Smart threads - What's with all this intelligent textile malarkey anyway?    

"Intelligent textile" is a phrase bandied about with increasing regularity, but what exactly is "intelligence" when it comes to fabrics? And what relevance does it have to the fashion designs of today and tomorrow?

Let's get this straight, when it comes to textiles, the term "intelligent" is used pretty loosely - we're not talking trousers that will make you a cup of tea and then summarise Nietzsche for you. Not quite yet, anyway. Du Pont refers to its Tactel and Lycra textiles as "intelligent" because of their shape-maintaining properties - you can stretch it and stretch it, but it still "remembers" its form (at least until next season, by which time... who cares?)

Also pretty smart, if not exactly genius, are non-woven fabrics: plastic-based materials such as Tyvek, which until now have been more commonly found in nappies and padded-envelopes. Du Pont's Neotis division engineers these materials, working with fashion designers and meeting their needs for tactility, lightness, stretchiness, impermeability and other properties.

But to be truly "intelligent", a fabric should at least be able to respond to its environment. The simplest materials with this property are phase change materials (PCMs) and Shape Memory Materials (SMMs), both types of fabric that react differently across a range of temperatures. Clothing made from these materials gives added comfort whether you're running a marathon or trekking through ice, and so is increasingly used in the sports/activity-wear market.

Another type of intelligent fabric, chromic materials, change colour under different conditions (temperature, pressure, light, contact with water, etc.) and can be used to camouflage you or to get you noticed. But despite a brief boom in colour-changing T-shirts a while back, chromic materials are usually seen as something of a novelty, perhaps because there haven't yet been any sophisticated applications of them.

By far the most exciting and varied of the bunch are conductive materials - fabric with embedded electronic circuitry. Your imagination is pretty much the only limit to what you can do with this type of material. Sensors in the fabric can detect where and how hard it is touched, providing the input device. Electrically sensitive chromic devices can be used as fabric displays. Embedded nano-motors can push back at you, giving your clothes a bit more kick. Stick a couple of solar panels on your back and you won't even need to lug a suitcase full of batteries around with you.

At the forefront of this type of technology is switching and sensing company Eleksen, who combine fabric structures and microchip technology in a product called ElekTex. Eleksen are pretty subdued on the idea of actually incorporating their innovations into clothing, as they believe the market is too small and immature at present. Instead they focus their efforts on high volume consumer devices - current prototypes include soft keyboards for PDAs and floppy mobile phones. They also have their sights set on games controllers, automotive interiors and medical applications.

So the world of truly intelligent, responsive electronic clothing is a way off yet. But it's coming, and already a lot of people are excited about it. Ideas being thrown around include a kimono which will massage you when you get stressed, a T-Shirt which will tune into your favourite radio station and run visualisations of the music played across your chest (or monitor your heart rate), or a catsuit which purrs when you stroke it but meows if you push it too hard. Like I said, the only limit is your imagination. And with the fashion market moving at hyper-speed, now's the time to start imagining.

Tactel®, Lycra®, Tyvek® and Neotis® are registered trademarks of Du Pont.
ElekTexTM is a trademark of Eleksen

© Dan Sumption, April 2002

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