Computational technology has been integral to the information, communication and entertainment industries for decades, and, increasingly, computers operate our homes and cars. While technology touches almost every aspect of our lives, the clothes we wear stand out as one of the most promising and least explored frontiers for information technology, offering countless applications in healthcare, sports and well-being.
The problem, says Assistant Professor of Information Science Laura Devendorf, is we have to make the technology disappear before it is useful—it must literally become part of the warp and weft of fabrics, with the circuitry for sensing and actuation indistinguishable from the yarn.
Devendorf, who directs the ATLAS Institute’s Unstable Design Lab, is investigating this problem as part of an ambitious research program funded with a $173,000 grant* from the National Science Foundation. One of the first steps will be to develop textile design software for a TC2 Digital Jacquard loom to facilitate the prototyping of smart textiles. Purchase of the loom was made possible thanks to a seed grant from the CU Boulder’s College of Engineering & Applied Science Multi-Functional Materials Interdisciplinary Research Themes (IRT).
As she spearheads this effort, one of Devendorf’s broader goals is to establish an interdisciplinary community of weavers, artists and engineers who share knowledge and collaborate. She’s reaching out to engineers and artists at CU Boulder and in the local community, and soon she’ll cast a wider net to fill an artist residency supported by the North Carolina-based Center for Craft, Creativity & Design.
The following Q&A with Devendorf explores in more depth this fascinating interdisciplinary research project:
Smart textiles are a blend of craft and technology. It seems like your project will naturally bring these two groups together.
Yes, there is a long history of people exploring the shared histories of technology and craft, specifically textiles, as well as the shared roots of the Jacquard loom with modern computers. I’m looking to continue this work by exploring the integration of textiles and new materials. I think the way to do this well is to build a space where artists, craftspeople and engineers can envision the future of smart textiles together—both in terms of how they are produced and applications they may have in daily life. It’s a rich space that opens opportunities to innovation as well as reflects on the histories and tensions between technology, gender, and diverse ways of knowing or working with materials.
The NSF grant will help build the foundation for this community and work by supporting the development of an open-source software tool for designing and fabricating smart textile prototypes. Developing this software will open a lot of different questions around what these textiles are going to become, how we interact with the machinery that produces them and how we share knowledge across communities.
Together, I’m hoping the software and new hardware will reveal the people on campus and beyond who are interested in exploring applications in textiles. Boulder also has a very established weaving and craft community, so I think there’s an interesting opportunity to create a space where these communities genuinely come together.
How do you see the intersection of craft with technology?
I see engineering as a kind of craft, and craft is a kind of engineering. Handcraft, that knowledge of materials, is incredibly inspiring and important for the future of design because as technologies become more embedded in the varied materials of everyday life—concrete, clay, fabric, etc—we need people who have developed tacit knowledge and relationships with those materials. At the same time, embracing the importance of tacit knowledge might change how we design systems for producing these new technologies, for instance, by creating more opportunities for human engagement and collaboration with fabrication machines.
Why did you choose the TC2 loom as a centerpiece of this project?
I asked a good friend and weaver Steven Frost which loom he would use for this project. He and I interviewed and visited the existing owners of the TC2 loom and found it to be ideal because it will create high-resolution fabrics with almost infinite design possibilities. On a more practical level, one can “program” the loom by providing it with bitmap images, something that is relatively easy to generate with software. So all together, it will allow us to make really high quality weaves that integrate traditional and new “smart” materials.
One of the qualities of this loom—and handlooms more broadly—that I like is that they require the weaver to be physically present and engaged in the activity. Specifically, he or she has to toss the shuttle back and forth across the yarns to produce the fabric. This hand work allows us to work with non-traditional materials, which may be brittle, and also puts the maker in connection with the materials and functions of the machine. It makes weaving smart textiles a nice context to talk about human-machine collaboration.
Tell me about the software tool you are developing for this project.
Weaving is gaining popularity, but if you want to add circuitry into the structure of the fabric, rather than sewing it on top, traditional weaving software has many limitations. For instance, it doesn’t account for conductivity or resistance of conductive materials, so you would have to essentially “hack” the software to account for this. The software I proposed is a tool that integrates both the language of a textile pattern and what’s needed for designing circuitry.
I want to see what people can do with this loom and then figure out how I can support them with a design tool that can be shared across a lot of different domains. One day I’m having conversations with aerospace engineers who research space suits, and the next visiting weaving shops and reading weaving books to learn about techniques. Piecing it all together is an interesting challenge.
What will this project lead to in the future?Once we have useful software and robust hardware, we can begin speculating on new interactive technologies. For example, I want a garment that can record how and where I hold my baby. Imagine if my clothes remembered the forces that were on them! Over time I could replay those forces and see how they moved. If I started with my baby on my shoulder, and now I hold her on my hip, I would have this map across my body. Our clothing would be a memento if our clothes could remember what happened to them. Fabrics, in the context of clothing, have a special relationship to our bodies and our social worlds and environments—this pairing makes them really interesting to explore questions of technology, human perception and social activities in the world.
Are there other, maybe less conventional, applications of smart textiles?
Sure. Allison Anderson, an assistant professor from Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences, and I are collaborating to produce applications of smart textiles in space flight. I was part of a collaboration last year that explored garments that would respond to their wearers’ biometric signals. There is interesting work around creating textiles that can harvest body movement, sunlight and ambient radio frequencies to produce power. I’m personally drawn to the work that demonstrates a new technical possibility while also retaining the beauty, histories, and practices around textiles.
Assistant Professor Laura Devendorf runs the Unstable Design Lab at CU Boulder’s ATLAS Institute. The lab’s unusual name reflects her interest in exploring how our relationships and visions of what technology could be change when we embrace the idea that instability can be a resource, as opposed to something to eliminate. She argues that embracing and engaging instability in design supports creativity, improvisation and a deeper human engagement with technological systems.
*NSF Award #1755587