What Are Smart Textiles and How Do They Work?

Woman running on a trail
Smart is a word tagged onto the beginning of many nouns to indicate technological advancement of a preexisting thing, yet many shoppers don’t know about smart advancements influencing their fashion choices.

As companies innovate in response to consumer needs, intelligent and dynamic elements enhance apparel from everyday wears to specialty gear.

Smart Textiles

Smart textiles are fabrics that have been engineered beyond their natural state to bring added value to the wearer. While the idea of smart textiles may seem futuristic, many industries have been innovating such fabrics for decades to improve performance, safety, and effectiveness for athletes, explorers, and fashionistas alike.

Types and Examples of Smart Textiles

A research paper by Dilan Canan Çelikel classifies smart textiles in three categories: passive, active, and ultra smart textiles. Passive smart textiles are statically functional against external conditions, including protection against ultraviolet (UV) light, waterproof and weatherproof surfaces, and conductive fiber technology. Active smart textiles respond to external conditions like shape memory, chromic, heat storage, and thermo-regulated fabrics. Ultra smart textiles sense, react, and adapt themselves to conditions including existing technologies in spacesuits and wearable computers.

According to an article from Technical Textile, there are even companies making textiles made from intelligent molecules to do things like protect against sport injury. “During natural body movement, the molecules flow past each other at low rates of cohesion. But in the event of a sudden impact, the molecules instantaneously lock together to provide a protective barrier.” Imagine the life-saving implications of a motorcycle jacket turning into body armor upon impact.

Mainstream examples of smart textiles include most of the innovative, light-weight and high-performance gear developed in the sports and outdoor industries. Many readers will have a breathable waterproof Gore Tex jacket, water-wicking gym clothes, or fast-drying camping towels. In fact, smart textiles have been a part of our daily lives for decades, with most consumers unaware of the huge technological innovations present in their favorite items.

Smart Textile Fun

While smart textiles have revolutionized many noble activities, there have been other, more novel applications that some of us will delight to recall. Many who grew up in the 80s and 90s remember wearing cool “hypercolor” apparel. These shirts, sweatshirts, pants, and hats revealed different shades of muted neon tones when exposed to temperature fluctuations. While it was marketed as youth apparel, it was in fact early mass-market active smart textiles. The fabrics added color-changing substances called thermochromes (in this case leuco dyes) to provide the magical effects. 

E-Textiles

Not to be confused with smart textiles, e-textiles are a slightly different classification of enhanced textile. E-textiles are technologically enhanced fabrics and wearables that enable digital components such as lights, batteries, and even small computers. E-textiles are often created within the field of fibertronics, which focuses on producing soft, wearable fabrics with embedded electronic solutions.

Though a newer branch of smart textiles, there are already many options on the market with more innovations happening every day. A 2016 report by Cientifica about smart textiles and wearables classifies three generations of e-textile technology. In the first generation, a sensor can be attached to apparel and is currently used by many major sportswear brands like Adidas, Nike and Under Armour. The second generation of e-textiles adds the ability to embed sensors within the garment itself and is used by companies like Ralph Lauren, Flex, and Samsung. In the third generation of e-textiles, the garment is the sensor and can include technologies like pressure, strain, and temperature sensors.

E-Textiles and Entertainment

For a super extra example of e-textiles, we need look no further than Imogen Heap’s MiMU Glove. The musician was looking for ways to work with her catalogue of music software while composing and performing without being limited to uninspiring hardware attached to tables or stands. After years of experimentation, Imogen developed the MiMU glove. The wearable uses e-textiles and other tech elements to map physical movements to bespoke music software, enabling the performer to change levels, sounds, timbres, and effects with personally-programmed gestures. The glove is the world’s most advanced wearable musical instrument for expressive creation, composition and performance. Watch the video above – it will blow your mind.

The applications of smart textiles are as broad as the imagination. As need arises in different areas from sport to healthcare to entertainment, these fashion technologies will change the way we use and think about clothing. While we will always have access to our cozy wool winter sweaters, or luxurious silk shirts, and breezy linen beach pants, smart textiles will provide more opportunities for fashion to not only be functional, but add innovative value to modern lives.

Image credit: Kalen Emsley


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