Saturday, 17 August 2013

Homegrown fabric and invisibility cloaks science fiction or the future of fashion?

Recently I was watching a documentary about advances in nanotechnology and the development of new materials capable of being as thin as paper, as lightweight as a cotton shirt but as strong as chainmail. As I don’t know that much about scientific/technological developments I decided to look into this and as with all research one thing led to another and I quickly became fascinated with  the advances made in nanotechnology and how it might have positive/negative implications on the future of fashion.

It is no secret that we are living in a digital age. Gone are the days of OS maps, typewriters and video cassettes, the current generation has grown up with sat nav/google map apps, ipads and blu-ray dvds. As more and more scientific/technological developments are made our dependency on them has increased. Until recently these developments have been limited to electronic devices but they are now seeping into the textiles industry too.


Digital technology for textiles is becoming increasingly important. This year marks the first International Conference for Digital Technologies for the Textile industries at the University of Manchester(5th-6th September 2013). Countries attending this conference include: Russia, China, USA, UK, Canada, France, Belgium, India and Germany, this shows just how great the interest is in digital textile development!



One of the most important developments of modern technology is the discovery of Graphene by two Russian scientists currently working at the University of Manchester(Andre Geim and Konstantin Novaselov). Almost 1 million times thinner than a human hair, it is both the thinnest and strongest material in the world. Graphene consists of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal sheet pattern as shown above, similar in appearance to chicken wire but on an atomic scale. According to the New York Times, 

“a sheet of it stretched over a coffee cup could support the weight of  a truck bearing down on a pencil point.”(globalresearch.ca) 

Graphene is more electrically conductive than copper and at only one atom thick is also transparent. Scientists at the University of Texas, have used Graphene's electrically conductive properties to create an invisibility cloak to rival that used by Harry Potter. By heating up the Graphene atoms with electrical stimulation, the material becomes invisible.

 Although Graphene is an amazing discovery its usage is limited as China currently owns 70% of the worlds graphite supply and graphite is the main component in creating Graphene. The implications of China controlling the worlds graphite is that it can limit the ability for other countries to experiment and develop this new material. 


Hyperstealth's Quantum Stealth material in action.

Digital textile technology hit the news recently with the Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corps’ 'Quantum stealth' invisible camouflage material which bends light waves around the wearer so that they appear to be invisible. Backed by the US military this incredible material completely blurs the lines between science fiction and reality. 

Although Mr Cramer, CEO of Hyperstealth, has been unable to disclose how the technology works/how it is made(could it be Graphene?), he has provided some speculation on how it might be used in the military to create invisible stealth aircraft and submarines which are unable to be picked up by enemy radar. The implications of this technology if a war were to break out(fairly likely in our current political climate) are huge. The US, however, isn't the only country developing invisible technology- Israel is also said to be arming it's military with invisible missiles and we can safely guess that both Russia and China have some form of invisible technology up their sleeves(they're just far more discreet about it than the US!). I'm not a very political person but even I can speculate that this sounds all too similar to an arms race...and anyone who has studied World War history will know that one of the main triggers of WWI was an arms race between Britain and Germany...could we be seeing a repeat of History but on a more global scale?

 The majority of digital textile developments focus on how they might be used in a military context, but nanotechnology is also being developed so that it can be used in everyday fashion. The presence of digital technology in fashion seemed to begin with Hussein Chalayan’s transformation collection in 2007, where we saw his collection of garments change in front of our eyes, leaving one of the models completely naked on the stage as her clothing retracted into a large hat. This catwalk was groundbreaking for fashion as Chalayan demonstrated that digital technology could be used without having to compromise on the appearance of the garments.


On a more functional level, the usage of nanotechnology in textiles is also having positive implications in the medical world. NanoHorizons creation of SmartSilver has worked it’s way into hospital bedding. Silver has natural antimicrobial properties and SmartSilver embraces these properties and doesn’t wash out/wear off the fabric. SmartSilver is also perfect for reducing odour in clothing as it resists the bacteria which creates odour, because of this SmarSilver is perfect for usage in sportswear as well as everyday clothing.


From odour reducing/bacteria killing fabric to material with a view to combating malaria. Cornell University’s Textile nanotechnology laboratory in NYC has been working on anti-malaria wearable mosquito nets capable of storing and releasing insecticides to target mosquitos. With around 1.2 million people a year dying from Malaria, this could combat tone of the worlds deadliest diseases.



Scientists at the University of Bolton’s Institute for Materials Research and Innovation(IMRI) have been working with GK opto-electronics Co. Ltd. in China to develop photovoltaic-piezoelectric material. For those of us who are not scientific researchers, this could lead to the development of materials/clothing that can absorb the wearers movement and turn kinetic energy into electricity, so that clothing could power electronic devices. The scientists are also carrying out research to develop this material so that it can absorb energy from the weather(predominantly solar and wind energy). This development is quite fascinating and especially useful for anyone who owns an i-phone which has a ridiculously short battery life, imagine how useful it would be if you could go for a jog and simultaneously charge your ipod/smart phone.

A similar piezo-electric material has been used by designer Diana Eng, who used LED’s, microphones and conductive silver thread to create piezo-electric dresses which convert sound into light. The patterns on the dresses light up in response to sound waves/the beat of the music. The current prototype is unable to be washed, but if this idea is developed further our nightclubs may soon be filled with light up clothing that flashes to the beat of the music.

Diana Eng is not the only designer to experiment with using light in fashion, Cute circuit are a London based design label launched in 2004 who use LED technology in their designs. The LED dresses are controlled by an iphone app and have been worn by celebrities like Katy Perry and Nicole Scherzinger.

Cute Circuit dresses.

Ying Gao is another designer who has used advanced digital technology in fashion but in a very unique way. Gao has created a collection of dresses which use complex sensory technology which responds to people’s gaze. Each dress weighs around ½ pound and is made from the world’s lightest fabric, super organza, photoluminscent thread and eye tracking electronic devices, these dresses are programmed to light up and move when looked at creating beautiful and ethereal garments reminscient of jellyfish and deep sea creatures.





Advanced digital technology has not only been used in the creation of fashion forward garments, but also on the presentation of new catwalk collections. In 2011 Burberry used digital technology to present their collection in Beijing. Their catwalk consisted of holographic models dressed in the new collection colliding with each other and disappearing into smoke on the runway(see video below).




Although these technological developments are extremely useful, particularly for military purposes, what happens if there is a global break down in technology/electricity, unlikely I know, but these things have to be taken into consideration! 


Suzanne Lee, Senior research at Central St. Martin’s school of fashion and textiles, has been collaborating with biologists and scientific researchers at her studio in London to develop a way of growing clothing from bacteria. Using a bathtub filled with a combination of green tea, yeast and a sugar solution, she creates her own fabric by letting the ingredients ferment. This fermenting process spins cellulose fibres which stick together and form a skin on top of the liquid. The material can then be dried on a mould, creating a seamless, stitch free garments.



Natural dyes from blueberries/beetroots etc can then be used to dye the fabric to make it more aesthetically appealing et voila- biodegradable home grown clothing which can be disposed of without having any negative implications on the environment. These creations are currently in the prototype stage but the scope for development in this area is huge.


With the world becoming increasingly digital, it won’t be long before fashion is also completely digitized  In this article I have tried to show some of the many digital textile developments which are currently being explored. Who knows, in the future we may all be wearing invisible clothing, dresses that change their print dependent on our mood or, if the digital world breaks down we may all be sporting Suzanne Lee’s homegrown bio-leather. Either way the future of fashion looks extremely interesting!



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