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New Tek-Tiles Project Demonstrates Next Generation Smart Fabric Potential

As brands and consumers alike pay closer attention to where fashion comes from, materials continue to be a major point of focus—and advancing them, even more so.

Pratt Institute’s Tek-Tiles project, focused on developing ideas for embedding and manufacturing technology into fabrics, has been forced to deal with the two industry stalwarts of sustainability versus technology.

Deb Johnson, founder of the Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator, or BF+DA, and its director of sustainable studies, who headed the Tek-Tiles project, said at a Textile Talk at Texworld USA Tuesday, that the industry has entered a new age in material technology.

“This is an age that will have a massive impact on the function of clothing and the way our products communicate with us and each other,” Johnson said. “We want to work on developing responsible technology.”

The Tek-Tiles project is aligned with a $486,000 grant that will expand the BF+DA to include a research center for creative technologists that will connect product developers to the design and manufacturing services they need to get “smart garments” and functional textiles from concept to market.

The goal is to create a space that connects universities, innovation centers and industry into one space–pioneering the way for new products that can do everything from capturing biometric data and deploying information through sensors, to textiles that react to changes in the environment.

Johnson said in creating next generation smart textiles, “you need to ensure they are sustainable–can they be recycled,” noting, for example, that LED lighting sewn into fabrics isn’t necessarily recyclable.

The ongoing Tek-Tiles project has brought together a diverse research and development team to investigate advanced manufacturing methods for integrating technology into apparel production. Each Tek-Tile demonstrates a functional property, has been evaluated for specific manufacturing constraints and is assessed for its environmental impact.

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The inaugural design sprint yielded 20 Tek-Tiles focused on solution-finding using computerized knitting, including knit switches, potentiometers, bio-data generation, gesture-sensing, optical structures and the creation of new yarns. The project explored new ways of manufacturing smart garments and functional fabrics, resulting in knit swatches that were activated by incorporating conductive yarn, nanofibers and filaments that have unique properties and functions.

[Read more about smart fabrics: Powered Smart Fabrics Could Keep Wearers Warm in Cold Climates]

“These novel materials have incredible potential to redefine the function of apparel and make our lives healthier, safer and more productive. Products incorporating these new tech materials will be a major driver for economic development, creating new jobs and new markets,” said Johnson, adding that the catch is the current manufacturing infrastructure isn’t prepared to meet the demands of innovation. “We want to be that resource.”

Parts of the Tek-Tiles and BF+DA programs are open sourced and other technologies are more proprietary, Johnson noted. The group has launched a Tek-Tiles library with the original 20 designs–such as a 3-D Knits, a soft-to-hard gradated knit, an augmented reality pattern that contains a holographic image, an ID pattern print that has a security code identifier, and a signal cycle jacket that has built in turn signals–with a goal to build the library to 120 smart designs.

“Going forward, want to be more focused in our projects,” Johnson added. “The idea is to work with the other 90 percent of the population that isn’t so concerned with how fast its running, but wants to understand how to be healthier, how to perform better in one own life.”

This includes gesture-sensitive smart fabrics for people with motor control disabilities and for children with autism.