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Fiber Department Shows Smart Textiles Can Change the Fashion Industry

Class featured in Voice of America, Discovery Channel News, Bmore Media and What Weekly

Posted 01.31.11 by MICA Communications

Jack Anderson (JHU), The Want-Band

The idea of "smart textiles" is to combine age-old craftsmanship with 21st-century technology. MICA's Collaborative Smart Textiles Research Lab, developed by Annet Couwenberg in 2008, investigates how to imbue static pieces of fabric with life-like qualities, allowing them to become responsive to their surrounding environment.

Wash & Wear Electronics-both another name for smart textiles and the name of her inaugural class this fall in partnership with Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Digital Media Center-have a wide range of practical applications, Couwenberg said, ranging from high fashion to medicine and the military. "The military has a vest for soldiers in combat where it is directly connected with the Internet and computers so if a soldier gets shot, information is given about where he was shot and what kind of injury it is. It is communicated with a physical computer in a hospital. There are also sports bras and T-shirts where there is a flexible heart-monitoring device, so it gives you your heart rate as you exercise."



READ: Discovery Channel News, Electronic Yarn Is Washable
READ: Bmore Media, It Takes a Village to Raise an Artist: The Smart Textiles Class from MICA/JHU
READ: What Weekly, Smart Textiles
WATCH: Voice of America, Students Design Futuristic Hi-Tech Clothes

After hearing about the military's usage, Couwenberg said she could not let students go out in the world not knowing about this. "Whether or not they were interested in wearable technology, they needed to know about this. The field is changing very fast, and technology and electronics are really becoming totally infiltrated into our lives, so I needed to look and see how I could expose students to that."

Couwenberg, who served as Fiber Department chair from 1989 to 2008, brought on Interaction Design and Art (IxDA) Chair James Rouvelle to co-teach the research lab, which began two years ago, and help demystify the technical side of circuitry.

"The technical part is quite challenging," she said. "If you have only 15 weeks and you need to learn circuitry, programming, how sensors work, how incubators work, it's quite challenging. But because of the possibilities it opens up for them, they step up to plate because they want to have their dreams come true." Last fall, students from MICA and JHU learned how to use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and Lilypads, tiny wearable (and washable) computers that act as a "brain" to process information signals, and how to integrate these elements into their designs.

A series of guest lecturers from JHU School of Engineering and the community at large, including an ongoing mentorship from Gary Mauler, an engineer at Northrop Grumman, helped expose the students to the wide array of uses and implications for their designs, as well as how to implement them.

"This course has the potential to inspire engineers and artists to become catalysts for innovation and change in the future technology-centered economy," reads the course's syllabus. And Couwenberg added: "We cannot forget that we are both a fine arts institution and a research institution, so we have a critical and analytical nature. What does this mean for artists in the larger sense? What does this mean for us, and for humanity, and for society? How can we even help with social issues? Imagine: solar panels woven into women's bags in Africa for when they work the fields during the day. This enables them to have electricity at night."

Emily Cudworth, a junior fiber major, signed up for the class because "I was interested in learning technologies that would impact the costume world when I go to seek employment. Things like the Chinese Olympics opening ceremony LED costumes were of great interest to me, and I wanted to learn an overview on how to create projects like this so that I would be an indispensable employee in the future."

With her interest in the Olympic LED costumes, she researched a way to make the LEDs more dynamic, with different controls and motion activation. This led to a different sport for her final project, which turned out to be "gallop boots" for horses with applications for use in training and diagnosis of health concerns such as lameness.

"There were times in the course when everyone had to learn from one another's skills, and to see the balance and trade was exciting," Cudworth said. "I think it was a good way for both MICA students and JHU students to explore each other's worlds, which, if combined, would be extraordinary."

Peter Ebeid-Atalla '12, “Midi Puppet,” Flex sensors, LilyPad, spandex, Max MSP, Abelton Live


Photo caption (from top): Jack Anderson (JHU), The Want-Band; Emily Cudworth '12, Gallop Boots; Peter Ebeid-Atalla '12, Midi Puppet. (Photos by Dan Meyers Photography)

Related events

• The students will be showcasing their final projects in a Wearable Technology Fashion Show in China on Thursday, April 7 in conjunction with the Fashion Department at Donghua University in Shanghai, China, and the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, with a full collaboration beginning in September.

• The spring Smart Textiles class, in partnership with MICA's Electronics for Art and Design class, will showcase their work at in\flux gallery, 307 W. Baltimore St., with a free reception and student presentations on Wednesday, April 27 at 7 p.m.

The classes will also participate in Robot Fest at National Electronics Museum, 1745 W. Nursery Road, Linthicum Heights (near Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport) on Saturday, April 30 from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tickets: Suggested donation of $6, adults; $3, middle- and high-school students; children are free. For more information on this event, visit www.robotfest.com.

• The class will publish a book in March, Wash & Wear, which showcases images of the students' work, as well as essays on the class's processes, materials, and lecturers.

Emily Cudworth '12, Gallop Boots