You’ve designed PCBs. You’ve cut, drilled, Dremeled, and blow-torched various objects into project enclosurehood. You’ve dreamed up some object in three dimensions and marveled as the machine stacked up strings of hot plastic, making that object come to life one line of g-code at a time. But have you ever felt the near-limitless freedom of designing in fabric?
I don’t have to tell you how satisfying it is to make something with your hands, especially something that will get a lot of use. When it comes to that sweet cross between satisfaction and utility, fabric is as rewarding as any other medium. You might think that designing in fabric is difficult, but let’s just say that it is not intuitive. Fabric is just like anything else — mysterious until you start learning about it. The ability to design and implement in fabric won’t solve all your problems, but it sure is a useful tool for the box.
To prove it, I’m going to take you through the process of designing something in fabric. More specifically, a tool roll. These two words may conjure images of worn, oily leather or canvas, rolled out under the open hood of a car. But the tool roll is a broad, useful concept that easily and efficiently bundles up anything from socket wrenches to BBQ utensils and from soldering irons to knitting needles. Tool rolls are the best in flexible, space-saving storage — especially when custom-designed for your need.
In this case, the tools will be pens, notebooks, and index cards. You know, writer stuff. But the same can just as easily organize your oscilloscope probes. It’s usefully and a great first foray into building things with fabric if this is your first time.
It’s taken mobile phone developers years to develop electric circuits and displays that can fold. Finally he first few have come to market — with mixed reviews and questionable utility at best. For all that R&D, there are a lot of other cases where folding circuitry might have been more useful than it seems these handsets have been. One of those is conductive origami, which in this case allows for light fixtures that turn themselves on as they are unfolded.
This conductive origami is produced by [Yael Akirav] using a 3D printer to deposit the conductive material onto fabric. From there, the light fixture can be unfolded into its final position and turned on. This isn’t just a decorative curiosity though, the design of the folding material actually incorporates the ability to turn itself on as it is unfolded. One device brightens itself as it is slowly unfolded.
This is an interesting take on foldable circuits in general, especially with some of the functionality incorporated into the physical shape of the material. We’ve seen conductive elements embroidered into fabric before, but this takes it to a new level. Surely there are more applications for a device like this that we will see in the future as well.
This custom fan filter created by [Kolomanschell] is a clever application of a technique used to create wearable 3D printed “fabrics”, which consist of printed objects embedded into a fine mesh like a nylon weave. The procedure itself is unchanged, but in this case it’s done not to embed 3D printed objects into a mesh, but to embed a mesh into a 3D printed object.
The basic idea is that a 3D print is started, then paused after a few layers. A fine fabric mesh (like tulle, commonly used for bridal veils) is then stretched taut across the print bed, and printing is resumed. If all goes well, the result is 3D printed elements embedded into a flexible, wearable sheet.
The beauty of this technique is that the 3D printer doesn’t need to be told a thing, because other than a pause and resume, the 3D print is nothing out of the ordinary. You don’t need to be shy about turning up the speed or layer height settings either, making this a relatively quick print. Cheap and accessible, this technique has gotten some traction in the costume and cosplay scene.
As [Kolomanschell] shows, the concept works great for creating bespoke filters, and the final result looks very professional. Don’t let the lack of a 3D model for your particular fan stop you from trying it for yourself, we’ve already shared a great resource for customizable fan covers. So if you’ve got a 3D printer and a bit of tulle, you have everything you need for a quick afternoon project.
[Maurin Donneaud] has clearly put a lot of work into making a large flexible touch sensitive cloth, providing a clean and intuitive interface, and putting it out there for anyone to integrate into their own project.. This pressure sensing fabric is touted as an electronic musical interface, but if you only think about controlling music, you are limiting yourself. You could teach AI to land a ‘copter more evenly, detect sparring/larping strikes in armor, protect athletes by integrating it into padding, or measure tension points in your golf swing, just to name a few in sixty seconds’ writers brainstorming. This homemade e-textile measures three dimensions, and you can build it yourself with conductive thread, conductive fabric, and piezoresistive fabric. If you were intimidated by the idea before, there is no longer a reason to hold back.
The idea is not new and we have seen some neat iterations but this one conjures ideas a mile (kilometer) a minute. Watching the wireframe interface reminds us of black-hole simulations in space-time, but these ones are much more terrestrial and responding in real-time. Most importantly they show consistent results when stacks of coins are placed across the surface. Like most others out there, this is a sandwich where the slices of bread are ordinary fabric and piezoresistive material and the cold cuts are conductive strips arranged in a grid. [Maurin] designed a custom PCB which makes a handy adapter between a Teensy and houses a resistor network to know which grid line is getting pressed.
By now we’ve all seen ways to manufacture your own PCBs. There are board shops who will do small orders for one-off projects, or you can try something like the toner transfer method if you want to get really adventurous. One thing we haven’t seen is a circuit board that’s stitched together, but that’s exactly what a group of people at a Vienna arts exhibition have done.
The circuit is stitched together on a sheet of fabric using traditional gold embroidery methods for the threads, which function as the circuit’s wires. The relays are made out of magnetic beads, and the entire circuit functions as a fully programmable, although relatively rudimentary, computer. Logic operations are possible, and a functional schematic of the circuit is also provided. Visitors to the expo can program the circuit and see it in operation in real-time.
While this circuit gives new meaning to the term “wearables”, it wasn’t intended to be worn although we can’t see why something like this couldn’t be made into a functional piece of clothing. The main goal was to explore some historic techniques of this type of embroidery, and explore the relationship we have with the technology that’s all around us. To that end, there have been plenty of other pieces of functional technology used as art recently as well, but of course this isn’t the first textile computing element to grace these pages.
Let’s face it, one of the challenges of wearable electronics is that people are filthy. Anything you wear is going to get dirty. If it touches you, it is going to get sweat and oil and who knows what else? And on the other side it’s going to get spills and dirt and all sorts of things we don’t want to think about on it. For regular clothes, that’s not a problem, you just pop them in the washer, but you can’t say the same for wearable electronics. Now researchers at MIT have embedded diodes like LEDs and photodetectors, into a soft fabric that is washable.
Traditionally, fibers start as a larger preform that is drawn into the fiber while heated. The researchers added tiny diodes and very tiny copper wires to the preform. As the preform is drawn, the fiber’s polymer keeps the solid materials connected and in the center. The polymer protects the electronics from water and the team was able to successfully launder fabric made with these fibers ten times.
Printing on fabric might be a familiar trick, but adding stretch into the equation gives our fabric prints the ability to reconstitute themselves back into 3D. That’s exactly what [Gabe] has accomplished; he’s developed a script that takes open 3d meshes and converts them to a hexagonal pattern that, when 3D-printed on a stretched fabric, lets them pop into 3D upon relaxing the fabric.
[Gabe’s] algorithm first runs an open 3D surface through the “Boundary-First Flattening Algorithm,” which gives [Gabe] a 2D mesh of triangles. Triangles are then mapped to hexagons based on size, which produces a landscape of 2D hexagons. Simply printing this hexagonal pattern onto prestretched fabric defines the shape of the object that will surface when the fabric is allowed to relax. As for how to wrap our heads around the mapping algorithm, as [Gabe] explains it, “The areas that experienced the most shrinkage in the flattening process should experience the least shrinkage when the fabric contracts after printing, and the regions that experienced little to no shrinkage in the flattening process should contract as much as possible in the fabric representation.”
If that seems tricky to visualize, just imagine taking a cheap halloween mask and trying to crush it flat onto a table. To smush it perfectly flat, some sections need to stretch while others need to shrink. Once flat though, we can simply keep stretching to remove all the sections that needed to shrink. At this point, if our material were extremely elastic, we could simply let go and watch our rubber mask jump back into 3D. That’s the secret behind [Gabe’s] hexagonal pattern. The size and spacing of these hexagons limit the degree to which local regions of the fabric are allowed to contract. In our rubber mask example, the sections that we stretched out the furthest have the most to travel, so they should contract as much as possible, while the sections that shrank in the initial flattening (although we kept stretching until they too needed to stretch) should shrink the least.
We’ve seen some classy fabric-printing tricks in the past. If you’re hungry for more 3D printing on fabric, have a look at [David Shorey’s] flexible fabric designs.