Article categories: Guest EditorialsIssue 69
June 4th, 2009

Still a young industry, there are many questions surrounding the validity and usefulness of experiments with smart textiles, textiles and electronics, electro-textiles, wearables and interactive clothing. Is it really practical to integrate hard electronics into our soft and washable fabrics? What’s the difference between an intelligent garment and an interactive garment?

Should we produce extraordinary new materials that are potentially harmful to the environment in this day and age? Should a skirt that can mechanically move up and down be worn in public?


Image by Angella Mackey

I’ve recently decided I would like to begin experimenting with electronics and textiles. Having a basic knowledge of electronics and an advanced ability in clothing design, my first thought was to imagine a project I am undoubtedly capable of: a garment that lights up. Interested in dresses, I thought that it would be beautiful to construct a high-fashion evening gown covered in LEDs diffused by sheer fabric to create a gentle, pulsing glow. Even though this has already been done for catwalks and art exhibitions, I thought it would serve as a great starting point to explore my own technological aesthetic as a designer. Yet almost immediately I realized how ridiculous this dress would be at an actual event; how the person wearing it would not get noticed for themselves, but for the glaring and obnoxious light emanating from their body. I wondered, what is the point?

While many of the ideas floating around in the world of smart and electro-textiles are playful and entertaining, many of them have functional qualities that make them seem almost useful. For example, how great would it be to own High Tea with Mrs Woo’s dress with heaters integrated into the pockets? Wonderful. But do we not already have items that accomplish this same thing? Gloves and mittens are perfectly warm and low-tech. Examining how our existing clothing designs help us out already can be an amazing exercise. Jackets keep us warm. Summer dresses keep us cool. The classic button-up shirt has a stiff collar that can be flipped up for protection against the wind, and cuffs at the wrists to roll-up our sleeves when it’s hot. Pockets hold things.

Consequently, it is exactly this reason that we are experimenting with technology and fabrics. Textiles in their current state, are extraordinary. We live in them, sleep in them, clean with them, carry them around, and cuddle them. Without them, the world would be a hard place—chairs without cushions; boxes instead of bags; metal, stone and wood everywhere without relief.

I’ve recently noticed designers of all sorts paying more attention to our innate humanness as it relates to our interactions with technology. Terms such as human-centered design and interaction design highlight our understanding that we can no longer approach technological design by forcing us to adapt to robotic regimes. People have become deadened by the hard computers and electronics we deal with every day; the tangled wires and square screens; the sore backs and achy wrists; the “gamer’s thumb” and lack of exercise. After decades of living like this we are finally starting to question whether it’s natural or even healthy to continue in this way. Digital artists, web designers and technologists alike are reacquainting themselves with their bodies by learning to knit, sew, paint or carve because they want to work with their hands and touch their creations for the first time. The bleak stillness of our staring and clicking is finally being challenged.

Of course, nobody questions the value of the computer and the wonder it’s brought us up to this point. Artists, designers, and technologists are searching for new ways to access this wonder through new interfaces – one of which is textiles. We like fashion and home-décor, so why not expand upon these industries?

This made me think of the epitome of where this type of experimentation could lead – the integration of technology into clothing, and by extension the body. I thought of the cyborg. Yet when I typically think of “the cyborg myth” I think of a human figure with a metallic sheen, buried in wires, like Star Trek’s Borg, or even Australia’s-own Stelarc. But maybe that’s not where we’re headed. Maybe electronic textiles could make us cuddly cyborgs, where all of our electronics are integrated into our everyday clothing. We could have our music, email, weather reports, to-do lists, calculators, mobiles, games and blogging systems all seamlessly built into our t-shirts and jeans. Does the real cyborg look exactly as we do now?

It has never been so obvious to me that at a time when we are becoming increasingly more technological, we are at the same time striving to become more human. Coded Cloth, the theme of this issue and jointly of ANAT’s feature exhibition at the Samtag Museum of Art, reflects a wealth of recent discovery and insight into these notions. The passion surrounding the subject matter of smart textiles and electronics has generated more questions, opinions, debate, and forecasts for the future that are apparent through the proceeding feature articles. Joanna Berzowska predicts social networking as the hottest trend for smart textiles. Alison Lewis explains how history has brought the female gender to dominate the scene through their fashion and craft. Sabine Seymour writes of new work shown at the Venice Biennale, insisting on the value of aesthetics and leading us to imagine what fashions they will inspire for the future.

Showcased are the artworks from the exhibition Coded Cloth, curated by ANAT’s Executive Director, Melinda Rackham, presenting a variety of artists whose ideas explore bio-technology, fashion design, sound art, and the emerging realm of ambient presence as it relates to textiles and technology.

As it appears, there is room for more play and innovation in the application of smart fabrics and electronics as science produces more possibilities. From explorations in aesthetics and fashion to practical uses of intelligent clothes, it truly is an exciting time. Aspiring one day to add myself to the list of upcoming fashion-technology designers, I’d better get started. Breaking out my sewing machine and box of LEDs, it’s time to make that light-up dress.

Angella Mackey
Toronto, Canada-based Angella Mackey has focused her curatorial and artistic work on explorations of our intimate relationships with technology. She earned a BFA from Ryerson University in Toronto, specializing in New Media, and most recently completed a residency at the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab. She has worked extensively within the Toronto art community at festivals and artist-run centres, and in 2007 coordinated the award-winning workshop The Digital Threads Network with Joanna Berzowska for the Textile Museum of Canada. Currently, Angella is furthering her passion for art and technology by exploring wearables and electronic textiles, designing fashions for the future runways of cyborgs.

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