Intelligent clothing with smart materials

Materials World magazine
1 Oct 2006

The latest developments in smart clothing technology and its use in the textiles industry were laid bare at the How Smart Are We? conference held at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, UK, on 15 September 2006. In a fledgling sector such as this, many useful ideas and contentious issues were addressed.

Chaired by Rob Holdway, Co-founder and Director of Giraffe management consultants, based in Brighton, UK, the event began by looking at the inspiration behind, and functional uses of, smart clothing. As the first generation of e-clothing is being developed, individuals are unsure how the garments can be commercialised in the textiles industry, which is worth US$395 billion globally.

Most of the speakers focused on how important friendly branding and style are to modern culture, and hence smart clothing’s success. However, keynote speaker James Woudhuysen, Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK, disputed that emotional and cultural trends are significant issues.

'There is an over-emphasis on the emotional, to the detriment of science,’ he argued. ‘People can’t get meaning from objects, we need more content and less form. We should stop the dumbing down of IT.’ ‘New clothes must have a certain functionality,’ said Suzanne Lee, Senior Research Fellow in Fashion at the University of The Arts in London, UK.

'The first uses can be found in the sports industry where heart sensors are knitted into sports bras which send heart rate data to the person’s watch.’

This is complemented by running shoes that collate information from the runner on distance, location and possible injuries caused by weight distribution – highlighting potentially problematic running styles. This also helps designers assess how clothing affects the human body.

This application, however, is limited to joggers, and although many individuals may use it, for commercial success, smart clothing needs to have more widespread use. The same is true with a niche market such as winter sports wear – yet its culture lends itself towards the technology, explained Lee.

‘Snowboarding is a very fashion-conscious sport and people who can afford to go are usually capable of spending money on the expensive fashions associated with it.’

She added that the emotional elements of fashion can also be emphasised.

Smart clothes give people the ability to send friends or partners hugs through electronics which simulate the sensation in the clothes.’

These garments can include electroluminescence where they light up, or even systems to stimulate smell senses by emitting chosen fragrances. Clothes can also be made to become rigid or loose on command, allowing the wearer to cool down or heat up. However, Lee acknowledged that these features might have a limited appeal.

From the emotional to the practical, David Buirski, Cofounder of World Sports Activewear, highlighted other uses for smart clothing in sport. For an aging population, leisure activities such as golf are increasingly popular, but health problems must be addressed.

‘Gloves have been made which have the ability to reduce stress on the wearer’s joints, and shoes with a swivel plate that lessens the pressure on knees and hips'.