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What are Smart Textiles?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The 21st century has been characterized by an extreme rate of technological growth, and it has produced some pretty interesting results. In this lesson, we're going to explore the concept of smart textiles and see what these could mean for our future.

Smart Textiles

Imagine telling your gloves that you're too cold..and then having them respond by heating up! Or imagine being an astronaut floating out in space, and having your suit automatically change its composition to compensate for changing levels of space radiation (did you know space radiation is a thing?). Or maybe you're at an awesome dance club and your shirt changes colors to the beat of the music. These are all within the realm of possibility, at least theoretically. The newest stage of the technological revolution in the 21st century is the development of woven fabrics that can be infused with the latest technologies. We call these smart textiles and they're absolutely genius.

Defining Smart Textiles

A textile is an object made by weaving threads or yarns into a fabric. Originally, these yarns were made of natural animal or plant-based fibers. Then, as technology improved, synthetic fibers were manufactured in laboratories that were stronger and more versatile. Now digital communications technology has reached the point where the same extremely thin fibers that run through your smartphone and relay data can be woven into cloth textiles. That's what a smart textile really is: a cloth that has modern computer-based technology woven into it.

The meaning of smart clothing has changed over the last century
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What's the point? The whole idea is that smart textiles are adaptive. For instance, when your laptop overheats, that change is registered as data that creates an automated response: the computer fan turns on. That's how it works with smart textiles. The technology woven into the fabrics will be able to perceive environmental changes and respond accordingly depending on the programming or type of technology being used.

Already, smart textiles are beginning to become grouped into one of two categories: aesthetic and performance enhancing. Aesthetic smart textiles are those that use technology for fashion and design purposes, bringing lights and sound into the world of textiles. Performance enhancing textiles assist in human functions, like jogging, by monitoring things like body temperature and adjusting the breathability of the fabric accordingly.

This sleeve can record the performance of an athlete and can emit pulsating beats to help him find a rhythm
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Honestly, this is a very young field (it really only started around 2006), so defining what is and is not within the realm of smart textiles is, in many ways, still up for debate. The key factors, however, are responsiveness to external stimuli and the use of thin technological fibers woven into fabric.

Pros and Cons

This all sounds pretty incredible, but what are people saying about it? As with any new technology, there are pros and cons that need to be considered. Let's start with the positive. Smart textiles could be incalculably beneficial in many areas. Communications are the backbone of the modern technological revolution, and integrating communications technology into clothing can continue that trend. Furthermore, smart textiles could be programmed to monitor things like biometrics (measurements of physical attributes or behavior such as heart rate), which could help athletes, people on diets, and physicians observing patients' vitals.

Imagine a maternity gown that could constantly observe the baby's heart rate and automatically call emergency medical support if anything goes wrong. Imagine clothing that adapts to the cold to prevent frostbite or hypothermia. Imagine soldiers with uniforms that could coordinate information or change color to actively camouflage. The possibilities of smart textiles seem to be nearly endless, and that's without even delving into the simply fun realms of art and fashion design.

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