Smart Fabrics: The Comfortable Way To Wear Your Tech

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Wearable devices are the rage today, and these are getting better day by day—lighter, cooler, trendier, smarter. Nevertheless, it can be a pain wearing a chunky watch on a hot summer day. The fewer devices you have to wear, the more comfortable you will feel. Not to forget the fact that you may forget to wear your smartwatch or fitness monitor before you step out of the house.

For those who are more focused on fashion than comfort, once again devices fail to please. You might all remember how a few years ago Apple tried to make its Apple Watch a style statement—people like Raf Simons of Dior and Anna Wintour of Vogue were seen wearing it. But the trend soon changed. Nobody expressed the reason as precisely as writer Vanessa Friedman, in The New York Times, “No matter how attractive Apple Watch is in the context of other smartwatches or smartbands, no matter how much of an aesthetic advance its rounded corners and rectangular display, it still looks like a gadget.” Is there a way out, to wear your technology without it being so obvious?

Ohio State University researchers have developed a way of embroidering electronic components into clothing | Smart fabrics
Fig. 1: Ohio State University researchers have developed a way of embroidering electronic components into clothing (Image courtesy: Ohio State University)

Smart fabrics is what we are getting at. These might not be as well-known as smartwatches, bracelets and pendants, but these are real, and one day in the near future, you might find these in your neighbourhood apparel stores and sports shops. According to a report by ABI Research, the smart clothing market will top 18 million clothing articles annually by 2021, representing a 48 per cent compound annual growth rate (CAGR).

Smart fabrics, or clothing into which technology is embedded or woven, is proving to be a boon for athletes, fitness lovers, first responders like firemen and policemen, people in need of special health care and others. Such garments range from jackets to underwear, which can monitor health parameters, activity, location and more. Together with mobile apps, these can help athletes train and normal people get back into shape, keep kids safe and elders comfortable.

It is not all about functionality either. Some of the world’s greatest fashion designers are now using novel materials embedded with technology, for purely aesthetic purposes—like clothes that change colour or brightness according to the environment. The realisation that electronic/smart textiles need not necessarily be wearable also helps widen our view of possibilities. These fabrics can, for example, be used to make smart curtains, car seat covers or bed spreads for children or patients.

It is now becoming increasingly practicable to develop and manufacture such smart fabrics, thanks to developments in materials and nano technologies. We have super-strong, technology-conducive materials like spider silk, flexible batteries and electronics that can power themselves from the body’s heat or vibrations. These are all contributing directly and indirectly to the field of smart fabrics. Let us take a look at how smart garments are today, and what makes these so.

Ways and means: Inks, yarns and embroidery, too

To bring technology into your clothes, you need some way of weaving the electronics into mainstream materials, because nobody likes to wear a plastic dress. Here are some of the ways in which this can be achieved:

Touch of silver turns fabrics into electronics.

DuPont is one of the well-known manufacturers of stretchable electronic materials like conductors, encapsulants and sensors, made with silver and dielectric inks. You can use these manufacturing-ready materials to make thin, form-fitting circuits that can be easily fused into any kind of fabric. These electronic materials are supposedly durable and stretchable, and can be washed along with the fabric in a regular washing machine using normal detergents. DuPont claims that these can withstand around 100 wash cycles.

Other technologies such as Noble Biomaterials’ Circuitex also use silver for making fabrics conductive. Circuitex works by bonding a non-conductive polymer like nylon with 99.99 per cent pure silver. The silver covers the whole surface around the fibre, which creates a highly conductive and uniform material that can be processed in traditional textile manufacturing machinery. Circuitex technology is used in products like Adidas miCoach and Ralph Lauren’s PoloTech Shirt.

The National Physical Laboratory of the UK takes a similar approach to integrating electronics into any type of clothing, including cotton fabrics. Their method begins by attaching a nano-metal seed layer to the fibres. This acts as a catalyst towards a secondary electro-less metal-plating process, which encapsulates the fibres. The resulting textile is very conductive, flexible and durable enough to withstand around 100 wash cycles. The inks are printed using an inkjet printer, which can manage complex multi-track circuits as well as entire fabric coverage. So your garment itself becomes a printed circuit board (PCB).

Graphene based inks.

According to a report published in the journal Carbon, a team of scientists at University of Cambridge in the UK and Jiangnan University in China

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