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How smart are your clothes?

July 1st, 2013 / By: / Out There

The Shoulder Dress embodies the complexity of the design process when designing for active fibers. The collection shows garments in their multiple stages, low and high energy, enabled by future fibers and transformative textiles. Photo by Ronald Borshan ©2012
Photo by Ronald Borshan ©2012

Canadian researcher imbeds interactive electronic functions in new composite fibers.

From corsets to caftans, we have seen dramatic changes in popular style over the past 100 years. New research from Concordia University, Montreal, Canada, now brings the future of fashion into focus by taking a closer look at the next quantum leap in textile design: computerized fabrics that change their color and shape in response to movement.

Joanna Berzowska, professor and chair of the Department of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia, has developed interactive electronic fabrics that harness power directly from the human body, store that energy and then use it to change the garments’ visual properties.

“Our goal is to create garments that can transform in complex and surprising ways—far beyond reversible jackets, or shirts that change color in response to heat. That’s why the project is called Karma Chameleon,” says Berzowska.

At the fiber level

The major innovation of this research project is the ability to embed these electronic or computer functions within the fiber itself; rather than being attached to the textile, the electronic components are woven into these new composite fibers. Consisting of multiple layers of polymers, when stretched and drawn out to a small diameter, the fibers begin to interact with each other. The fabric, produced in collaboration with the École Polytechnique’s Maksim Skorobogatiy, represent a significant advance in the development of “smart textiles.”

Although it’s not yet possible to manufacture clothing with the new composite fibers, Berzowska worked with fashion designers to create conceptual prototypes that can help to visualize how such clothing might look and behave. “We won’t see such garments in stores for another 20 or 30 years, but the practical and creative possibilities are exciting,” says Berzowska.

The larger questions

There would also be a performative aspect to wearing such garments, whose dramatic transformations may or may not be controlled by the wearer. This research raises interesting questions about human behavior relative to fashion and computers. What would it mean to wear a piece of clothing with “a mind of its own,” that cannot be consciously controlled?

Joanna Berzowska is the founder and research director of XS Labs. She is also a member of the Hexagram-Concordia Centre for Research-Creation in Media Arts and Techologies. Maksim Skorobogatiy is a professor in the Department of Engineering Physics at École Polytechnique de Montréal.  

The Karma Chameleon project was funded by a Research Creation grant from the federal government’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), as well as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada/Canada Council for the Arts (NSERC/CCA) New Media Initiative.