducting wires (Fig. 1).

Smart Fabrics


Elsewhere, garment manufacturers are focusing on functional benefits rather than aesthetics. The simplest of these so-called 'smart clothing' items are made by adding the required circuitry, power sources, electronic devices, and sensors to standard fabric garments. Batteries can be sewn into pockets, wires fed through seams, and wireless antennae attached to collars and cuffs.

The design of such clothing items is still important, although appearance is not the sole criteria, according to Lucy Dunne, a Masters student in wearable technology and smart clothing at Cornell University. Dunne devised her own 'functional fashion garment' as part of an undergraduate project last year, producing a low-cost jacket for joggers and walkers with a pulse monitor stitched to the left cuff.

Embedded sensors control conductive material on the back of the jacket to keep the wearer warm should the temperature drop, while electroluminescent wires are fixed to pockets and hems to light up in the dark as a safety feature (Fig. 2). "It doesn't exist simply to look good, or to attract attention, nor does it simply meet needs without regard to aesthetics," says Dunne. "Appearance is also a functional need, so it was taken into account in the design of the garment. I would like to see smart clothing ultimately indistinguishable from the clothing we are used to now, except in function."

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