We developed a course and curriculum for teaching textile structures to an audience of students interested in engineering and physical prototyping. We have released this course, as well as our materials lists, kits, and assignments, as an open education resource here: https://unstable.design/soft-object/_book/
E-Textiles, Smart Textiles, Flexible Hybrid Electronics: Who’s Saying What?
Recently, LOOMIA and the Unstable Design Lab jointly ran a survey that asked people working in e-textiles (or more broadly, “electronics + textiles”) how they liked to talk about their work. LOOMIA is a flexible electronics start-up creating prototyping components for creative technologists, designers, and all sorts of e-textiles folks, hence the interest in how we label e-textiles and related work. LOOMIA has posted on their blog about the differences and overlaps between terms like “e-textiles”, “smart textiles”, and “functional fabrics”, but we wanted to test some theories about how people are actually using these terms.
The survey asked people to think about the following terms:
- Smart textiles
- Functional fabrics
- Soft circuits
- Flexible circuits/devices
- FHE (Flexible Hybrid Electronics)
- Stretchable electronics
Participants were asked which terms they had heard of, if they preferred or disliked any on the list, and if they saw any differences between the terms. They could also add any terms that we had missed.
We received a wide variety of responses, representing a range of age, genders, nationalities, experience levels, and professional backgrounds!
Total Participants – 63
0 years of e-textile experience – 21
1+ years of e-Textile experience – 42
Gender – Female (28), Male (33), Non-Binary (2)
Age – 18 to 75
Occupation – Homemaker to CEO
In particular, the terms “e-textiles” and “flexible hybrid electronics” seemed to stand at two extremes of a language spectrum.
- 30/63 did not like Stretchable Electronics
- 26/63 did not like Soft Circuits
- 31/63 did not like Flexible Hybrid Electronics
- 17/63 did not like Flexible Circuits and Devices
- 14/63 did not like Functional Fabrics
- 17/63 did not like Smart Textiles
- 5/63 did not like E-Textiles
Because we also collected demographic information on participants’ career paths and asked them to categorize their own work, we wanted to see if there were any differences between the disciplines represented in our field. The main categories were “engineer”, “creative technologist”, or “artist/craftsperson”, but participants also added “venture capital”, “HR”, “textile designer”, and other roles.
What Engineers Liked
- 7/19 liked E-textiles/Smart Textiles (tied)
- 3/19 liked Flexible Hybrid Electronics
- 2/19 liked Soft Circuits
What Creative Technologists Liked
- 18/20 liked E-Textiles
- 10/20 liked Smart Textiles
- 7/20 liked Soft Circuits
- 5/20 liked Functional Fabrics
- 2/20 liked Flexible Hybrid Electronics
What Other Careers Liked
- 8/24 liked Smart Textiles
- 7/24 liked E-Textiles
- 2/24 liked Stretchable Electronics
- 1/24 liked Soft Circuits
Digging deeper into our data, many participants generously gave time to answer some free-response questions on their language associations with “e-textiles” or “flexible hybrid electronics”. By and large, people were concerned about future e-textiles/flexible device products being washable, both as an essential criteria for usability and as a technical challenge to overcome with new materials.
Q: What do you believe are essential features or descriptors of future e-textiles/flexible electronics? (For example: thin, washable, soft, etc.)
Q: What sort of products do you associate with flexible or wearable devices? These can be existing products or future hopes.
We also see some interesting disagreements about how much the “e-textiles / smart fabrics” label overlapped with the “flexible / wearable” label. While most people said that they’re either related or even nested categories, a minority of respondents associated the two with different materials or fabrication techniques. A key quote from a dissenting opinion:
“fabrics are made of fibers that can easily be manipulated whereas flexible and wearable devices are made of plastics or hard materials”anonymous survey respondent
which points out that many of our current wearable devices like smartwatches don’t use fabrics (or if they do, there aren’t integrated electronics in the fabric).
Returning to our initial hypothesis, it seems that our hunch was wrong about engineers preferring terms with “circuits” or “electronics” over terms that focused on “textiles”! But the data shows a much more nuanced picture of how people are thinking about the future of e-textile technologies. We see folks grappling with using language that is specific and descriptive (e.g. “electronics” implies semiconductor devices and the associated materials and processes, while “textiles” implies yarns/fiber and knitting/weaving/felting/etc.) versus language that is general and accessible. Broad terms like “e-textiles” and putting the “smart” label before a product category are easily understood by a general audience, but for those working within the industry, these terms can become “buzzwords” which are vague and unhelpful for describing the technical details of their work.
We presented these initial findings and analyses in a webinar, hosting a town-hall-style discussion with interested survey respondents. Again, there was a diverse range of experiences in the virtual room. Speaking face to face, we wanted to get the room thinking about their language use when talking to others in e-textiles. Since the survey focused on people’s language use within their own professional contexts, we were especially interested in any experiences that people had collaborating across disciplines when working in e-textiles. From one participant on the differences in working with textile engineers vs. electrical engineers:
“textile engineers tend to have a broader perspective as they can see concrete applications (wearables / clothing). Whereas [electrical engineers] may be a little more broad technically: e.g. use of flexible circuits in detecting stretch.”anonymous webinar attendee
While our dataset is by no means comprehensive, these survey results were a fascinating exploratory poke into the interdisciplinary nature of the emerging e-textiles field and the future of its industry. We hope that sharing these findings will help us all to speak across professions and consider different perspectives, particularly in collaborative settings, when discussing soft, flexible, and textile based circuits of all shapes and sizes.
We’d like to shout out the following people for their contributions and thoughtful responses:
- Ricardo O’Nascimento
- Andrea C
- Robert Tietze
- Vicente Jorge Sanchis Rico
- J.J.M Geurts
- Michelle Farrington
- Jim Stathis
- Lina Stephens
- Radoslav Hanic
- Charlie Lindahl
- Amy Jenkins
- Md Mehdi Hasan
- Qianwen Yu
- Lori Ann Wahl
- Michael Stewart
- Pranav Sai
- James Ochieng
- Eddie Yam (Intertek HK)
- Gil M
- Muhammed Tawhidur Rahman
- Bobby Bedi
If you’d like to learn more about LOOMIA’s side of this collaboration, please check out their website and blog (where this article was also posted). You can also learn more about their founder and our main collaborator on this study, Maddy Maxey.
Data analysis by Maddy Maxey
Images by Mary Vogt
This Summer, Laura was invited to give one of the keynotes in the HCI area at the Symposium for Computational Fabrication. The talk summarizes my ongoing interest in design imagination as it is cultivated through a practice of integrating theory and practice. It then focuses in on smart textiles as a place where this work can be explored in both poetic and productive capacities.
I was in love with the fabric below and wanted to weave a similar pattern for myself. I didn’t have the tie up, but I did have the photo of the fabric, so I reverse engineered it. I found it really difficult to design the overall patterning of the stripes and tie ups at the same time so I wrote a processing script to allow me to more playfully make patterns with my keyboard, and have those generate my tie up. I released the code on GitHub so others could do the same.
This is a first prototype of a vision of a force-fabric. When integrated into a garment, this textile could capture and replay how your body made contact with other bodies in the world. Those bodies may be human, created through the experiences of hugs or holding children, but they may also be of nonhuman forces – heavy winds or couches pressed upon ones back. The concept is to think of ways technology can make us aware of how we are physically supporting and supported by other objects and environmental forces. It sees garments as a interesting surfaces of intersection between self and other.
We created this first textile by double weaving sections of color changing yarn (resistive heating wire painted with a mixture of thermochromic pigments that change at different temperatures) on the front face and then integrating conductive pads on the back or under layer of the fabric. We used a tapestry technique to integrate a second piece of conductive yarn along a segment of the warp above the touchpad such that when it is pressed it completes the circuit. The double weaving structure makes the connective “guts” invisible from the front. Thus, the textile does not invite you to touch and poke it (how would you know where to touch), it simply captures a “picture” of the different press regions.
We’re happy to annouce that we (Laura Devendorf, Steven Frost, in collaboration with Allison Anderson) have won a Materials-Based Research Grant from the Center for Craft Creativity and Design. The funds will support an artist participating on our research in smart textiles during the Summer of 2019. The artist will be based in the Unstable Design Lab and will participate in our ongoing research in smart textiles. The goal is for the experience to produce innovative research that combines weaving and “smart” materials while also providing insights on how academic research labs might meaningfully engage and support artists on their teams. Stay posted for updates and application details. We expect to publish a call for applications later this year. You can read more about the award here: http://www.craftcreativitydesign.org/2018-materials-based-research-grants/
In the Fall of 2017, we coordinated a workshop exploring the future of smart textiles – what new forms of computation and support are needed for these systems and how do we foster production collaborations between artists and engineers? A semester later, Laura Devendorf and Allison Anderson (Aerospace) teamed up to apply for a seed grant from the Multi-Functional Materials research group at CU Boulder to support the purchase of a TC2 digital jacquard loom. The seed grant was awarded and the loom will arrive mid-summer. The first projects in the pipeline include custom fitting textiles, distributed force sensing, and explorations in “un”-weaving. We look forward to community wide collaborations and (hopefully) hosting a summer art residency who will broaden perspectives on our work.
The National Science Foundation has awarded Devendorf roughly $175K to develop new software for designing smart textiles. Smart textiles combine traditional processes of weaving or knitting with new materials that interface with digital technologies. The project will focus on weaving specifically, and proposes the development of a tool that bridges textile design with circuit design. Textiles and technology have a long and interwoven (pun intended) history. Through close collaborations with artists and engineers, we will develop the software to provide new functionality and outcomes while also imagining new modes of collaboration with machines (e.g. what new forms of engagement emerge with the fabrication of soft objects as opposed to rigid objects) and sustainable practices (e.g. in what ways might we un-weave to save on material waste). The funds will be used to support PhD students on this research and to equip the Unstable Design Lab with weaving equipment.