Today we carry technology. Tomorrow we’ll wear it

Before fashion existed, humans wore clothes to prevent themselves from freezing to death on cold winter nights, burning to death in the hot sun, or being slashed to death as they crawled through the undergrowth in search of the next meal. Even when fashion, branding, and commercialism spawned the first wave of trendy high-tech fabrics like Gore-Tex and Spandex thousands of years later, nothing much changed: They were still designed to keep us drier, warmer, cooler, or safer, and still a far cry from what most of us would consider smart, tech-infused clothing.

Then came the smartphone. Its connectivity, millions of apps, and eventual ubiquity meant that suddenly, everyone had a handheld computer that could connect to, monitor, and control other things. It changed the way companies thought about smart products. Shoes with pedometers built in to the heel were suddenly possible. T-shirts could monitor our heartbeat. Someone even thought messenger bags with smartphone-connected speakers were a good idea.

Now, as we head toward 2017, we’re ready for the real deal. Nanotechnology has made fibers smarter. Conductive yarns mean the fabrics that we wear and sit and sleep on can suddenly communicate with our devices. And 3D printing could change the way we think about, produce, wear, and even buy clothes.

Threadbare beginnings

It took us a long time to get here. A decade ago, clothing and fashion brands were laser-focused on threads to keep us cooler, or less sweaty. The emerging world of mobile gadgetry was an irritating distraction, so all we got were a few nods in its direction, namely clothes with many, many pockets.

It was the world of competitive sports that showed us technology being integrated into clothes properly for the first time.

Witness the ScotteVest Revolution Plus, a jacket released in 2010 with a whopping 26 pockets. In this bewildering array of storage spaces, you can lose a tablet, two smartphones, a camera, a pair of headphones, and all manner of other everyday items, including, we’re sure, small pets. Clothes got away with merely storing high-tech items, rather than actually being high-tech.

It was the world of competitive sports that showed us technology being integrated into clothes properly for the first time. Performance-enhancing clothing for the world’s greatest athletes was being developed, using the same materials and fibers that would eventually be found in sportswear we’d buy in the shops .

Speedo’s LZR Racer kneecap-to-navel swimsuit, for instance, trapped air inside for buoyancy, and cut down on drag in the water, resulting in more speed. But these garments suffered at the hands of their own success. The Olympic governing body banned the use of swimsuits made of non-textile materials in 2010, after world records were smashed by swimmers clad in suits made from polyurethane or neoprene, such as the Racer. Swimmer Michael Phelps won seven of his eight events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics wearing one.

Not that it really mattered. The snowball had already started rolling down the mountain, and development wasn’t going to stop just because of some silly rule. Speedo came up with a replacement to the LZR using a material called Fastskin3, created with the help of nanotechnologists, aircraft engineers, and hydrodynamicists. It compressed the body three times more than the LZR, but only in the right places, making it more streamlined. Manufacturing it was so technically complex that in 2012, there were only six machines that could make it — and Speedo owned them all.

Speedo-LZR-Racer
Speedo’s LZR Racer gave swimmers such a huge advantage, it changed the rules of competition. (Credit: Speedo)

Around the same time as Speedo was making its superfast swimsuit, Nike and Apple partnered in 2006 to create the Nike+ line of smart fitness sensors that connected to an iPod, ready to be embedded in Nike footwear. Sports brand Quiksilver released its Cypher heated vest in 2009, with a waterproof battery powering heating elements to keep surfers warm in low temperatures. In late 2014, OmSignal began producing clothing that measures biometric data. It eventually went on to partner with Ralph Lauren on its PoloTech Shirt.

At this point, the development of smart clothing for athletes and sportspeople began to really accelerate. The sports industry’s work in high-tech clothes drove the fashion industry to earnestly begin its own research into smart garments — and not just finding ways to stitch in more pockets.

Enter Nanotech

If you’re looking at the moisture-wicking T-shirt you wear to the gym and can’t see the tech in it at all, it’s because it’s small. Really, really small. Nanotechnology has arrived.

When a thread gets the nanotech treatment, it’s like Captain America being injected with Super Soldier serum.

What is nanotechnology? The definition for clothing, set by relevant agencies in the field, says it’s a coating added to a regular thread that must be small (obviously), have an ordered assembly (which is what makes the technology work), and add a key beneficial property. How small are we talking? Just one one-hundredth of a nanometer, or about three to five atoms.

When a thread gets the nanotech treatment, it’s like Captain America being injected with Super Soldier serum. “Our treatment is a part of the manufacturing process,” explains Randy Rubin, CEO of Nanotex, a company that makes specialized fabrics with nanotechnology. “You get fabric which is immersed in a chemical bath, and after draining the excess, it’s all put in an oven. The liquid bonds to each thread, so each one is transformed at a molecular level.” A thread goes in naked, and comes out as a high-performance soldier.

Those superpowers can vary. “In the beginning, nanotechnology was about adding water resistance and stain resistance,” says Nanotex Vice President Bart Kennedy “Now there are five capabilities — water and stain resistance, anti-wrinkle, moisture management, and odor control — which can be combined together.” Combining them together in different ways allows Nanotex to make fabrics suitable for all sorts of industries. “Our technology is used everywhere, from making base layers for soldiers in the military, to incontinence pads, and even the fabric on the covers for the Microsoft Surface tablet.”

bioLogic-DT10-Clothing
BioLogic harvests cells from a bacteria that lives inside dry rice stalks are harvested, assembles them with a bio-printing system, and transforms it all into fashion. The synthetic bio-skin reacts to body heat and sweat, causing flaps around heat zones to open, enabling sweat to evaporate and cool down the body. (Credit: MIT)

Rubin sees the rise of fitness as one of the main factors driving nanotech adoption. “The days of wearing a simple T-shirt or shorts to work out in are long gone,” she explains. “Over the past 10 years, the influence of being physically fit has come to the forefront. It plays a more important part in our lives than ever before, and sports companies want to make their apparel more appealing than before for this reason.”

Our thirst for tech-infused sportswear is moving the needle on sales now, and companies are noticing. According to research firm Gartner, sales of what it classifies as “smart garments” were tiny until 2015, when consumers suddenly devoured more than 10 million of them from store shelves. This year, it expects a massive 26 million sales, most of which will be in the health and fitness category.

e-textiles arrive…

High-performance fibers aren’t all about sweat and cooling. Google’s Project Jacquard will essentially turn your clothes into an extension of your smart devices. It’s a primary example of an e-textile, the collective name given to fabrics with conductive threads or embedded electronics. Yarn that combines a regular thread like cotton with a metallic alloy can create touch- and gesture-sensitive patches on items of clothing. The controlling electronics are small and easily disguised, while a Bluetooth connection sends the data to your phone.

Levi’s will soon launch the first item of clothing that uses Project Jacquard’s technology, the Commuter Trucker Jacket. When it launches, the Trucker Jacket will be the first mainstream example of true connected clothing, which was until now little more than a science-fiction dream.

The Trucker Jacket will be the first mainstream example of true connected clothing, which was little more than a science-fiction dream.

Getting there wasn’t easy. “The conductive yarns that have been developed for this project are complex and beautiful, but not particularly difficult to work with. Denim, on the other hand, is a very challenging material to create,” explains Paul Dillinger, Levi’s vice president of Global Product Innovation. “Many of the production challenges have been tied to the peculiarities of denim weaving and finishing, but now that we’ve proven the Jacquard technology is tough enough for denim, we’re pretty confident that it can be deployed almost anywhere else.”

The jacket is on target for a spring 2017 launch, but its uses will probably evolve over time. “One of the most exciting features of this jacket and the whole Project Jacquard system is that it can be customized by the consumer,” Dillinger says. “From the available menu of Jacquard’s ‘special features,’ you can upload, configure, then activate whichever features are most important or useful or fun. As application developers release new features, the jacket’s abilities can be reconfigured or optimized.”

Imagine explaining the concept of updating a jacket to add functionality to someone from a pre-smartphone era. Our experience with smartphones and apps has unknowingly prepared us for fabrics you can upgrade.

Levi’s had to overcome other barriers. “Both the fashion industry and the technology industry have somewhat insular cultures,” Dillinger says. “Both use distinct industrial vocabularies that wouldn’t make sense to an outsider. Participating in the collaboration has felt a lot like learning a new language.”

However, one similarity did come as a surprise, and bodes well for more collaborations in the future. “Despite all the differences between the two industries, I’ve been surprised by the similarities between an engineer at Google and a designer at Levi’s,” Dillinger observes. “Although each industry uses its own set of materials and manufacturing methods, the core skill — creative problem solving — is interchangeable and universal.”

Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket is made from a unique denim, developed with Google, that responds to touch. (Credit: Levi’s)

We’re right at the beginning of this new smart garment movement, so how will it change in the years ahead? If Dillinger’s prediction is correct, the device we have held in our hand over the past few years — and which made Project Jacquard possible — may disappear.

“More and more, the objects that surround us will be digitally enabled and connected. As the pace of digital deployment accelerates and nearly anything can be digitally enabled, we’ll become less and less reliant on these special gadgets, like smartphones, that are responsible for the entirety of our digital lives. I like to say: Once everything can do something, nothing will have to do everything.”

…and 3D printing

Unless you’re a well-heeled celebrity or particularly gifted tailor, most of the clothes you own today were probably designed by a large company and distributed to thousands of people. But that could end, too. Technology is changing clothing and fashion in a far more personal way, with the potential to end up altering the way we buy, use, and design clothes entirely.

Since consumer versions began emerging a few years ago, 3D printers have been heralded as the death knell of mass manufacturing, and a sea change for industries from retail to food production. It’s still up for debate whether the 3D printer will really achieve this, but pioneers are already pushing the limits in fashion.

In 2014, designer Danit Peleg created an entire collection of 3D-printed clothes and shoes from a strong, flexible filament called FilaFlex, as part of her fashion design degree. The collection took the world by storm, was modeled at a fashion show, inspired a TED Talk about the future of 3D printing and fashion, and secured Peleg’s future as a 3D printing visionary.

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Danit Peleg’s 3D-printed designs hint at a future of clothing tailored perfectly to the wearer, and made on demand. (Credit: Danit Peleg)

“When I printed my first collection, it took 2,000 hours to print five outfits,” Peleg told Digital Trends. “Now there are printers three times faster. In a few years, it’ll take a few hours, and eventually, just a few minutes. It is expensive and time-consuming to create at the moment, but it’ll become super easy. We’re not there yet, and the main challenge right now is the lack of knowledge. People aren’t that familiar with 3D printing, and consider it very complicated.”

Though her first collection pushed the boundaries of fashion, Peleg also sees practical benefits to wearing clothes fresh out of a 3D printer. “3D printing isn’t just fun, it’s also beneficial. It doesn’t matter [what] my body size [is], I can make a dress that fits, then customize it with my name, or make it in a particular color,” she offers as one example. “Or, I’ll be able to email you the design for a jacket, and you’ll choose the filament to print it out on your own printer, in whatever color you like that morning. I can’t see any reason why we won’t be able to do this.”

Peleg also talks about other benefits, from the end of sweatshops to the ability to recycle 3D-printed clothes by taking an existing item, breaking it back down to the filament, then making something new. “You’ll be able to change your wardrobe without needing space for more clothes,” she continued, “There will be a lot of public domain clothes as well. If I give away my jacket, other people could make something different out of it, like modular furniture from Ikea.”

“Young designers won’t need their own boutique, they’ll sell their clothes over the Internet to anyone in the world. Just like music.”

Despite the dire predictions of how 3D printing will decimate manufacturing, Peleg is considerably more optimistic. She imagines the start of an entirely different design and retail process. “H&M, to take just one brand, produces thousands of designs every day. One day, you’ll go to the store, and download the latest design. There will be no need for production, only design. Stores will have their own fast printers, so you’ll be able to print clothes there and then.”

And all those store clerks? “I don’t think people will lose jobs. It’ll just change, just like the sewing machine made changes,” Peleg explains. “Every company and fashion designer will have a space where you can download digital clothing. Young designers won’t need their own boutique, they’ll sell their clothes over the Internet to anyone in the world. Just like music.”

Comparing 3D printing to the emergence of digital music will likely send shivers down the spine of apparel executives, who quake at the thought of every piece of clothing they sell being available as an illegal download. Peleg believes that can be avoided. “We learned a lot from the music industry’s problem with piracy, and we’re not going to make that mistake again,” Peleg said. “The fashion industry is an aggressive group, and isn’t going to let anyone walk over them! I believe in open source, but I also know people have got to eat. There is a company now that takes your 3D file and locks it. When I send it, I can see how many times it has been opened, whether it was printed or not, and then lock it down after a set number of uses. It’s what will keep the fashion industry alive.”

It’s impossible not to be excited over Peleg’s vision of a world of on-demand clothing, where you can choose from designs potentially updated daily or even hourly, then print them out in moments, while knowing they’ll fit perfectly because the system knows your exact measurements. Alternatively, buy an indie design online, and print it out at home. When you’re bored of it, break it down and get ready to print a new piece.

Making it happen

“It’s going to be a game-changer when we get a better filament,” said Peleg. “There are companies working on thread that feels like polyester, or leather. When the printers are fast enough and cheap enough, they’ll be more accessible. When you can do things with these printers, people will buy them. In a few years, they will be sold on the shelf next to a microwave at your local store. Everyone will have one.”

Rather than simply dreaming of such a future, Peleg is working on it right now with a bold series of custom swimsuits. Made of two textiles, the outside is entirely 3D printed, and the lining is a waterproof flexible material. “You can add your own measurements and have the right suit made for you, to see how it fits before it arrives, and customize the look and colors. This is one of a kind.”

In 2014, designer Danit Peleg created an entire collection of 3D-printed clothes and shoes from a strong, flexible filament called FilaFlex. The collection took the world by storm. (Credit: Danit Peleg)

What about those who don’t want to invest in their own 3D printer? They could decide to utilize the services of a company like 3D Hubs, an on-demand, online 3D-printer service. Or at least, CEO and co-founder Bram de Zwart hopes so. “I think this is very likely, and we’ll see this become more common in about five years from now,” he said.

De Zwart also believes centralized 3D-printing outlets could benefit the indie designer. “The beauty of 3D printing is that you can simply start production after a consumer has placed their order, leading to zero stock. Now, an average shirt is produced and assembled in three different countries. With a global network of 3D printers like 3D Hubs, orders can be automatically routed to the nearest machine. Already today, more than half of our orders are picked up instead of shipped.”

Bespoke clothes are a considered an extravagance today, but will be normal when 3D-printed clothes are ubiquitous.

The revolution has already begun

In some ways, the 3D-printing revolution is already happening, right under our feet. Gensole is a platform for designing custom insoles for your shoes, based on measurements or a 3D scan of your foot, then 3D printing them to the exact specifications. It’s an early example of how we may one day customize and print out the items we wear.

Gensole has roots in health care. The platform is part of a larger project to design insoles for people suffering from diabetes, where lack of blood flow to the extremities can have serious repercussions, with the worst-case scenario being amputation. According to founder Steve Wood, custom-designed insoles significantly lessen the chances of developing serious problems, and 3D-scanned and -printed versions are quick to produce, and cost a fraction of any eventual treatment. Prevention is better than a cure, in other words.

In one form or another, smart technology was featured in each scenario, from solar cells inside a shirt powering our phones to online-only shopping systems.

Gensole’s platform and 3D-printing process is a fascinating glimpse of what may lie ahead. The online platform can use a 3D scan, or specific measurements based around existing insoles, and the mesh-like construction of the insole allows for infinite degrees of support and customization. Once designed, an insole takes about 90 minutes to print out using the same FilaFlex filament that Danit Peleg uses for her 3D-printed clothing.

Amazingly, if you have currently access to a 3D scanner, you can use Gensole to print out your own insole. It could come with a podiatrist’s recommendations, have orthotics added in, and be crafted exactly to the shape and undulations that make up your sole. It’s the same concept that may one day end up in retail stores, where a 3D body scan is stored alongside your credit card, ready to produce clothes that are the perfect fit.

Watching an insole gradually take shape inside the 3D printer feels like the future. Unlike an inkjet printer, it sounds digital, whirring and chirping away as it slowly traces out the shape, before building it up into the final product. But Wood, who knows the ins and outs of 3D printing, is realistic about the limitations that will need to be overcome.

It’s not just a thread suitable for making clothes that will need to arrive, but new actuators — the part of the printer where the filament emerges. A new way of printing a truly flexible thread will have to be adopted, otherwise the object will collapse on itself during the printing process. Wood talks about a system currently suited for industrial use, where the filament is powdered and welded together in stages, rather than fusing layer upon layer as is common now.

There are other problems to overcome. Clothes today are stitched together from panels, which are in turn woven on looms from individual threads. This can’t happen with 3D printing. There’s simply no way to weave threads together, as well as no need for stitching or seams. These will be things of the past for 3D-printed clothes, and only included as visual garnish to make the garment look and feel “normal.” The vision seen in many 1950s sci-fi movies — where future generations wore all-in-one, seamless suits made of some unnamed shiny material — may end up closer to the truth than expected.

The Solar Windbreaker, by designer Pauline van Dongen, has a power bank directly in the lining, letting you charge any kind of portable device — and an inductive charging system even lets you do it wirelessly. (Credit: Pauline van Dongen)

Then we have the question of how we’ll measure our bodies before buying those amazing clothes at H&M. Getting a 3D scan of a body part is possible now, but definitely not commonplace. It’s another barrier, but one day, Wood says, 3D scanning will be a feature of our trusty smartphone. Google’s Project Tango, which uses stereoscopic cameras and an array of other sensors to map objects in 3D, is one example of how close we are to this becoming reality. It’s already built into a Lenovo smartphone that anyone can buy, but there’s still a long way to go before it’s in every model released.

Wood is more conservative than Peleg in estimating how close we are to 3D-printed clothes. Ten years is possible, he told us, but mostly for accessories and similar wearables like shoes and handbags. All the pieces may fall into place for us to use a platform like Gensole for a wider range of clothing within the next 20 years, he estimates.

The future’s not set

In 2010, The Forum for the Future put out a report than envisaged four possible scenarios for how the global fashion industry could look in 2025. They weren’t offered as predictions, but as tools on how the industry could change and adapt.

In one form or another, smart technology was featured in each scenario, from solar cells inside a shirt powering our phones to online-only shopping systems and 3D body scanners for virtual changing rooms to futuristic nano-coatings reducing the need to wash clothes.

Technology has been weaving itself into our clothes for decades, sometimes so subtly that we simply haven’t noticed, but the connection between them is only getting stronger. Wearable technology was never meant to stop at a smart watch or a fitness band. They’re just the beginning, and true wearable tech is only now getting stitched together.

Lead photo courtesy of Anouk Wipprecht