Swarovski and silicon: Where electronics and fashion meet

Biometric Reading E-textile Undergraduate Research, College of Textiles, North Carolina State University

Common tech trends are toward seamless electronic integration—the popularity of wearables is proof of that. But why turn to bulky third-party devices when you can look to the clothing on your back?

There’s a novel innovation evolving at the juncture between the electronics and fashion industries: e-textiles. These smart, conductive fabrics, woven with digital components and embedded computers, are integrating circuit boards, microprocessors and energy sources to create first-of-a-kind, highly functional clothing. And pressure-triggered, smart-heating, smart-cooling, programmable and light-up clothing are only the beginning of a burgeoning movement.

On the designer and high-fashion front, household name Ralph Lauren is leading the charge with a conventional approach. Its POLOTECH shirt uses silver threads woven throughout the fabric to stream metrics back to an iPhone through Bluetooth, letting wearers know how they’re doing.

Plus, experiential designer Iris Van Herpen is pushing the envelope. Her e-textile designs turn clothing into electronic instruments; sounds are generated by touch. She achieves this effect with handcrafted 3-D silicone pressed into leather and high-gloss “liquid” fabrics, woven from silk and nylon threads. And in another project, Van Herpen further combined form and function by creating 3-D printed-dresses made of Swarovski crystals and organic lace from Calais.

But e-textiles go beyond beauty and novelty; they can also display changing biometric parameters such as cardiac blood flow. Designer Jazsalyn McNeil is using this functionality as she designs a collection inspired by bioluminescent organisms. Incorporated sensors responsive to electrocardiogram (EKG) signals are wed to screen-printed, flexible circuits that respond to cardiac-generated impulses—and produce light. The practical application of this, of course, is that clothing—and not traditional electronic equipment—can help visualize an athlete or patient’s cardiac function, which holds implications for the medical device industry.

The practical applications are limitless and it’s only a matter of time before manufacturers notice the viability in this trend. Continued integration of textile and electronic materials will continue to boost this soon-to-be-$3-billion market, driven by user-friendly, integrated electronics platforms.

Fun fact: IBM wrote one of the seminal papers on e-textiles back in 2000: “E-broidery: Design and fabrication of textile-based computing.” IBM Syst. J., vol. 39, no. 3–4, pp. 840–860.