Prototyping Smart Textiles

What are Smart Textiles?

In any emerging field, it can be hard to find definitive language to describe a set of things. Smart textiles are one of these terms and are often used in relation to other terms such as e-textiles, flexible electronics, functional fabrics, soft computing or computational textiles. In this resource, smart textiles means textile structures that have integrated materials to make them responsive to their environments. By providing this definition, we intend for it to include:

  • the entire history of fabrics (like wool) that have been designed with specific environments and adaptations in mind (e.g. to keep us warm or cool)
  • the integration of "smart" or metallic materials for the purposes of making textiles able to communicate with computational systems via electrical or magnetic signals.
  • or the introduction of synthetic materials that change state based on their surroundings (e.g. color changing, stiffness changing, dissolving, etc. materials).

Smart textiles may or may not communicate with a computer, may or may not be "soft", may or may not be worn as clothing (they apply as much to fashion as they do to furniture, telecommunications and composites), and may or may not be new. As such, we use this text to offer a detailed explanation and related resources that focuses on textiles and electronics from the perspective of particular materials, structures, and processes. This is reflected in the organization of this resource:

  • structures describe particular arrangements that fiber is brought into to give it particular mechanical characteristics. Structures are adjectives that describe the particular arrangement of fibers (e.g. a knit, or a woven). In the index from the left, the structures section is organized with elemental components at the top of the list with more complex assemblies of structures towards the end. Each page in the structures section describes the geometry of the structure; its general mechanical properties; and the measurements one uses to characterize the structure.
  • processes describe actions that a human, machine, animal or whatnot performs upon structures to: transition them into new kinds of structures (e.g. knitting, weaving); change the properties of the structure (e.g. dying); or simply add additional functionality on top of an existing set of structures (e.g. sewing and embroidery). Each of these sections describes the machines and equipment that facilitate these processes as well as the way in which the processes are documented shared. We also describe the applicability of the process to various kinds of structures.
  • materials describe the chemical makeup of various materials that make up textile fibers and filaments. Each material brings with it a set of functional characteristics that can be leveraged in design. This section is organized into four sections: protein fibers, cellulose fibers, synthetic fibers and metallic fibers as these groupings share the most commonalities between the fibers in the groups. describes the specific properties of each material as well as the different structures within which an everyday person can source the materials.
  • dynamics describe particular functionalities that emerge when particular materials are brought into specific structures and relationships, for instance, how a spiral made of a highly conductive material can be used to create a speaker.

Why Write this Book?

While amazing resources for e-textiles, functional fabrics or computational craft already exist, we started this project to offer a deeper attention to the particular textile processes. We did this because we see amazing ways that a designer can intervene at any of these steps to create new kinds of objects, interactions, experiences, and to imbue designs with robust functionality, environmental sustainability, and aesthetic richness. This is informed by our own experience and journey into the field; lessons learned from other related resources; and from the practical challenges of figuring out what yarn to buy, or how to measure it, or knowing what it is you might need.

Who is this Book For?

We see this as a text as being suited for a smart textiles researcher who is new to the field, and is curious to know more about the processes and levels of textile construction at which they could intervene. For those in textiles or textile engineering, it may provide more information about how metallic and otherwise non-traditional materials can be integrated into these structures in order to provide the capacity for sensing or actuation. For the experienced textile craftsperson or fiber artist, this text might help provide a new framework and set of experiments to add to your practice, for instance, by considering the specific electrical capacities of different kinds of yarn in addition to their twist and knit quality. For electrical, mechanical and other categories of engineers, it helps introduce textile processes and structures with specific examples to existing projects. To honor the many disciplines and ways-of-knowing that come together when experimenting with textiles, we are writing this with an eye towards honoring electronics, materials engineering, and textile crafts/fiber arts as practices of working with and developing deep relationships with materials and the human (and nonhuman) ability to tease form out of those materials.

How Textiles Matter

Textiles are so ubiquitous within our built environment that we hardly seem to notice them. Yet, when we look more closely at our clothes, car seats, napkins, couch covers, blankets, rugs, curtains, and on and on, we see the outcome of almost 20,000 years of technological innovation. Look even more closely and you'll see textiles informing the infrastructure of modern computing, from the roped "fiber" that brings us the internet to the programmatic "threads" running processes on our computer.

Textiles manufacturing continues to be a cornerstone of global manufacturing and a leading source of pollution, in both the processing and recycling of textile materials. It is also a process that is deeply entangled within histories of industry, colonialism and capitalism and those legacies contribute to the very way we imagine textiles, and smart textiles, today. From this vantage point, working in the realm of textiles has a strong potential to perpetuate, but also engage and re-envision, its troubling narratives. It can be a pathway through which we begin to interrogate and understand those histories, and a medium through which we can express our experiences and/or alternative futures.

A Call to Decolonize Smart Textiles Prototyping

Decolonize smart textiles? Calls to decolonize design ask designers to consider the ways in which their practices are rooted in and continue notions of whose design work is "good" or "new." While many are taught that good design is simple, innovative, and timeless, closer inspection shows that these definitions were largely made by individuals who did not represent the values and identities of many people (in fact, they were always predominately white, male, and western). To start to decolonize design is to start to critically question these assumptions, seeing ideas how western ideas of what is "good", "valuable", and "new" are constructs that are informed by our cultural milieux and personal experience. Put another way, they are situated within western lives, trained on western histories and canons, and partial in the sense that they do not account for the wholeness of human experience and judgement.

This has particular relevance to textiles work, which has often been less to have less value, to be a "hobby" as opposed to an "art" and also has largely been performed by women, indigenous, and non-western populations. Textile craft, thus, is at once seen as amateur, romantic and primitive--all words that dismiss it from being sophisticated, technical, and deeply skill driven (which it is). As such, its common to think of programming a computer as "hard" and knitting as "easy." This is reflected in statements that claim that "smart" textiles are a "new" field that brings "high-tech" to "traditional" craft. This is wrong. Textiles have always been smart. They have always been adaptive. They have always (and continue) to lead technical innovation. And they are no more traditional than electronics. The contrast of tradition and innovation that appeals to so many in smart textiles work is evidence of the colonialist assumptions that made these practices appear to be so different. The very need to add "smart" to textiles to emphasize that they somehow communicate with computers implicitly assumes that textiles prior to this moment were just "dumb."

So, we (the people reading this) have a problem. To decolonize smart textiles, we have to somehow decolonize a practice whose definition makes sense to so many because of colonization. We have to use materials and make products that are largely only available because of deeply capitalist and colonialist histories. We have to do this through a series of technologies and infrastructures (universities, etc.) that are built upon colonial histories. The person writing this particular section (Laura) is also not well equipped to lead this initiative as a cis white western person who has the privilege of writing this because of colonialism. Who received funding to support this project from the national government. Instead of doing nothing at all, I am proceeding instead by realizing that the odds that we are going to succeed in truly decolonizing are low, but that we can treat it as a horizon to direct ourselves towards without ever reaching it. We should continually be questioning our assumptions and, in prototyping, questioning the kind of futures we envision that our products take part. Decolonizing, and the principles, can give us a compass and can lead us to new understandings and new ideas.

In this text, we are attempting to decolonization by:

Placing Textile and Electronics Expertise on Equal Footing

This isn't a resource just about technology or focusing only on the point where a soft textile integrates with a computer. Instead, it is a collection of techniques and materials that span histories of textiles and electronics.

Opening Authorship

We strive for this to be a community resource and for others to add, edit, or take issue with certain parts of our text. This is aspirational and likely imperfect and our goal is to facilitate a structure for collaboration that would be equally accessible to textile and electronics practitioners. We are using the platform GitHub for this, which will be much more familiar to programmers than others. Yet, our choice to use github was that we felt it offered the most streamlined way for us to allow others to add material while retaining a link to that authors identity (thus, one could get credit for what they added) For more information on how to contribute, visit our page "how to contribute"

Confronting/Staying With History

The histories of textiles are the histories of electronics insofar as textiles gave rise to modern computing. Specifically, the jacquard loom became inspiration for IBM's original machines for counting the census, as they operated on a binary logic physicalized in the form of punchcards. These then evolved and adapted into the computers we know today. But beyond computers, the structures of global communications systems, even the present day internet, relay on physical cables spun with materials like copper and fiber-optics in similar fashion to the yarns used in your clothing. The materials may have changed, but the techniques remain those of textiles.

In this framing, we also see many problems inherent in the textile industry carrying over into modern electronics manufacturing. Specifically, the "invisible labor" of millions of people who make our clothing and electronics, many of which don't offer the basic levels of safety or support for their workers (source, source). These practices are rooted in histories of slavery, where slaves were brought to the US in order to perform the work of picking cotton for textiles. "Southern cotton, picked and processed by American slaves, helped fuel the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution in both the United States and Great Britain...By 1850, of the 3.2 million slaves in the [US's] fifteen slave states, 1.8 million were producing cotton; by 1860, slave labor was producing over two billion pounds of cotton per year" (source). Many continue to refer to the textile industry, especially within the Global Souths, as "modern slavery" as the unsafe and force working conditions continue to produce the materials for Western brands (see "Tainted Garments").

Environmentally, textiles (and now electronics) are primary sources of the world's waste, water usage and energy usage. A program for the UN Partnership on Sustainable Fashion and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) reports: "fashion is an environmental and social emergency. Nearly 20 percent of global waste water is produced by the fashion industry (SDG 6), which also emits about ten percent of global carbon emissions - more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined (SDG 13). Cotton farming is responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides despite using only 3 percent of the world’s arable land (SDG 3)" These statistics report on fashion only, not considering the additional consumption of textiles for products like carpeting, upholstery, bedding, and so on and so forth. Now let's consider electronic waste, or e-waste.

The 2020 report from the Global E-Waste Monitor reports: "In 2019, approximately 53.6 million metric tons (Mt) of e-waste (excluding PV panels) was generated...the formal documented collection and recycling was 9.3 Mt, thus 17.4% compared to e-waste generated" and that in their predictions recycling activities "are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste." (source).

Confronting of Cultural Appropriation

In the world of textiles and fashion, people often learn through making. They see a textile they respond to and then learn the techniques that helped create that object. The digital loom is the result of one a long history of trade, colonization, and industrialization. In Anni Albers’ seminal text, On Weaving, she points out that in contemporary digital looms each part can be traced to the different cultures that build on the knowledge of another to improve the loom’s function (Albers, 24). Albers proceeds to outline how each part of the loom is important to the creation of textile but she fails to acknowledge many of the people and cultures that contributed to this incredible tool. This lack of acknowledgment and the purely formal description of the technology that was developed as part of long-standing cultural traditions is an example of appropriation.

In 2016 the Navajo Nation received an undisclosed amount of money from Urban Outfitters because a court found their use of the word Navajo in their “Navajo hipster panties” and a “Navajo print flask” were violations of the Navajo Nation’s 1943 copyright on the word. The prints themselves were not protected under copyright. Urban outfitters also famously popularized the trend of wearing Palestinian-style keffiyehs and marked them as “anti-war woven scarfs” in the early 00’s. They turned textile traditions into fast fashion trends because copyright does not pertain to fabric designs. That does not mean it wasn’t appropriation.

Appropriation occurs when techniques and motifs and removed from their original context and used in ways that flatten original meaning. It can be a violent act. In the Urban Outfitter case the “Navajo print flask” was tone-deaf to the ways the Navajo people have suffered disproportionately from alcoholism since being murdered, raped, and forced from their traditional lands by white settlers.

Does this mean that non-Navajo people can’t be inspired by their designs and unique techniques? No, but textile designers should avoid copying culturally specific designs and they need to acknowledge indigenously derived techniques when they become part of their own practices. Appropriation as an act is connected to centuries of colonization, where a dominant cultural group adopts another group’s technology into their own. Colonizers may see appropriation as a compliment but the people whose culture they’ve decontextualized receive little to nothing from this act and intern they been transformed into a cultural commodity.

The field of textiles is particularly guilty of cultural appropriation. From fast fashion to weaving workshops on YouTube, it is not hard to spot. Like all scholars, designers need to acknowledge the source of work, the ways they came to their knowledge, and people who developed the techniques they use.

Cite: Albers, A. (1965). Chapter 2 the loom. In Anni Albers: On weaving. Studio Vista: London.

Confronting Socio-Cultural Legacies of Textiles and Electronics Labor

Textiles have long been associated with women and indigenous peoples. Anecdotal advice to hacklabs or other groups interested in involving girls and minority populations in computing include activities and sewing machines and textile crafts. This, in itself, is not problematic but sometimes people use these examples to suggest that girls and certain minorities just like or are better at textiles than boys. This wouldn't necessarily be problematic, again, until we see the differing levels of respect that are given to machines like 3D printers and sewing machines and looms (which are amazing!).

Historically, we see something more complicated showing how women were often forced into textiles work, even when they may have desired other tasks. This existed even in prestigious institutions like the Bauhaus, as the studios for painting were reserved for men. Craft, or the know-how of making, was relegated to women and "amateurs" and also seen as less valuable than the production of art by geniuses, visionaries, and "experts." We see similar divides taking place in computing, whether in "Letting the Computer Boys take over" where women "computers" were replaced and devalued by male "coders" who scripted the algorithms that were enacted by the women. Other histories, such as Lisa Nakamura's Indiginous Circuits and Daniela Rosner's Critical Fabulations trace this into contemporary life, demonstrating the way that women were only given options to do certain kind of textile-related work, which was, at once, devalued and used in commercial materials to appeal to the material's "hand crafted" nature when selling the product.

Within this frame, it is also important to acknowledge the work of many women and non-binary people and artists in forming the foundation upon which modern smart textile products have been built (and who have personally inspired me). Folks like Joanna Berzowska, Maggie Orth, Hannah-Perner Wilson, Leah Buechley, Mika Satomi, all those at E-textiles Summer Camp and E-Textiles Spring Break, who have been committed to keeping their work public and open source. And to the many many many others that I am not mentioning by name, thank you. While the media may have us believe that tech giants are inventing the future of smart materials and textiles, the past two decades of work have largely been pioneered outside industry brainstorming sessions and engineering institutions. Textile craft and electronics craft are equally valuable in the formation of innovative and sustainable products, we should give practitioners of either or both the same kinds of opportunities and credit.

Designing With Problematic Histories

So what can the reader do about this. We found a few tips from other locations:

  1. According to AIGA's Decolonizing Design summary - "For educator and designer Danah Abdulla, one member of the research group Decolonising Design, “decoloniality is about shattering the familiar”...In everyday design work, to “shatter the familiar” might start by rethinking the needs of the audience you’re designing for. For example, have you considered how people of different ethnicities may identify with what you’re creating? An aspect of decoloniality is questioning how solutions might be experienced in someone else’s shoes."
  2. An adaption from Kavita Philip, Lilly Irani and Paul Dourish's "postcolonial computing" suggests that: _"_When we consider developing a [smart textile] prototype, we investigate the many forms of labor and access that allow it to come to be. Who was able to be in the room when the concept was developed, who had the capital to see it through, whose labor was assumed to be available when articulating the concept, who gets to claim authorship of the technique?
  3. Also from postcolonial computing: "When we see claims of inherent technological and cultural difference...we proceed to deconstruct the binary between technology and culture and study the impure crossings between them. When we see an instance of indigenous science or ‘‘native’’ technology, we investigate it not as an instance of inherent difference or autochthonous authenticity but as a practice with the same epistemological status as putatively Western sciences."
  4. And lastly, We can echo Donna Haraway's call to "Stay with the Trouble" to expand our attention from people to environments, and acknowledging the many ways that we are entangled as resources to engage as opposed to problems to ignore.

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