The evolving field of responsive, sustainable textiles

By Maja Kuzmanovic

When human lives unfold in spaces that appear to be increasingly chaotic, unpredictable, and even hostile, we generally tend to adopt “hedgehog strategies”: we curl up into a prickly ball that will hurt everything that comes too close. Our survival instincts, fed by a cultural need for comfort and safety, tell us to protect ourselves from anything remotely strange. However, until a few decades ago, our clothing could not mimic the reaction of the hedgehog's coat. We tended to shield ourselves in hard-shell armour, vehicles, or fortified buildings, which could never return to a “soft” state once the danger passed.

The world has always had a tendency to spew new hazards at unsuspecting populations from many corners - hazards that seem to have rapidly accumulated over the past ten to fifteen years, from a destabilized climate, to extreme economic oscillations, to the rise of global xenophobia, to careless spreading of GM (genetically modified) crops, to many more examples. These issues have become more apparent to us as individual events are made (nearly) instantaneously visible around the globe via communication technologies. And though they grow progressively more anxious, the populace of the “first world” does not retreat to the shelter of their homes, but continues to drift around the planet, demanding light and portable shields that can read stimuli in both familiar and strange surroundings, and react adequately. A demand for wearable materials that are able to respond to external stimuli is beginning to crop up.

Clothing, being a mobile version of fortified human skin, has become the default target for research into active or “smart” materials. In this research, clothing is seen as a contextually-aware, semi-porous membrane between corporeal and environmental processes. Understandably, this research is mainly fueled by those economies of fear (predominantly linked to our military apparati, hazardous occupations, and medical industries) that so often engineer materials that are good for sensing menace and distress, but rarely design technologies to detect positive stimuli or change their behaviour. Since these same materials have been continually embraced in the civilian sphere, their use and purpose have spread rapidly to areas like sportswear, outdoor clothing, service uniforms, and theatrical costumes. Waterproof Teflon or versatile GoreTex?, different chromic (ie., colour changing) materials, aerogel, piezoelectric composites, and so on are all “active” materials - but not of a particularly “smart” kind, in the sense that the range of their responses does not evolve based on previous exposures.

Smart clothing worthy of the name would require materials to truly interact with the environment around them, and their reactivity would have to more closely resemble an immune system than an alarm system. It would have to be made to protect when there is a real need for protection, but in all other situations to allow an exchange, a permeation, or even a benign infection. Designing materials to function as chameleon skins with the ability to adapt to a variety of external conditions, and adopt behaviours that are appropriate for diverse environments, is what will truly challenge the concept of garments as inert predesigned objects. With the introduction of these kinds of advanced materials to clothing design, major shifts in the fast-paced rhythms of the fashion industry can be expected. In the short term, sectors devoted to haute couture and utility uniforms will probably be the only ones that can afford the experiments, but in the long run all sectors will be affected, from street-wear to ready-to-wear confection.

Fashion is often classified as the most fleeting design discipline, obsessed with (re)newness and continuous change. This is true to an extent, in that the most visible part of fashion - its products, brands, and markets - tend to change seasonally, monthly, or even weekly. However, there are two less visible trend-flows that underlie the fashion cycles: the desires, wishes, and needs of the wearers, and slow, fundamental social changes.

A contemporary example of such trends is the previously mentioned global instability, which has caused a diverse range of “fashionable” needs to surface. The gradient of these needs moves between the need for hermetical safety and protection from hardened reality, and the need to escape into softer, more fantastic worlds where the laws of myth and magic prevail. At the same time, unstable economics have made consumers weary of innovation crazes driven by the market push of hyped-up experimental technologies. Even though rapidly swapping vogues are still dominating the “developed” markets, an undercurrent of desire for an abundant yet better balanced lifestyle is seeping through the cracks on international catwalks. Consumption patterns are gradually becoming two-way transactions between humans and the environment, raising awareness of our inevitable entanglement with the world we live in.

With the introduction of materials that directly react to changes in their environment, as well as programmable, electronically enhanced textiles, the fashion industry has a chance to focus on more sustainable design models while still keeping track of the changing needs and desires of wearers. These developments are echoed in forecasts by leading trend-watchers such as Lidewij Edelkoort, [] Zukunftsinstitut, [] the Viridians, [] or the Institute for the Future. [] These sources predict a move from blatant consumerism toward a lifestyle in which the quality and longevity of technologies and materials can be married with the urge to renew the wearer's appearance following shorter term trends. The sustainability of designing with reactive materials lies in their potential to function as living systems, “ecologies” whose composited molecules resemble the diversity of life forms in a patch of grass - each performing particular functions to maintain a dynamic balance in a continuously oscillating ecosystem.

Another trend that has followed the failure of techno-optimism and individualism at the end of the 1990s is a wish for collective creation, encouraged by the understanding that contemporary life has become too complex to be grasped by one person. This trend, coupled with a need to reacquaint ourselves with modesty and admit that we can neither rule the whole world nor let ourselves be ruled by others, brings forth a belief that we should accept one another as co-creators of our own surroundings.

Concepts behind participatory and pervasive technologies (including active materials) aptly respond to these needs by proposing more flexible, modular, and interdisciplinary design paradigms. The possibilities of mobile illumination and visual communication can soon become infused in clothing, as flexible image displays and elastic light (EL) sources become commercially available - existing products such as flexible EL prints and LCDs (liquid crystal displays), Active Matrix OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes), and E-Ink (electronic ink) are good examples. Textile prints and woven patterns with a capacity to change their appearance on-the-fly will require fashion designers to familiarize themselves with the world of moving images and dynamic luminescence. Shape memory alloys and polymers are already offering the possibility of continuous sculpting with material surfaces - in response to changing temperature or pressure, fabrics laced with these materials can alter their contours, act as environmental barometers, and otherwise communicate through their surface-shifting aspect. Instead of seeing a garment as a finished product, designers can create “suggestions” of shape and texture that “come to life” when worn. Clothing designers like Maria Blaisse [] or Reiko Sudo [] leave space in their work for the human body in motion to define the form of their garments, which are contrived to adjust to the wearer's every step, bend, and shudder.

Working on fashion with the potential to keep changing its appearance and behaviour years after it has been wrapped up and carried home by “end users” demands an algorithmic approach to clothing design. Garment makers will need to take into account a whole ecosystem in which their garments will be worn, and accept the fact that their responsibility stretches across and through the “four human skins” (biological skin, clothing, and indoor and outdoor “membranes”). In order to become a true ecology, fashion will need to stress the importance of the inclusion of the “fifth skin” - that which extends beyond the human built environment and into the uncertain realm of “things that grow and evolve”. The creativity of the designer will lie in the programming of particular sensibilities which will give their garments an ability to change moods, adapt responses, and, in their essence, act as living entities immersed in different environments: entities that can sustain themselves as dynamic structures fluctuating between verve and lethargy.

While our awareness of environmental and economic sustainability is increasing, desires for intimate comfort and safety, as well as trans-local mobility, are still a quite dominant trend. Even though these impulses might at first glance appear contradictory, current developments in material science, nanotechnology, and biotechnology have the potential to minimize conflicts between domesticity and mobility, and between environmental and market-driven issues, by introducing materials that can respond to all of these needs at once. Independent and academic research laboratories are presently conducting experiments on materials that are “self-sustaining”: able to power and recreate themselves when damaged, while simultaneously assisting their wearers in coordinating and enhancing their corporeal and social functions.

Current ecologically and technologically enticing research near the base of the food chain involves mobile, “green” energy sources used for “portable energy applications”. Rensselaer Polytechnic, [] Medis, [] Toshiba, [] Dr. Shelley Minteer's group [] at St. Louis University, and others are investigating solar and fuel cells, and batteries powered by the sun, alcohol, glycerin, and even excess sewage. For example, see the VMJ, or “vertical multijunction solar cell”, [,1282,60301,00.html] and the MFC, or “microbial fuel cell”. []

Once powered, self-sustaining materials need to uphold their structural integrity in a variety of situations. A multitude of new designs are sprouting from research into “biomimicry” (the patterning of industries and products after natural systems), such as polymer composites with “self-repairing” properties - analogous to biological systems that autonomously initiate a “healing process” when damaged.

Interesting cross-disciplinary research is being conducted in fields that surpass the needs of materials themselves, and move into areas of interaction between the clothing and the human body. Human-garment interaction (HGI) has advanced most in the area of health and safety. Recent developments include antibacterial materials that have the ability to eliminate harmful germs, such as Mipan Magic Silver [] and Qoperfina Copper Yarn. [] Another development is textiles that help release emotional tension, such as ZESTAT F.901, [] a fabric woven with carbon yarns to dissipate harmful electrostatic charges.

After satisfying basic bodily requirements, social needs for information exchange, learning, and creativity come to the fore. Wearable computing can enhance reactive materials with the capacity for information processing, and can thereby add to the richness of human to human contact in public spaces. Wearable technology is increasingly efficient in terms of power consumption, miniaturization, elasticity, and washability, as demonstrated by the products of companies like SoftSwitch? [] and Infineon. [] More importantly, the integration of computing and networking into clothing proposes novel ways to approach ubiquitous communication, knowledge accumulation, and mobile creativity. For example, see recent work done by XS Labs, [] International Fashion Machines, [] Topological Media Lab, [] and others.

These are just a few examples from the emergent field of responsive materials that show strong potential to change the dominant view of fashion and textiles as purely protective or decorative items. The era of garments being designed as static and predefined objects with very short expiration dates is drawing to an end, allowing for fashion to become a dynamic, semi-permeable membrane open to the increasingly malleable surroundings enveloping the human body.

I want to wear you. I want my movements to be transmitted through you, to vibrate and to float through several forms / textures / geometries / waves, becoming visible, hearable, touchable at a distance. I want you to fill up all your molecules with life. I want to feed on you and you to feed on me, oscillating together within 1x membrane of realities…1)

Maja Kuzmanovic has a BE degree in Fashion Forecasting and Design from the Utrecht School for the Arts, and completed the University of Portsmouth's MA program in Interactive Multimedia in 1997. Following graduation, Maja collaborated on a range of interdisciplinary projects at research institutes around Europe and the USA. Her research spanned subjects like time-based interaction, interactive storytelling, human-computer interaction, and generative media design for virtual and mixed reality. For these works, Maja was elected in 1999 as one of the Top 100 Young Innovators by MIT's Technology Review. She founded FoAM [] as a cultural research department at Starlab in Belgium in 2000. FoAM later became an independent organization in 2001.

category;: Foam Publication

This paragraph is a fragment from a longer work published online by Maja Kuzmanovic entitled Sponge Story. For the full text, see:
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