Smart Textiles: Materials, Products & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Can you imagine wearing a shirt that could tell you how you're feeling or a jacket that would change temperature when you got cold? Is it science fiction? No! In this lesson, we'll explore smart textiles.

What Are Smart Textiles?

Smart textiles are fabrics developed with new technologies that help keep the wearer cool, track physical condition, or provide some other kind of added value. They are sometimes also called e-textiles. These fabrics incorporate space-age materials and technology into them to give the person wearing them more functionality.

What does this mean? Smart textiles can communicate with other devices, protect the wearer, and respond to their external surroundings. Some smart textiles regulate body temperature, reduce wind resistance, or protect against changing climate and weather conditions. There are even textiles that light up and change color. As this description might suggest, smart textiles tend to be used in areas like health, military and defense, and sportswear, especially for extreme sports.

Materials Used in Smart Textiles

Smart textiles use materials like advanced fibers and coatings and many of them are conductive, which means they allow for the flow of electrical currents. Today's manufacturing processes allow conductive particles to be spun into fibers and yarns that can then be knitted and woven into fabric. Smart textiles may use some traditional fibers like cotton or silk, but many of them also contain synthetic and engineered substances. Fabrics can be woven with stainless steel yarn, silver threads or other precious metals.

Other textiles are woven with optical fibers and LEDs, light-emitting diodes that glow when they come into contact with electricity. Individual threads may be coated with nano-technology, material engineered at the molecular scale that is temperature-sensitive or response to specific environmental triggers. Textiles can be printed with conductive inks that respond to changing situations. There are even companies experimenting with growing bio-leather. They use microbes to make a translucent material similar to leather. Just think, some day you might wear clothes made from bacteria!

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