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The Smart Textile Movement is Spreading: How to Tap In

Clothing has been communicating its wearer’s identity for thousands of years and now, with the trend toward wearable technology taking off, what we adorn is starting to communicate in totally different ways.

Sunday’s opening session of Sourcing at MAGIC kicked off with a nod to tech in the seminar, “The New Tech/Smart Textile Movement: A Seminar for Beginners to Industry Leaders,” looking at what’s happening in the market now, what’s ahead and how to avoid missing out on the movement.

“There is a major shift in textiles from those that basically don’t have any smart properties to those that have a purpose,” Nancy Marino, a partner at Columbus Consulting, which specializes in retail systems and processes, and a speaker on the panel said. Today, it’s all about performance, she added, and consumers are seeking products that help them manage their health, manage their exercise routines and generally just help them do more.

But it isn’t that consumers are seeking function over fashion—as panelist Diana Wyman, a technical director at the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC), put it, “I don’t wear a shirt to charge my phone, but if I wear a shirt AND it can charge my phone, that’s great.”

Today, textiles can monitor hearts, regulate body temperature, protect baseball players from injury and serve as early warning systems for breast cancer, like the Space Bra.

Researchers at the European Space Agency developed a body-monitoring bra using a shape memory alloy called Nitinol that can detect changes in form, for one, and spot early signs of diseases like breast cancer.

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Then there’s Lyf Shoes, a made-to-fit footwear line that has Heel Lock technology built into the shoe’s insole that can gather information about the wearer’s walking patters and whether they pronate, for example, so that their next tailored pair can fit even better.

And when it comes to keeping function fashionable, who better than designer Rebecca Minkoff to step in with a line of wearable accessories that keep connected consumers endlessly linked?

The designer developed a line of what her website refers to as “genius accessories” like a stylish gold chain link bracelet that syncs with a smartphone via Bluetooth and vibrates when one of the user’s 25 favorite people call or text, and a studded cable bracelet that converts into a USB connector.

So how does a startup, or even a savvy brand ready to embrace the tech trend, begin to enter the world of wearables?

The panelists pointed to SparkFun, an etailer that sells the bits and pieces to make electronics possible, with its dedicated wearables section as one good place to start, and Adafruit, a site for DIY electronics with useful tutorials, as another.

Tom Synder, director of Industry Programs for North Carolina State University and part of the Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST) program said, however, the key will be more about the merging of fashion savants and technology companies.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if tech companies start buying big fashion brands to force that connection to happen—that’s how urgent the need is,” he said.

The wearable textiles of tomorrow will have an eye toward safety and protecting the wearer and will start to factor in the environment.

Snyder said students and researchers at NC State are looking at putting environmental sensors into wearables to discover the user’s exposure to pollutants every day, for example, and how that impacts their health.

Wearables are already making major headway as innovation is being implemented at the student level and ideas are now wide-reaching, but our clothes will soon be playing an even bigger role in the Internet of Things.

“In five to seven years we’re going to see a huge change,” said Despina Papadopoulos with WWA Advisors Wearable Technology Services, who also spoke on the panel.

For now, however, wearable technology is still a niche sector.

“Wearables will be truly mainstream when the term “wearables” is dead,” Synder added. “When it’s just a shirt or a sock and you expect it to provide feedback.”