Fiber Department Shows Smart Textiles Can Change the Fashion Industry

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 Couwenberg’s inaugural class last fall in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Digital Media Center—have a wide range of practical applications, 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,” Couwenberg said, “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.”

After hearing about the military’s usage, Couwenberg said she could not let students go out in the world not knowing about this kind of wearable technology. “The field is changing quickly,” she said, “and technology and electronics are really becoming totally infiltrated into our lives, so I needed to expose students to that.”

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

“If you have only 15 weeks and you need to learn circuitry, programming, how sensors work, how incubators work, it’s quite challenging,” she said. “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 the JHU School of Engineering and the community at large, including 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. Couwenberg added, “We cannot forget that we are both a fi ne arts institution and a research institution, so we have a critical and analytical nature.”

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. This led to her final project, “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.”