Wearable electronic clothes

Written by: <Authors><Author><Id>3343</Id><Name>S. S. Verma</Name></Author></Authors>

Advances in textile technology, computer engineering and materials science are promoting a new breed of functional fabrics resulting in some truly smart and clever clothing. Realization of this vision could be possible with the advent of wearable electronic textiles, where functionality is incorporated into the fabric. Clothing is being developed for protection from chemical, biological and nuclear threats. Besides, with the development of polymers with exotic qualities in terms of their mechanical, electrical and magnetic properties, scientists are ready to design electronic clothing with various specialties like heating, cooling, illuminating of body etc. Fashion designers are adding wires, circuits, and optical fibers to traditional textiles, creating garments that glow in the dark or keep the wearer warm.

Meanwhile, electronics engineers are sewing conductive threads and sensors into body suits that can map users whereabouts and respond to environmental stimuli. Researchers agree that the development of genuinely interactive electronic textiles is technically possible, and that challenges in scaling up the handmade garments will eventually be overcome. Ideas include the development of jacket-sleeve keypads for controlling cell phones, pagers, or MP3 players, and sportswear with integral fabric sensors and display panels, ideas for monitoring heart rate and blood pressure during a gym workout or morning run. Clothing fitted with textile global positioning system technology could also be suitable for locating skiers or Mountaineers in bad weathers or even for keeping a watch on young children.

Advances so far

Adopting electronic displays (LEDs) technologies to create colorful, novelty clothing items for example, glow-in-the-dark bridal gown, sparkling cocktail dresses, and costumes for opera singer. Further progress is expected in the form of tailor-made clothing.


  • Fibers powered by tiny, rechargeable batteries that are turned on by the wearer via a hidden switch causing the fibers to give shininess when the lights are dimmed.

  • Development of a flexible, battery-powered optical fiber screen that can be woven into clothing. A prototype version integrated into a jacked displaying symbols is already in the market and more sophisticated versions may support advertising slogans, safety notices, or simply a range of different geometric patterns can be switched on and off.

  • Production of low-cost jackets for joggers and walkers with a pulse monitor stitched to the left cuff. Embedded sensors control conductive material on the back of the jacket to keep the wearer warm should the temperature drop, while electroluminescent wires are fixed to pockets and hems to light up in the dark as a safety feature.

The marriage of woven fabric with electronics is finding favor in the world of interior design as well inform of electro-textile wall panels. The panel exploits reflective coloring. The fabric contains interwoven stainless steel yarns, painted with thermo-chromic inks, which are connected to drive electronics programmed to change color in response to heat from the conducting wires. At the outset, main users are going to be medical, military, and industrial areas with compelling applications and affordability. The simulation environment is already being used to model a garment that can sense its own shape thus helping patients to learn about their exercise requirement. Creating a wearable version of a giant textile sensornet designed to detect noise.

It is envisaged that efforts should be to stay as close as possible to conventional large-scale cutting and sewing techniques when thinking about how electronic textile clothing could be made. Cutting electronic cloth clearly makes it more difficult to make good connections between different parts of the same garments and one solution to it could be the manufacturing of seamless clothing, which would avoid the cutting and stitching problem altogether. The cost of developing and manufacturing such sophisticated fabrics is likely to put them beyond the reach of the fashion industry for the time being. Connections will be main point of weakness in electronic clothing. Moreover, researchers have yet to answer the million-dollar question, perhaps critical to consumer acceptance, about the washing of electronic fabrics. The challenge for industry is also to build in the security and privacy for the user of electronic clothing from hackers. Whatever the technical obstacles, researchers involved in the development of interactive electronic clothing appear universally confident that context-aware coast and sensory shirts are only a matter of time.


Further Reading:

1)    Meoli, D., May-Plumlee, T., J. Textile Apparel Technology Management 2 (2002) 1

2)    Baard, M., E-Fabrics still too stiff to wear, wired news, 5 December 2002, www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,56708,00.html

3)    Ball, P., Shoes and sheets get wired, Nature Science Update, 6 December 2002, www.nature.com/nsu_pf/021202/021202-11.html

4)    Eisenberg, A., For the smart dresser, electric threads that cosset you, New York Times, 6 February 2003, pp.7, www.nytimes.com/2003/02/06/technology/circuits/06next.html?ex=1045545602&ei=1&en=419c725550669347

5)    Hatcher, M., Fiber-optic dress goes down the aisle, Optics.org, 8 October 2002, www.optics.org/articles /news/8/10/11/1

6)    Hatcher, M., France telecom debuts fiber screen, Optics.org, 2 July 2002, www.optics.org/articles /news/8/7/1/1

7)    Ball, P., TV on a T-shirt, Nature Science Update, 22 May 2002, www.nature.com/nsu/020520/020520-4.html

8)    Hogan, J., Fashion firm denies plan to track customers, New Scientists, 19 April 2003, pp 11

9)    Yoshida, J., Benetton adopts Philips RFID technology for smart labels, EE Times, 14, March 2003, www.eetimes.com/story/OEG2003031150028

10)  Gould, P., Textiles gain intelligence, Materials Today, October 2003, pp 38, www.materialstoday.com

About the Author:

The author is associated with the Department of Physics, SLIET, Distt.- Sangrur Punjab.

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