If there is a field which has promise verging on a true breakout, it is that of wearable electronics. We regularly see 3D printing, retrocomputing, robotics, lasers, and electric vehicle projects whose advances are immediately obvious. These are all exciting fields in which the Hackaday community continually push the boundaries, and from which come the astounding pieces of work you read on these pages daily. Of course the projects that merge textiles and electronics are pushing boundaries in the same way, except for that it’s often not obvious at first glance. Why is that?
Wearables are a field in which hard work and ingenuity abound, but pulling off the projects that stand out and go beyond mere ordinary garments adorned with a few twinkly LEDs or EL wire is hard. Wearables have a sense of either still seeking its killer application or its technological enabler, and it was this topic that physicist, textilist, and artist Kitty Yeung touched upon in her talk at the recent Hackaday Superconference.
Kitty takes us through a selection of her work including a piece with fabric made from volcanic basalt and a top depicting an eclipse as a moving image, it was by way of illustrating the limitations imposed upon the creative textile technologist by the traditional nature of the medium. In some cases these limitations were purely technological, such as her using lenticular printing for the eclipse because her first choice of a flexible OLED screen was not yet practical. In others though, like the iterative process by which a designer and manufacturer work to achieve the correct product, she describes an industry whose practices have not followed those of other industries. She poses the question: why could the textile business not operate in a manner more akin to the electronics industry?
She’s looking for the appearance of garment companies that follow the model of 3D printing services such as Shapeways; encapsulating made-to-order products and prototypes produced directly from the supplied designs produced by the creator. Already there’s a service offering the ability to print and cut pattern pieces to order, but as the exception rather than the rule. Kitty sees a future in which the garment business is as tightly integrated through the use of CAD and CNC manufacturing as the 3D printing industry, and though she didn’t mention it we can also see a close parallel with the world of printed circuit boards. This could achieve the production of custom textiles at a level that would be democratised and accessible no matter what the production volume. Want to wear custom prints on uniquely built garments? Need something that fits you and not a size that “fits all”? These is part of the breakout promise laying in wait.
If you have ever worked with textiles in a hackerspace alongside other members using CNC routers, laser cutters, and 3D printers in their projects you will immediately understand her point. Sewing machines may have advanced since the days of your grandmother’s treadle Singer, but the process is still the same one of one of tissue paper, glass-headed pins, and fabric shears that she would feel right at home in. Kitty Yeung’s vision for the future presents infinite possibilities, and we’re sure you’ll agree it’s one we’d all like to be in.