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.
Look around yourself right now and chances are pretty good that you’ll quickly lay eyes on a zipper. Zippers are incredibly commonplace artifacts, a commodity item produced by the mile that we rarely give a second thought to until they break or get stuck. But zippers are a fairly modern convenience, and the story of their invention is one that shows even the best ideas can be delayed by overly complicated designs and lack of a practical method for manufacturing.
Try and Try Again
Ideas for fasteners to replace buttons and laces have been kicking around since the mid-19th century. The first patent for a zipper-like fastener was issued to Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine. Though he was no slouch at engineering intricate mechanisms, Howe was never able to make his “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure” a workable product, and Howe shifted his inventive energies to other projects.
The world would wait another forty years for further development of a hookless fastener, when a Chicago-born inventor of little prior success named Whitcomb Judson began work on a “Clasp Locker or Unlocker.” Intended for the shoe and boot market, Judson’s device has all the recognizable parts of a modern zipper — rows of interlocking teeth with a slide mechanism to mesh and unmesh the two sides. The device was debuted at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and was met with almost no commercial interest.
Judson went through several iterations of designs for his clasp locker, looking for the right combination of ideas that would result in a workable fastener that was easy enough to manufacture profitably. He lined up backers, formed a company, and marketed various versions of his improved products. But everything he tried seemed to have one or more serious drawbacks. When his fasteners were used in shoes, unexpected failure was a mere inconvenience. If a fastener on a lady’s dress opened unexpectedly, it could have been a social catastrophe. Coupled with a price tag that was exorbitantly high to cover the manual labor needed to assemble them, almost every version of Judson’s invention flopped.
It would take another decade, a change of company name, a cross-country move, and the hiring of a bright young engineer before the world would have what we would recognize as the first modern zipper. Judson hired Gideon Sundback in 1901, and by 1913 he was head designer at the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company, newly relocated to Meadville, Pennsylvania after a stop in Hoboken, New Jersey. Sundback’s design called for rows of identical teeth with cups on the underside and nibs on the upper, set on fabric tapes. A slide with a Y-shaped channel bent the tapes to open the gap between teeth, allowing the cups to nest on the nibs and mesh the teeth together strongly.
Sundback’s design had significant advantages over any of Judson’s attempts. First, it worked, and it was reliable enough to start quickly making inroads into fashionable apparel beyond its initial marketing toward more utilitarian products like tobacco pouches. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Sundback invented machinery that could make hundreds of feet of the fasteners in a day. This gave the invention an economy of scale that none of Judson’s fasteners could ever have achieved.
Putting Some Teeth into It
The machinery that Sundback invented to make his “Separable Fastener” has been much improved since the early 1900s, but the current process still looks similar, at least for metal zippers. Stringers, which are the fabric tapes with teeth attached, are formed in a continuous process by a multi-step punching and crimping machine. For metal stringers, a coil of flat metal is fed into a punch and die to form hollow scoops. The strip is then punched again to form a Y-shape around the scoop and cut it free from the web. The legs of the Y straddle the edge of the fabric tape, and a set of dies then crimps the legs to the tape. A modern zipper machine can make stringers at a rate of 2000 teeth per minute.
Plastic zippers are common these days, too, and manufacturing methods vary by zipper style. One method has the fabric tapes squeezed between the halves of a die while teeth are injection molded around the tape to form two parallel stringers. A sprue connected the stringers by the teeth breaks free after molding, and the completed stringers are assembled later.
Zippers have come a long way since Sundback’s first successful design, with manufacturing improvements that have eliminated many of the manual operations once required. Specialized zippers have made it from the depths of the oceans to the surface of the Moon, and chances are pretty good that if we ever get to Mars, one way or another, zippers will go with us.
Anouk Wipprecht‘s hackerly interests are hard to summarize, so bear with us. She works primarily on technological dresses, making fashion with themes inspired by nature, but making it interactive. If that sounds a little bit vague, consider that she’s made over 40 pieces of clothing, from a spider dress that attacks when someone enters your personal space too quickly to a suit with plasma balls that lets her get hit by Arc Attack’s giant musical Tesla coils in style. She gave an inspiring talk at the 2017 Hackaday Superconference, embedded below, that you should really go watch.
Anouk has some neat insights about how the world of fashion and technology interact. Technology, and her series of spider dresses in particular, tends to evolve over related versions, while fashion tends to seek the brand-new and the now. Managing these two impulses can’t be easy.
For instance, her first spider was made with servos and laser-cut acrylic, in a construction that probably seems familiar to most Hackaday readers. But hard edges, brittle plastic, and screws that work themselves slowly loose are no match for human-borne designs. Her most recent version is stunningly beautiful, made of 3D printed nylon for flexibility, and really nails the “bones of a human-spider hybrid” aesthetic that she’s going for.
The multiple iterations of her drink-dispensing “cocktail dress” (get it?!) show the same progression. We appreciate the simple, press-button-get-drink version that she designed for a fancy restaurant in Ibiza, but we really love the idea of being a human ice-breaker at parties that another version brings to the mix: to get a drink, you have to play “truth or dare” with questions randomly chosen and displayed on a screen on the wearer’s arm.
Playfulness runs through nearly everything that Anouk creates. She starts out with a “what if?” and runs with it. But she’s not just playing around. She’s also a very dedicated documenter of her projects, because she believes in paying the inspiration forward to the next generation. And her latest project does something really brilliant: merging fashion, technology, and medical diagnostics.
It’s a stripped-down EEG that kids with ADHD can wear around in their daily lives that triggers a camera when their brains get stimulated in particular ways. Instead of a full EEG that requires a child to have 30 gel electrodes installed, and which can only be run in a medical lab, stripping down the system allows the child to go about their normal life. This approach may collect limited data in comparison to the full setup, but since it’s collected under less intimidating circumstances, the little data that it does collect may be more “real”. This project is currently in progress, so we’ll just have to wait and see what comes out. We’re excited.
There’s so much more going on in Anouk’s presentation, but don’t take our word for it. Go watch Anouk’s talk right now and you’ll find she inspires you to adds a little bit more of the human element into your projects. Be playful, awkward, or experimental. But above all, be awesome!
Project Kino — inspired by living jewelry — are robotic accessories that use magnetic gripping wheels on both sides of the clothing to move about. For now they fill a mostly aesthetic function, creating kinetic accents to one’s attire, but one day they might be able to provide more interactive functionality. They could act as a phone’s mic, adjust clothing to suit the weather, function as high-visibility wear for cyclists or joggers, as haptic feedback sensors for all manner of applications (haptic sonar bodysuit, anyone?), assemble into large displays, and even function as a third — or more! — hand are just the tip of the iceberg for these ‘bots.
[Leah and Ailee] run their own handmade clothing business and needed a mannequin to drape their creations onto for display and photography. Since ready-made busts are quite pricey and also didn’t really suit their style, [Leah] set out to make her own mannequins by cleverly combining paper craft techniques and fiberglass.
If you’re anything like us, your complete shoe collection consists of a pair of work boots and a pair of ratty sneakers that need to wait until the next household haz-mat day to be retired. But some people have a thing for shoes, and knowing which pair is suitable for the weather on any given day is such a bother. And that’s the rationale behind this Raspberry Pi-driven weather-enabled shoe rack.
The rack itself is [zealen]’s first woodworking project, and for a serious shoeaholic it’s probably too small by an order of magnitude. But for proof of principle it does just fine. The rack holds six pairs, each with an LED to light it up. A PIR sensor on the top triggers the Raspberry Pi to light up a particular pair based on the weather, which we assume is scraped off the web somehow. [zealen] admits that the fit and finish leave a bit to be desired, but for a first Rasp Pi project, it’s pretty accomplished. There’s plenty of room for improvement, of course – RFID tags in the shoes to allow them to be placed anywhere in the rack springs to mind.
Even in this age of wearable technology, the actual fabric in our t-shirts and clothes may still be the most high-tech product we wear. From the genetically engineered cotton seed, though an autonomous machine world, this product is manufactured in one of the world’s largest automation bubbles. Self-driving cotton pickers harvest and preprocess the cotton. More machines blend the raw material, comb it, twist and spin it into yarn, and finally, a weaving machine outputs sheets of spotless cotton jersey. The degree of automation could not be higher. Except for the laboratories, where seeds, cotton fibers, and yarns are tested to meet tight specifications, woven fabrics originate from a mostly human-free zone that is governed by technology and economics.