From building to body: Current research into interactive and technical textiles

Highlights from the educational sessions at IFAI Expo 2012 in Boston.

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“Health and well-being in the personal and built environments” was presented by session moderator Marie O’Mahony, professor of advance fashion and textiles, OCAD University, Toronto, Ont., Canada. New fibers such as “memory metal” (plugged into a car battery), technomaterials made of natural substances such as banana fiber or coconut husks, stretch aramids, multiaxial weaving with glass fibers: all share an emphasis on performance, or “stitch as structure.” Designs from nature combine with technology to create wearable fabrics that clean themselves, conduct electricity, transmit images and information, change shape and fight disease. For buildings, textiles also are designed to be functional as well as decorative, serving to enhance acoustics and create more healthful and comfortable indoor environments. Technical textiles are used now not only to create fabric structures, but as integral parts of permanent structures.

Ph.D. candidates Felecia Davis, MIT, and Delia Dumitrescu, Chalmers University, presented “Designing with Heat: Interactive Knitted Tension Structures,” discussing “sentient textiles that create an ambient interface to the environment around us.” Using a tubular weaving machine, with electronic circuits running throughout the fabric, the ultimate idea is to scale up from textiles to buildings.

Integrating textile and architectural design processes through new software design—“Modeling Materiality”—was discussed by Dena Molnar of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. New materials are reshaping what is possible, she noted, and added that the distributor-controlled model of fabric sourcing, as well as traditional fabric looms (automating a traditional process) are putting limits on innovation in the field. Her emphasis is on software that will build the textile from its smallest component out, then simulate the textile in context (3-D), and then use a larger 3-D model for architects that could possibly simulate an entire office. Textile design would become integral to the building, not a secondary application. Molnar envisions manufacturers and architects working together directly for greater innovation and customization, using software that can simulate both adaptive and responsive behaviors for textiles, within the context of full-scale 3-D models.

The final two sessions departed from the planet, and from humanity, in discussing textile technology. MIT Ph.D. candidate Brad Holschuh discussed the development of the mechanical counter-pressure space suit (MCP), as an alternative to stiff, bulky gas pressurization suits. Challenges include: 1) pressure must be uniform everywhere; 2) must accommodate changes in body shape during movement; and 3) wearers must be able to put it on and take it off. Different types of “active materials” are being modeled, such as elastomers and shape memory polymers, such as a nonwoven compressor sheath (activated by electricity or heat) or “coiled actuators,” working like the childhood toy “finger trap.” Data on pressure and mobility are being collected, and tested on robots.

Another MIT Ph.D. candidate, Adam Whiton, wrapped up the morning’s presentations with a discussion of “Sartorial Robotics,” or “social soft-architecture robotics,” their attempts to design humanoid interactive robots. Adding clothing to robots makes them seem more human, Whiton said, and the coverings can be functional (protective) as well as decorative. The move towards softer materials in robots is one attempt to make them seem more expressive, as well as to expand their function. One example of e-textiles, for example, might be to allow robots to match the color of their exterior coverings with those they’re among, to increase their acceptance.

The panel discussion ended with students commenting that doing research with textiles can be hampered due to the industry emphasis on volume, and the rapid protyping involved. There is no doubt, however, that textiles will play an increasing role in a variety of other industries in the future.

Galynn Nordstrom is senior editor of Specialty Fabrics Review magazine.

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