E-textiles and Their Countless Applications

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While fabric seems as low-tech as you can get, it represents a component of an emerging technology using electronic textiles, or e-textiles. Integrating technology into material increases the ways people interact with textile products in ways once only found in sci-fi stories.

While these uses of innovative materials do not yet include the ability to produce self-lacing sneakers and automatically drying jackets as in the movie Back to the Future: Part II, they've come a long way in creating more high-tech garments and fabrics.

What Are E-Textiles?

E-textiles are fabrics which use electronic components, such as conductive materials, wires, or circuitry, to enhance their use (in contrast to clothes grown from cells). While often confused with wearable technology and smart garments, don't confuse electronic textiles with these two other groups. While, these three categories have distinct differences, they often overlap.

Electronic textiles don't need to connect to an outside software or another computation service. Everything happens within the textile. For example, one of the earliest examples of electronic textiles was a patent for heated gloves in 1910. Electric blankets that heated at the touch of a button and variations on those also became popular home options during the early half of the 20th century.

While electrically powered, these options did not have a computer control system. They had conductive wires inside but nothing other than an external switch to control them. This simplicity makes electrically heated blankets a type of e-textile but not a smart fabric.

Understanding the subtle distinctions among e-textiles, wearable technology, and smart garments makes it easier to comprehend the scope of innovation in these categories.

Is Wearable Technology the Same as E-Textiles?

Wearable technology is related to e-textiles, but the two are not always the same. For instance, accessories, such as the most popular type of wearable technology in use today, smartwatches, are not made with e-textiles. Electronic textiles are a form of wearable technology, but all types of wearable tech are not always made with e-textiles, as seen in smartwatches. 

The use of electronic textiles in clothing with electronic sensors, though, is part of the innovations in this field.

Another instance of wearable technology differing from electronic textiles is when the clothing reacts chemically to a stimulus rather than electronically. For instance, artist Lauren Bowker created an ink that absorbs pollution and changes color in polluted areas.

The ink does not have any electronics in it, making its color change innovative but not electronic. However, Bowker sees potential use for her ink in medical applications such as shirts for those who have asthma to identify when the air quality could trigger an attack.

The medical use of wearable technology is not new. In fact, some people wear heart monitors constantly to allow their doctors to track their heart function. However, such systems typically existed outside of clothing, though the user would wear it throughout the day. Integrating this type of wearable technology with clothing is where smart garments enter the equation.

How Do Electronic Textiles Differ from Smart Garments?

As a modest species, humans spend 98% of their lives clothed or using textiles in some way. Therefore, clothing with integrated circuitry or wires is an area of deep interest for fashion designers and engineers alike. Smart garments, like electronic textiles, fall into the category of wearable technology.

Electronic textiles only have electronics in them and do not connect to a smart device such as a phone or computer. Smart garments represent a new innovation in e-textiles. These materials collect information through sensors to receive feedback from the software.

Occasionally, the software builds a database with the information rather than sending information back to the garment. An example of this type of wearable smart clothing is running shoes that track mileage and can connect to an app for monitoring your running regime.  

A Brief History of Electronic Textiles

The earliest examples of wearable electronics were the light-up headbands of ballet dancers in 1883. Key developments to wider spread use of e-textiles were the development of smaller circuitry and electronics components.

The history of electronic textiles includes three main phases. Marking the first was weaving circuitry or wires into fabrics. This phase started in the late 19th century and continues today.

The second generation includes using sensors and switches to make the fabric functional and responsive. Instead of only reacting electrically to the environment, functional fabrics, also known as smart garments, can respond to the user in several ways. These materials can monitor the health statistics of the user or integrate the clothes with a software program or app. By requiring computer or software integration, this second generation of e-textiles naturally rose in popularity during the 1990s and continues today.

Lastly, the most recent iteration of this technology lies in the yarns used to make the materials. Starting in 2005, several patents for integrating semiconductors into fibers allowed for electronic yarns and materials created using these. As a burgeoning phase of development, smart yarns remain at the forefront of the development of electronic textiles.

fabric with metal discs

Innovations today that allow for a wider range of electronic textiles and wearable tech include 3D printers with conductive inks, yarns that can conduct electricity, and smaller data processors.

E-textiles and Wearable Technology in Use Today

Today, many examples of wearable technology and electronic textiles exist. The aforementioned smartwatches are one of the most commonly used types. However, consumers have access to other types of electronic textiles.

Google created a stir with its Google Glass project that didn't become as popular as anticipated. However, this tech giant did not give up on wearable technology. Instead, it partnered with Levi's to create a smart jacket under Project Jacquard. This jacket uses conductive yarns to connect the material to your phone. Instead of looking down at a screen, you can swipe your jacket sleeve to activate Google maps or change music tracks.

Lights and a small vibrating motor alert you of an incoming call or text. The jacket's design was to allow bicyclists easier use of their phones without distracting them from the road.

Activewear produced some early mass-marketed garments and accessories with embedded sensors, such as Under Armor's biometric-collecting shirt. These options can monitor heart rate and other information needed by athletes. Some, however, have not been as successful as others.

For instance, Adidas discontinued its heart rate monitoring bra, the MiCoach. Another company, Clothing+ also made a sensor-embedded bra called the Pure Lime, but it, too, seems to have vanished from the market.