"Intelligent textiles are fabrics designed to be programmable in order to produce data about the exchanges they facilitate and the changes they effect. They often have interwoven circuitry and technological parts, embedded sensors and conductive fibers, or coatings of sensory materials, that is, materials capable of transmitting and receiving information about the wearer’s surroundings, and that effect a deliberate transformation while worn on the body. Known variously as techno textiles, technical textiles, e-textiles (electronic textiles), and i-textiles (interactive textiles), they are related to a variety of cultural practices and academic disciplines. Their applications within clothing are widespread: the futuristic silhouettes of techno fashions; the diagnostic, monitoring, and contaminant-aware fabrics of the health care industry; and the protective combat uniforms of field soldiers.
Kinetic materials and high-performance sports fabrics are often considered to be intelligent textiles. Although they are seldom used to gather data, they are programmable, because they were engineered scientifically rather than developed through traditional textile processes alone. Many are able to harness energy or morph biomimetically (that is, to mimic biological functions such as, for example, the transpiration of plant leaves) into new shapes, then revert back to their original form.
The first intelligent textiles are generally considered to be the advanced fabrics created by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the first spacesuit. Since then, breakthroughs in fiber technology and new manufacturing processes have resulted in other high-performance fabrics with heightened insulation and absorption. In the early twenty-first century, these textiles are more widely used in protective clothing. They provide firefighters with a barrier against heat and radiation, shield welders from molten metals, and offer police officers and soldiers protection against stab wounds, explosions, and bullets, as well as being used for wet suits for divers and spacesuits for astronauts.
Textiles interwoven with digital impulses, which are mediated by software and transmitted by circuitry, can be programmed to change colors and configure themselves into new patterns, to pulsate, and to illuminate, introducing a new aesthetic to fashion. Tectonic fabrics reveal new colors, textures, and motifs through wear and tear, redefining use as a factor that completes the design process rather than destroying the fabric. These textiles give wearers a new role as they engage with the design process in consuming fabric, heightening garments’ interactive potential.
Intelligent textiles can also contribute to well-being. Certain colors are believed to stimulate the body’s innate healing ability, while textiles constructed from encapsulated fibers can medicate the wearer through his or her skin. Embedded sensors can record the temperature and movements of a patient and diagnose changes in his or her medical condition. Sensors in undergarments can register secretions that signal changes in cervical cells. Intelligent textiles are used in hospital gowns to reduce discomfort and promote improved circulation, while wicking away perspiration and medicating the patient’s skin to accelerate the healing of wounds. Ionized fibers (fibers encapsulated with ions) have antimicrobial properties, protecting the body from deadly bacteria and simultaneously resisting odor-causing bacteria, while sterile “contaminant-aware” textiles change color if germs or environmental toxins contact the textile’s surface.
Medical researchers are developing new types of hybrid textiles that combine biological and engineering parts. Fiber-based heart valves, cardiac-support devices, artificial muscle tissue, arterial filters, and bioimplants are often produced using knitting and embroidery techniques, while implants for cosmetic and reconstructive surgery are woven from electrospun fibers (which are created from polymers spun into continuous fibers by an electrospinning technique). As researchers explore the role of textiles in new medical processes, fabrics are slowly beginning to define body ideals rather than to be shaped by them. Historically, fabric has sculpted and molded body shapes through corsetry, padding, and layering. In an interesting reversal, the surgical textiles used in cosmetic surgery are fashioning the body from within.
The category of intelligent textiles includes other nonwearable fabrics, such as those used for automotive applications, interior design, building construction, and agricultural purposes, including geotextiles (fabrics engineered to be strong enough to hold boulders in place, yet porous enough to allow water to pass through) and agrotextiles (geotextiles made for agricultural applications). Of these, intelligent interior textiles are the most relevant to fashion, because eventually the functions of household technology may be controlled directly from the inhabitant’s garment. As furnishing fabrics are reconceived as technological interfaces, acoustic exchanges, or the absorption or deflection of sound, light sources, and portable environments such as inflatable tents, enclosures, and screens, they will be interwoven with “soft,” that is, nonrigid, circuits, sensors, switches, light-emitting diodes, minicomputers, and microprocessors that will engage with remote systems and interface with audiovisual technology. For example, triggering a sensor on one area of an upholstery motif could change the television channel, while another area could switch the television off. As intelligent textiles begin to make items such as light switches, speakers, antennae, and hard drives redundant, they highlight a process described as “the furniturization of textiles,” whereby intelligent textiles would begin to assume the functions of household objects and replace them altogether.
The intelligent textiles used in health care, sportswear, protective clothing, interior design, and architectural systems could perhaps fuse with mainstream fashion. The now-defunct research organization Starlab claimed that the clothing of the future would combine many different types of intelligent textiles in a single garment, describing it as a “fabric area network.” From their base in Brussels, Starlab conducted research on intelligent clothing as well as nanotechnology, medicine, artificial intelligence, bioinformatics, quantum physics, time travel, and consciousness.
For example, a shirt could have various layers or tiers that interact with the wearer. A diagnostic inner layer could medicate the wearer, while a communicative layer could enable the wearer to interface with Internet and intranet platforms. An external data layer could function as a wireless personal computer, storing and retrieving data via a wearable textile screen, while also providing armorlike protection.
Many leading researchers in the twenty-first century are based at companies such as Kanebo, DuPont, Invista, International Fashion Machines, Phillips Design, Cute Circuit, Infineon, and Eleksen, and at research institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center, Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Textile and Fiber Engineering, the Virginia Tech E-Textiles Lab, and the Hexagram Research Institute created jointly by Concordia University and the Université du Québec à Montréal (Quebec University at Montreal). The sales of wired clothing are estimated to exceed US$100 million by the end of 2010, contributing to a growing market with a net worth of more than US$1 billion."
BradleyQuinn (n.d.). Snapshot: Intelligent Textiles. In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Volume 8 – West Europe . Retrieved 24 Aug. 2010, from http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com/view/bewdf/BEWDF-v8/EDch8021.xml