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From fiber to final product

September 14th, 2020 / By: / Feature

Wearables become more commercially viable with conductive fiber technology.  

By Marie O’Mahony

Fibers that offer sensing with purpose have been given a more determined emphasis with the current pandemic. Like many smart materials and wearable technologies, there may be many exciting advances, but finding an application as equally forward looking can be challenging. Some recent examples from Levi’s, H&M, Ganni and researchers at the Royal College of Art show how innovation can carry through from the fiber to the final product.

The Berlin-based startup Boltware collaborated with H&M Lab, also in Germany, to create a denim jacket that uses sensing technology to give the wearer the feeling of being touched by a loved one. Photo: Boltware.

The importance of touch

Hennes & Mauritz AB, or H&M as it is more commonly known, is a Swedish multinational company known for its fast-fashion clothing. The company has set up the innovation hub H&M Lab, a platform that intends to create local innovation in fashion retail. Using the medium of co-creation with both customers and startups, the lab was created to develop products and services that offer a more sustainable future with positive effects for the consumer. 

H&M has collaborated with Berlin-based wearable tech company Boltware to create “Wearable Love,” a denim jacket that uses sensing technology to give the wearer the feeling of being touched by a loved one. Each jacket is given an individual registration code for the app. The wearer then creates a profile where they can invite friends and loved ones to connect using the app’s “Love Lists.” Friends and loved ones can go on to create their own individual touch patterns to send to the wearer as a digital reminder that they are thinking of that person. 

The idea is not new, in 1995 Nicola Lefevre and Swee Tiing Chua, then graduate students at London’s Architects Association (AA) developed a Blind Date Body suit that allowed a massage to be sent via modem to another person. Their design did not progress to production, and the technology was not available to commercialize it at that time. But now it is. Using a Wearable Love app via Bluetooth, the sensing technology no longer needs to be tethered to a modem and for the times in which we live, it offers an opportunity for people to connect, most importantly, with touch.  

GANNI X Levi’s® Upcycled 501® Jeans not only repurpose denim but also offer the jeans to rent. With Near Field Communication technology embedded in patches and linked to a smartphone, renters connect with each other. Photo: GANNIREPEAT.

Environmental considerations

The environmental impact of fashion is driving new developments in traceability, as well as innovative design approaches to creating greater consumer engagement with clothing. To this end, Levi’s® has collaborated with Denmark’s Ganni fashion brand to create “Love Letters,” a capsule collection of upcycled denim garments that can be rented. 

What is unique to their approach is that using Near Field Communication technology embedded in patches and linked to a smartphone, the garment’s history and prior renters is revealed so that it is not simply another denim shirt, jeans or shirt dress made from upcycled vintage Levi’s and repurposed denim. As an example, a Ganni x Levis’ upcycled Levis 501 jeans can be rented in the United States for $55 for one week or two weeks for $87 while the retail price is given at $375. 

Signs of wear and how a garment have been worn has long been appreciated by denim aficionados making this a smart product to launch in this way. Nordic Swan label environmental standards are met in the cleaning process with each garment cleaned and stored for seventy-two hours before being rented again. The garment is delivered in a RePack reusable package, so that every detail of the product’s environmental impact is considered.

Positive personal impact

With Horizon 2020 funding (the EU funding program for research and innovation), researchers at Queen Mary University of London, University of Manchester and the Royal College of Art have been developing a graphene-based flexible antennae with a bandwidth that ranges from 3 GHz to 9 GHz. The conductive patch uses cotton as its substrate for next-to-skin comfort, as it is intended for body-centric, biomedical and wearable applications. 

It is particularly aimed at use in smart garment design for patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A more flexible antennae is seen as conforming more easily to the body, whether in motion or in a stationary position for extended periods. It is also expected to be incorporated into the garment more easily, an advantage in the production and scaling up of smart garments, generally. 

Environmental considerations have a part to play here also. Graphene offers an alternative to metals that are more difficult to extract at the end of their lives. The researchers bring together a multidisciplinary approach that merges electromagnetic engineering with material science. 

One of the important trends indicated here is the way that innovators in the sector are looking beyond technical innovation to the “how and why” of the final use of the product from the earliest stage of development. That requires asking pertinent questions. What is the potential to positively impact people, particularly those facing challenges or disadvantages, and what are the environmental consequences?

As the wearable technology sector strives to achieve scale and a more digitized production process, these developments can also provide some solutions. A win all around.

Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, author and academic. She the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson and Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London and a regular contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.