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The Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator’s TEK-TILES team create 30 smart textiles

Touch pattern tracking TEK-TILE designed by team members Jingwen Shu and Renata Guai - Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator
Touch pattern tracking TEK-TILE designed by team members Jingwen Shu and Renata Guai

What if clothing could change colour depending on your location or context? What if it could fold itself or change its shape throughout the day? What if different patterns could be knit into a garment in order to activate an augmented reality (AR) application on a mobile phone? These are just a few examples of the concepts at the centre of the Pratt Institute Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator’s TEK-TILES project.

The project aims to create a library of 30 smart textile swatches this summer. In this project, “smart textiles” combine materials exploration with electronics prototyping. In order to generate 30 smart textile swatches, during the first half of the 10-week project, the TEK-TILES team is generating many more possible ideas, combining them together and creating multiple iterations to determine the most interesting swatches to pursue in the coming weeks.

Zee Cesare (left), a programmer in the BF+DA p.lab, meeting with Z. “Teddy” Xiong, an industrial design student from Pratt Institute - Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator
Zee Cesare (left), a programmer in the BF+DA p.lab, meeting with Z. “Teddy” Xiong, an industrial design student from Pratt Institute

For example, the group has been finding ways to embed the kinds of features that are typically associated with computers and electronics – buttons, touchscreens and switches – with those commonly linked to fashion, garments and textiles such as snaps, zippers and hangers.

In addition to integrating the materials and electronics components, the swatches will be produced using the BF+DA’s Shima Seiki digital knitting machines in order to demonstrate their capabilities. In line with the BF+DA’s focus on sustainability and responsible technology, digital knitting machines offer interesting possibilities in terms of their ability to knit entire garments into one piece. This removes the need to sew together various separate parts such as the arms on a sweater. But, the use of digital knitting machines also requires that the team learn to translate their ideas into specifications that can be understood by the BF+DA’s p.lab team, which requires creating a new language for both teams to use.

TEK-TILES team member Evan Huggins illustrates the integration of fellow teammate Aaron Nesser’s green knit structure (top layer) with the electronic LED grid (bottom layer) - Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator
TEK-TILES team member Evan Huggins illustrates the integration of fellow teammate Aaron Nesser’s green knit structure (top layer) with the electronic LED grid (bottom layer)

In order to explore the smart textile concepts, it is necessary to integrate the knowledge, skills and methods from a range of engineering and design disciplines including, for example, materials science and fashion design. While the TEK-TILES team has a shared interest in problem-solving, these fields have different ways of approaching the design process.

For example, Maia Butterfield, a materials science major at Lehigh University, had not thought about design until joining the TEK-TILES team. She describes the engineering design process as: 1) concept generation, 2) sketching, 3) prototyping, and 4) testing.

“Collaborating with my teammate Perri Vaaler, makes it easier for me to contribute to the much more conceptual and open-ended design process that the team has been engaged in during the first half of the project,” says Butterfield.

Sandra Atakori (left) discussing augmented reality during a critique session with Pratt faculty member Joseph Morris - Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator
Sandra Atakori (left) discussing augmented reality during a critique session with Pratt faculty member Joseph Morris

In contrast to design processes that focus on solving a clearly-defined problem and client needs, Julian Goldman, an industrial design graduate from Pratt, describes the design process that the TEK-TILES team is using in the first half of the project as one of “exploration for exploration’s sake.”

This exploration has been primarily driven by the qualities and possibilities present in available materials such as different kinds of synthetics and natural fibres as well as electronic components such as conductive threads, sensors, LEDs and batteries.

According to Evan Huggins, another industrial design graduate from Pratt: “When you are not trying to solve a problem, you might find a solution that you might not have come up with [otherwise].”

In addition to the challenges of integrating knowledge from engineering and design, the TEK-TILES team is also reflecting on the ethics of their design decisions. For example, what might be the energy implications of smart textiles in terms of environmental sustainability? Who will have access to data that is collected by sensors that are embedded in garments and how easy or difficult will it be to gain access to the data? Are smart textiles implicitly co-opted into particular models of the economy that make the quantification, tracking and measurement of one’s health necessary or inevitable (or might they resist these impulses)?

During the second half of the project, the TEK-TILES team will be continuing their explorations but also working directly with partner organisations on specific, more focused concepts around the themes of monitoring, connecting and activation that respond more directly to human needs.

The concepts will be showcased in an exhibition titled “Fabric of Cultures: Systems in the Making,” at the Queens Museum, which opens on October 5 through December 15, 2017.

This article was first published by Laura Forlano on the website of the Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, which mentors triple bottom line businesses that connect financial success with sustainable supply chains and ethical labour. Its production lab is a source for local and sustainable apparel manufacturing and an R&D centre for the design and production of smart garment and functional textiles.

Blocks Editor's pick technology

Six things your clothes will be able to do in the future

A version of this post first appeared on 

Pauline van Dongen

Spending on wearable technology is expected to reach $53 billion worldwide by 2019, according to Juniper Research. Sound a bit surprising? Rightly so. At the moment, the wearable tech on the market is seemingly designed for gadget geeks or fitness fanatics, and not much else. Even the Apple Watch leaves little to be desired in the fashion department. So where’s all the good-looking stuff we actually want to, you know, wear?

Fortunately we’ve seen the future, and we can tell you it’s not all going to be about smartwatches, pieces of jewellery that flash when our phone rings or virtual reality goggles. The launch of Ralph Lauren’s PoloTech T-shirt in August is evidence of the kind of appealing connected technology that is slowly moving into the apparel realm. This one might still be geared towards the athletic market first and foremost – it allows the wearer to capture biometric information including heart rate, breathing rate, steps taken and more – but it’s a good move forward.

And there’s lots of other work being done in science and technology that will change the way we dress further. Whether it’s about controlling devices through the cuff of a sleeve, or quickly shortening the length of our skirts for a night out, here’s some of the clothing-related technologies you can look forward to in the future.

Items that change colour

This one is a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t we want our white T-shirts to change to a darker grey if we spill something on them, or a polka dot dress to shift to stripes when we spot someone else wearing the same one? In the future, being able to change the colour of your look will be easy;  at the moment there’s lots being worked on in this realm to make it so. Most of it is similar to the Global Hypercolor t-shirts from the 80s and 90s – remember those ones that changed color when they got hot for instance? Look out for the likes of The Unseen, a London-based brand fusing science and design, which is already experimenting heavily in this space.

The Unseen

Jeans that communicate

Walk into a tech conference, and you’ll see lots of people speaking into the Apple Watches on their wrists, a la Inspector Gadget. But interactions with the items on our bodies are about to get even weirder. Next year, Google will launch Project Jacquard with Levi’s, weaving conductive yarn into jeans to allow touch interactivity on the fabric itself. The idea is to provide simple functionalities that will free us from using our mobile phones all of the time — like being able to request an Uber, silence our phones, take a selfie or even turn a lightbulb on or off. A prototype saw the same idea embedded in the sleeve of a jacket made on Savile Row. It might sound wacky now, but more seamless interactions are the way of the future.

Clothes that charge your other devices

Garments that feature solar panels and a small portable battery that you can plug the likes of your phone into to give it a little more juice, have been out in the market for a while. Last year, Tommy Hilfiger launched a jacket designed for the great outdoors with solar strips attached to the back of it, while Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen has a great looking T-shirt that does the same job. In the future, designers will also harness kinetic energy from our bodies for a charge.

Tommy Hilfiger

Jackets with body temperature controls

Speaking of energy, in everyday clothes, we’re often hot one minute and cold the next. Wearable tech’s future will be about being able to control your body temperature through your coat. Ever sat in one of those cars with heated seats? Imagine something like that, but far more stylish. If you’re after even more technology in your life, there’s no reason why you couldn’t then connect your body temperature information from your outerwear with your thermostat at home so your apartment is just the right temperature once you walk in, too.

A wardrobe made to measure

There’s an ongoing amount of work being done around making sure clothes really fit us through 3D body scanning and detailed algorithms. Imagine being able to customise the size of everything you buy, whether it’s from Asos or J.Crew, and not just a high-end designer name. Knowing that a dress is going to be made to perfectly fit our body shape, or the drama of purchasing jeans is going to be completely seamless, will make the click-to-buy button all the more tempting. Start-ups like Acustom Apparel, which uses the latest 3D measuring technology to digitally tailor menswear, is just one in a long list of companies exploring this space. Others like Orpiva, which launches this autumn, are also incorporating ideas such as being able to snap a photo of someone on the street in an item you like in order to seek out similar looks online. From there you can then virtually try them on too.

Styles that shift in shape

Shape-shifting styles are a bit further away in the future, but they’re not a complete pipe dream. A video released by Lacoste in 2012 set the tone (see above), showing clothes that shift colour, sleeves that lengthen and silhouettes that grow slimmer. This kind of technology is based on complicated fiber science — i.e. changing the molecular structures of textiles — but it’s something that researchers at the likes of OMsignal, the technology company behind that PoloTech shirt from Ralph Lauren, are working on. Pauline van Dongen is also exploring how 3D printing can be used to achieve such changes, adapting structural flexibilities so items can be more tightly woven at one point, and more open at another. And sportswear label Chromat just revealed a dress in collaboration with Intel during New York Fashion Week that features a carbon fibre framework that expands and collapses based on the wearer’s body temperature and stress levels.

It’s not impossible to imagine a future where a perfectly-fitting dress could change colour, sleeve and hem length depending on the occasion; maintain the right temperature in response to the environment; and be used to charge a dying phone battery or send a message to a loved one, too. In the future, we’ll be surprised just how little our clothes once did for us.