Can Smart Clothing Be Converted Into Wearable Apparel?

Smart clothes have the potential to become a second skin, interfacing people with the world in the coming decades by providing value-added services such as healthcare, fashion and emotions.

The future of the clothing industry is going to be wild… and electronic. From size and color to countless features, we have the capacity to choose a lot from this upcoming technology. Smart clothing is a trailblazing new niche that will revolutionize the relationship between the textile industry and electronic systems.

What used to be a rigid industry of obsolete fitness bands, wristwatches and headsets is slowly reinventing itself into wearable apparel. Over the course of time, clothing itself will become a “wearable” that adjusts accordingly with one’s lifestyle and has the potential to replace old portable tech devices.

Researchers have found a new way for developing textiles that are comfortable, smart and wearable. It is an ultra-modern piece of nano-technology that allows for the fabrication of electronic devices onto and into the garments. Sci-fi movie characters will soon come alive in the real world if this innovative trend takes hold in the digital world.

Smart clothing. Vector illustration for wearable technologies(lenoleum)s

Over the past decade, phenomenal effort has been put into the development of smart clothing, adding new layers to the idea of attire (Photo Credit : lenoleum/Shutterstock)

What are Smart Textiles?

Smart textiles are also referred to as interactive or e-textiles. Traditional textile goods, such as fibers and yarns (knitted, woven or non-woven), when tacked together with flexible electronic circuits, extend their usefulness and functionality. These smart materials subsequently have the ability to respond to various stimuli—chemical, electrical, magnetic, thermal and mechanical.

Nowadays, people get dressed and put on their smart accessories, like smartwatches or smart glasses. With the advancement of this new field, they can choose cutting-edge tech apparel comprising sophisticated tech constituents.  Similar to the care labels attached to the back of any T-shirt, smart clothes have such components, but they are hardly noticeable.

Smart textiles are generally categorized into three groups based on their “intelligence level”:

  • Passive smart textiles: These are basically sensors that can only perceive environmental stimuli. They detect certain changes, such as a variation in shape, color or thermal resistivity. ‘Sun-protective’ or UV-protective clothing is a passive smart textile developed from a special fabric that provides a block between the skin and sun rays. Certain UV inhibitors are added during the manufacturing of such fabrics.
  • Active smart textiles: These fabrics can sense as well as react to environmental conditions. Installing an actuator inside a passive smart textile converts it into an active one as it responds to that stimulus. Such textiles are known to be chameleonic and memorize shapes. Garments that act as body temperature regulators make the most of being active smart textiles. Loomia’s color-changing smart jacket is heating up the e-textile market. It contains a flexible heating circuit to keep the body warm according to the weather and could be a boon for elderly people in the future.
  • Very smart textiles: These items are able to perform triple functions. Firstly they sense stimuli from the environment and react to the given circumstance. Lastly, they can adapt and reshape their behavior in accordance with the type of stimuli they detect. Spacesuits, warble computers, iT Bras, and health monitoring jackets are some of these third-generation, ultra-smart textiles that are beginning to hit the market.

personal heating and cooling armband

Soft wearable patch that uses electricity to maintain ambient temperature differences (Photo Credit : Create Digital)

Fabrication techniques

In recent times, smart clothing has seen overwhelming growth around the world. The result of this expanded interest has led to the development of new methodologies for the incorporation of modern functionality into textiles.

  • Conductive Fibers: Early thread-like structures were used in the manufacturing of electronics, military technology and medical equipment. The metal-coated fibers or monofilaments are knitted or woven into the fabric. They are usually made of metals like copper, silver or aluminum. In 2015, Adidas-Textronics launched the miCoach sports bra, which utilizes conductive fibers. It can provide insight into the heart rate, works as a calorie counter, and delivers personalized breathing instructions using the connected app.
  • Conductive Fabrics: Metal wires with fine diameter are woven into the fabric or yarn. This leads to a complex structure consisting of various electrically conducting or insulating parts. These fabrics are structured in a way that allows for several layers in order to fit in electrical devices. The Georgia Institute of Technology has created a new fabric that can harvest solar energy from both motion and light. The solar cells are made of lightweight polymeric fibers woven together using a weaving machine.

Two fold conductive yarn

Synthetic textile yarn consisting of conductive and non-conductive parts, used for the fabrication of e-textiles (Photo Credit : Svasile/Wikimedia Commons)

  • Conductive Inks: Liquid metal-based conductive inks can be printed onto textiles to develop strong electrical responses. Inkjet and screen printing are appropriate ways to obtain conductive tracks on these wearable materials. Researchers from North Carolina State University worked on a biomedical garment to measure body temperature, heart rate, breathing and even ECG. Electrodes and ink were printed directly onto the textile.
  • Conducting Strips: LEDs are mounted on plastic strips and later embedded into the fabric. These strips are flexible and coated with a particular type of metal. Sensors are placed along the strips on the fabric. When not illuminated, these components are invisible on the surface of the textile.

Pexel Shirt

‘Pexel shirt’ is a custom piece activated by sensors embedded in the shirt itself (Photo Credit : NYC Resistor)

Current Developments

The emerging technology of e-textiles has inspired innovations in fashion, safety, textiles and other related areas of research. Wearable technology and the clothing industry is obviously a match made in heaven. From color-changing shirts to piezoelectric polymer garments, smart clothing technology has been booming for the past few years. Some of the most notable market standouts are:

  • Project Jacquard: Google and Levis Strauss collaborated to launch a smart jacket known as ‘Project Jacquard’ in 2014. Touch and gesture sensitivity is embedded in the jacquard using conductive threads and a bluetooth device. The fabric is made strong enough by combining natural and synthetic yarns with metal alloys. In order to make the jacket touch-responsive, this piece of fabric is inserted inside the cuff sleeve. The wearer can control his or her phone by touching the sleeve and sending signals using Bluetooth. It is compatible with Google Maps, Spotify, Strava and Google Play.

Google's ATAP Project Jacquard

Project jacquard allows users to manage phone calls, music, messages and find nearby locations (Photo Credit : Maurizio Pesce/Wikimedia Commons)

  • Hexoskin smart garments: A health tech company, Hexoskin, developed biometric garments for athletes to precisely measure their body metrics. It is washable and can monitor continuous activity, sleep cycle, breathing rate and heart rate.
  • Antelope Suit: A German company designed a wearable suit for gym workouts and other types of training. The  water-resistant suit focuses on stimulating the muscles with the help of electrical signals. Using the Antelope, 20 minutes of moderate exercise is equivalent to three hours of physical activity.

Conclusion

Wearable smart apparel is at the forefront in terms of future trends. Thousands of patents have already been published on smart clothing. Google, Samsung and Microsoft are the top patent holders for smart textiles. The biggest challenge is to strengthen the technology that manufactures flexible, lightweight, versatile and comfortable smart wearable clothing.

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If this is beginning to sound a bit like Iron Man in real life, you aren’t wrong… but then again, who doesn’t want to witness some real-life superheroes in the near future?

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About the Author

Isha has a postgraduate degree in Physical Sciences from Thapar University (India). She has a keen interest in physics and astronomy. Hailing from the mountains, she loves to trek and explore the wildest routes. She supports women of younger age to excel in STEM and aspires to run an NGO with the same mission.

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