Electronic Textiles – The Future of Fashion?

Topics Covered

Overview and Introduction
E-Textile Categories
Materials and Components Used
The Role of Conducting and Semiconducting Materials
The Use of Metallic Fibers in Textiles
Organic Textiles and Further Innovations

Overview and Introduction

Electronic devices are ever present in almost every facet of modern life, and soon they could even be integrated into the very clothes that we wear. 

Electronic textiles, commonly known as E-textiles, smart textiles, and wearable technology, are fabrics that enable computing components, digital components, and electronics to be embedded within them. E-textile researchers are aiming at creating devices that are as soft, flexible and comfortable as traditional items of clothing, with added technological benefits.

Although most e-textiles are made for wearing, they are also used in items such as wall hangings, quilts and umbrellas.

E-Textile Categories

There are three general categories into which e-textiles can be divided:

  • Textiles embedded with classical electronic devices such as integrated circuits, LEDs, conducting wires, and traditional batteries.
  • E-textiles with advanced electronics (such as pure wires, conducting textile fibers, transistors, diodes, and solar cells) fitted directly on the textile fibers.
  • Hybrid structures using both the above concepts in varying measures

Materials and Components Used

Interactive e-textiles use infrared transceivers that can be embedded into shirts, and allow communication with one another wirelessly.

This technology is already finding applications in military, medical, and industrial textile markets. However, there is still a lot of research being undertaken in this area, and the possibilities seem to be extensive and exciting.

Concepts include clothes capable of changing colors according to a musical beat, textile keypads on a sleeve that can be used to dial phone numbers, type messages, and play music, interior textiles for the residential and commercial offices that can be used to control lighting temperature, and TV remote controls that can be integrated into the arm of the sofa. Textiles embedded with sensory devices driven by GPS can help in locating the wearer who is lost at anytime or in any weather condition

LEDs can also be incorporated into the fabric of clothing with stunning results. A full body LED snowsuit designed by John Spatcher and worn by professional snowboarder William Hughes made news in 2012 via a short film displaying Hughes’ skills as he rode down the slopes of Tignes in south-eastern France in pitch darkness. Similarly, LED sequin bracelets and LED sequin shirt are now commonly seen at fashion shows.

Fabrics that utilize metallic fibers are often important in e-textiles, as their conductive properties can be beneficial. An example of this is Lamé fabric, which is woven from synthetic fibers, such as nylon, and metallic fibers. The fabric is reflective and glossy due to the high metallic fiber content and can also be stretched. 

The Role of Conducting and Semiconducting Materials

Fibertronics involves using metallic fibers mixed with textile fibers to form conducting or semi-conducting fibers that can be either woven or sewn. The conductive fibers are based on a non-conductive or less conductive substrate (such as polyester, nylon, stainless steel, cotton, aramids and PBO), which is then coated or embedded with electrically conductive elements such as carbon, nickel, gold, silver, copper, or titanium. Electrically conductive fibers can also be produced by coating fibers with metals, galvanic substances, or metallic salts such as copper iodide and copper sulfide. Semiconducting textiles are formed by imbedding regular textiles with carbon or metal-based powders.

Conductive materials are being used to increase the appeal of wearable electronics by making the fabric lighter and wireless.

Conductive fibers are more advantageous than solid or stranded metal wires as conductive fibers have more flexibility and can be easily produced using existing textile and wire machinery.

Conductive fibers and textiles can be applied in various areas such as static dissipation, signal and power transfer in low resistance versions, EMI shielding, and as a heating element in higher resistance versions.  An example of an recent beneficial application of conductive textiles is Taser-proof clothing, which could have applications in the police force. 

Organic Textiles and Further Innovations

There is a lot of research happening in the area of organic textiles, the result of which is the creation of the first organic fiber transistor, which is completely compatible with textile manufacturing and that contains no metals at all.

Scientists are interested in embedding organic solar cells on fibers, and creating solar power wires based on organic photovoltaic materials.

Researchers are also working on creating three-dimensional polymer micro-electronics, using large-scale circuits that can be designed and integrated directly into three-dimensional structure of woven fibres.


G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


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