Tecido. Crédito: Divulgação/Jacquard

What is smart fabric and how does it work?

In the future, clothes will change color and temperature, work like your smartphone screen and even generate electric power – all this focused on sustainability

Consider this: you are biking around the city with headphones on, playing your favorite tunes while listening to directions from a GPS system. Then you receive a tone alert: an incoming message. A single touch on the jacket’s sleeve triggers the content e-reading. After hearing it all, pressing the sleeve again turns up your cycling soundtrack. It might look like a far distant futuristic ride, but situations like these are already here. 

Thanks to a new interactive fabric technology, you don’t even need a smartphone or smartwatch to receive messages or listen to music on the go. The smart device is the jacket itself. The product is already available in the United Sates for roughly USD 350. The Jacquard jacket, the result of a joint project by both Google and Levi’s (the clothing brand), has been under development since 2014.

The smart thread is not exclusive to Levi’s. Designers from all over the world have already worked on fabrics that are not only green, but capable of changing colors, controlling the body’s temperature and working like a touchscreen.  By 2024, the smart fabric industry is expected to reach sales revenues of USD 9.3 billion yearly.

Today, this emerging marketplace consists mainly of the so-called smart passive fabrics, which are textiles equipped with sensors that can record environmental information but do not react to it. In other words, the fabric can measure temperature, pressure, speed, and changes to lighting, among other features, but has no interactive function.

It will not take too long for smart interactive fabrics to become more accessible. Besides sensors, these materials carry pre-programed activators that work in certain situations. With thermal reaction, for example, by understanding that the environment is too hot, the fabric can activate thermoregulators that use the weft thread to dissipate heat and provide ideal temperature for the user.

Have a look at some examples of smart and futuristic fabrics. Some have features such as touchscreen and biological scanners, others produce renewable energy, and there are still those that protect from extreme cold and even those that allow producing wefts autonomously, from bacteria. Check this out.

Fabric that change color, turns into screen and biological scanner

In partnership with Google, researchers from the Berkeley School have developed a new color-changing “smart thread” that turns fabric into an electronic display. The computerized fabric technology, called Ebb, is a tech support for its users and extends various functions such as those of a smartphone screen.

According to the developers, it can be customized to change color according to the mood of the user, display information on bus routes in real time and even link to accounts on social networks such as Facebook and Tinder. When the user receives a like on Facebook or matches someone on Tinder, the color of the fabric changes to alert of the notification.

It is already possible to wear garments that have passive intelligence and work almost like a biological scanner. The pieces produced by Sensoria for physical activities, for example, record and send data to a smartphone, such as heart rate, pace, foot contact with the ground, calories and distance traveled. Best of all, it is affordable: the models start at US$ 49.

Roupa inteligente. Crédito: Divulgação/Sensoria

Similar technology is used by the brand Skiin, which focuses on underwear manufacture. Each underwear, panties or bra receives a device that not only records sleep cycles, breathing rate and heart rate, but also connects to the Wi-Fi network; in smart homes, you can adjust the temperature of the thermostat from the user’s body temperature and even play soothing music when the sensors indicate stress. Each one is out for $ 300 - and needs to be recharged every six days.

Renewable fashion

Every living organism produces energy to keep itself functioning, but this energy potential is not always entirely used - part of it is lost to the environment. One of the most revolutionary proposals for the fabrics of the future, currently being developed in North American and Chinese laboratories, is to take as most advantage as possible of this energy. The idea is to produce a type of fabric that can convert energy generated by users’ movements into electric energy. Simultaneously, photovoltaic surfaces in these garments would complement them with solar energy. The user could then use this power to charge mobile batteries and other devices.

The innovation is based on a technology called TENG (triboelectric nanogenerator), which interweaves clothing threads with photovoltaic cells, nanogenerators and supercapacitors manipulated at the nanometer level. According to an article published in the scientific journal Sciences Advances by teams at the Georgia Institute of Technology (USA) and at the Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems (China), TENGs work due to electrostatic induction and the triboelectric effect - when materials become electrically charged after contact with the surface of other material.

"As all components of our new system are in the form of fibers, they can easily be made into electronic fabrics to make smart clothes with the conductive ability," said Professor Zhong Lin Wang in an interview to the Climate News Network. "We are also looking at the durability of the structure and hope to make it washable soon," he said.

Heat and safety in cold Antarctica

Millions of workers around the world exercise their jobs under extreme conditions. One of these conditions is severe cold, which requires the use of uniforms that weigh up to ten kilos. In such cases, the general health risks, especially for injuries, increase. Aware of this, Qoowear, a US-based company, has developed a smart uniform that addresses the needs of researchers in the Antarctic and Arctic and similarly exposed workers in the oil and gas, shipping, mining and construction sectors.

Qoowear uses blood as a thermal vector and employs Artificial Intelligence to recognize in real-time the coldest points of the body. With this information, the clothing activates plaques which warm up in strategic places of the body, such as the thorax, the abdomen and the thigh, stabilizing the temperature and preventing the worker or researcher from cold and from failing to fulfill their duties.

Bacteria, the new raw-material

Smart fabrics also use biotechnology. The fashion designer, entrepreneur and American researcher Suzanne Lee bets on microbial materials as the future of the industry in the medium and long term. Microbial materials are fabrics produced from the action of bacteria.

It works like this: when bacteria are fed and generate energy to live, some species of bacteria produce chains of molecules that can be used to make fabrics. In the entrepreneur's view, this process will allow consumers to grow their own clothing at home or in small local 'factories'.

Lee's work resulted in BioCouture consulting and in the annual BioFabricate meeting, which brings together design, biology and technology experts. In addition, she develops different types of biomanufactured materials with the work of microscopic organisms at Modern Meadow, so that materials of animal origin, such as leather, can be completely replaced.

The fabrics of the future are also sustainable

Smart fabrics are not just those that use temperature-sensitive sensors or that display smartphone notifications. Often, technology lies in sustainable solutions for the threads. The musician Pharrell Williams, famous for the hit "Happy", invested in this business and opened Bionic Yarm, a company whose objective is to transform plastic into the raw material of a new product that can be used to manufacture clothes, backpacks and even boats.

So far, the company has already been able to seize more than 7 million bottles from the ocean and has partnered with the famous Dutch brand G-Star RAW.

Jaqueta inteligente. Crédito: Divulgação/Jacquard

According to Tyson Toussant, co-founder of the company, the strategy is to use the beauty and the “cool” quality of Bionic Yarm's clothing as a "Trojan horse" to bring environmental awareness to people. "Weaving ocean plastic into denim is a surreptitious way to get consumers to take on some environmental responsibility without sacrificing style”, Toussant said in a Wired interview.

Today, while all type of plastic is reusable and recyclable, only 9% of the material produced in the world is actually recycled. The ocean is one of the destinations for non-reused plastic - between 4.8 tons and 12.7 tons ended there in 2015, according to a joint study by the Universities of Georgia and Halifax. Therefore, reusing the material to manufacture clothing is a step in the right direction.