Fashion, Technology…and Lace!?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the resurgence of lace being used on the runways again sparked a thought about how lace has been influential in so many ways.  It’s astonishing really, when you think about it, since lace is the ultimate luxury fabric: too light and ephemeral to lend warmth or protection to the wearer, easily damaged, and the good stuff is quite expensive.

The production of lace was actually something that drove the development of a new technology that ultimately proved to have far-reaching consequences not just for fashion and the textile industry, but also for computing and technology.

Despite the apparel industry’s relatively laggard uptake of new technologies, fashion has actually had a long history of moving forward and being moved forward by emerging new technologies.  In fact, one of the earliest inventions that helped define computer science and computers in general was a machine designed for  the textile sector of the fashion industry, the Jacquard loom.

Invented by Joseph Jacquard in 1804-05, the Jacquard loom was a pivotal invention for both fashion and computing.   It proved to be the impetus for the tech revolution of the textile industry and an important step in the history of computing.  The Jacquard loom (which is actually a misnomer, as this invention is actually not a loom, but rather a head or an attachment that can be used with a range of different looms) was the first machine which used punch cards as a control mechanism.

After the ‘hanging chad’ incident in Florida during the 2000 presidential elections, we all know what punch cards are: pieces of wood or paper with holes punched in them, where the precise pattern of the holes contain data when read through a machine capable of reading them.  They are a form of data storage and have been used to store computer programs.

Like the voter ballots, the Jacquard loom also used punch cards that contained information, or data, about different lace patterns.  Each hole controlled a needle, threaded with up to 4 warp ends (or threads).  A set of punch cards might control as many as 400 needles, for a total of 1600 warp ends in a given textile, and the machine could make up to 4 repeats of the pattern across the weft.

By changing out the punch cards, a loom operator could change the lace pattern which the loom could produce.  This meant that looms suddenly had the ability to create many different patterns on the same loom, simply by changing out the punch cards.

This was an important advance for fashion, since in the past lace had been made primarily by intensive hand methods. With the Jacquard loom, instead of a lace maker creating only a few inches of lace a day, he could now create feet and even yards of it, in some fairly complicated patterns.

This was also an important advance for computing hardware.  The Jacquard loom had the ability to have its program of lace pattern changed by simply swapping out the punch card sets.  While the Jacquard loom machine did not perform computation using its punch cards, this is still considered an important precursor to what would eventually become the field of computer programming.

The invention of the Jacquard loom had a far-reaching impact on the use of lace in fashion, as it was suddenly more affordable.   There was a renewed interest of lace as a trim by the fashionable elite, and a greater number of people could wear the new machine-lace because it was less expensive than the handmade needle laces.

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Fashion, Tech, Innovation: Using Avatars to Design Video Garment Imagery

Armed with our initial vision of a base garment that could essentially play videos or images on its surface, we’ve looked at some of the challenges that need to be addressed before this could become reality.

Last time we looked at how a video playback garment might be actually work. Now let’s wrap this up by talking a little about how designers would go about actually designing images and video that would play on the garment’s surface.

As we mentioned before, the human body is a solid 3-D object that we are trying to wrap a planar (flat) sheet around.  This is no different from our fashion classes, where we are given a few yards of muslin and told to drape a mannequin (flat, almost 2-D textile sheet, 3D mannequin object).  In moving from designing physical fashion to designing flat images to play on the video garment, we are doing much the same thing, except we are doing all of our draping on the image, not with the cloth.  This requires a slight change in how we go about draping, since what we will actually be draping on is the base video garment, and what we will be draping with are 2-d images.

And this is where the avatar comes in, since the process of draping a digital image onto a solid body requires a mannequin, in this case, an avatar.  At its simplest level, an avatar is nothing more than a digital representation of a human body.  We already know how to go about putting clothing onto human bodies, or at least we should have learned that at design school.

Taking our knowledge about draping onto the human body a step further, we simply need to substitute our expertise with Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator rather than pins, needles and scissors to drape the avatar not with textile, but with imagery.

Of course, like any new skill, it takes time and experience to get video garment images right, but a really nice aspect of designing for video garments is that the designer can create as many styles as she wishes, and she can ‘show off’ her design concepts using something like Black Dress Technology’s Virtual Runway™ service.  Unlike draping with textiles, draping pixels on an avatar mannequin does not require the production of costly physical samples.  You just design, upload it, watch the new style move on Virtual Runway, and then when the concept is approved, upload the design onto the base garment for approval.

Once the design is approved, it can be made available for licensing on any of a number of web sites or even via mobile apps! Think about it – you can really share your fashion sense with your besties simply by sending them a link.  Some designers may decide to open source their ‘basic’ video garment images and encourage their followers to customize their own designs.

Of course, it will be an interesting question whether or not the maker of such a video garment will try to use a proprietary file format instead of standard ones like jpg or png files.  Also, will the video garment be an open format, or closed format like the Kindle e-book reader? Amazon would no doubt love to get in the fashion game (everyone seems to want to be there, these days), and it would be entirely possible for them to come up with some version of a proprietary video garment, where they could sell the garment imagery just like they do e-books.

We would anticipate that the early video garments wouldn’t have the data or battery capacity to actually play video, but as the base technology improved and progressed, it would not be out of the question at all to eventually truly have video garments that play moving images over the surface. Imagine the possibilities: a formal gown that plays back images of moving sunlight and shadow dapple over a forest floor, or waves crashing eternally downward to froth and foam (virtually) at the wearer’s feet.   Think of the fun accessories designers could have developing product to complement such designs! Perhaps small scent pomanders contained in earrings or brooches, or tiny sound transistors with short loops of water waves or bird sound for a completely immersive experience, allowing the wearer to carry their own little environment with them.

The possibilities are endless.  All we need is for the materials sciences folks and the technology folks to catch up and give us the technology to do this.  Then we fashionable folk can take it from there.

Something Completely Visionary: Fashion, Tech, Innovation, Part 6

Armed with our initial vision of a base garment that could essentially play videos or images on its surface, let’s explore some of the challenges that need to be addressed before this could become reality.

Last time we talked some of the safety considerations of such a garment.  This time, let’s discuss some additional safety considerations, namely the circuitry for such a garment.

A ‘video garment’ such as we’re discussing is nothing more than a large play-back device.  But in order for it to actually work, it needs to both receive data to actually play back on its surface, and it needs power to perform the playback.  So the garment needs to be able to conduct two things in its circuitry: data, which must be uninterrupted, and power, which must be controllable for both on and off states, as well as possible rates of change.

Any circuitry which is used for playback must be uninterrupted, and must not lose connection when the body moves and changes under it.  As the garment follows the body contour and movements, the circuitry cannot be disrupted or the entire image will be disrupted, often in strange ways.

What sort of materials might be used to ensure that dataflow remains persistent? There are currently a range of materials which are used to conduct power/data, including fiber optics, thin metal threads (usually copper), and of course, metallic, printable inks.

Each of these materials has advantages and drawbacks: fiber optics are relatively inexpensive, being an ‘older technology’, and can be easily handled just like any other thread and woven into a garment.  It is already used to carry optical data and lighting, and lovely textiles have been created using fiber optics.  Some drawbacks to fiber optic textiles are that they are itchy for a wearer; if an optical thread is bent, it loses signal; and there is now easy way to connect up optical threads from different pieces of the garment (such a thread would need to be knitted into a one-piece tubular garment, which would change the addressing properties of the garment to playback imagery or video).  Fiber optics are largely inert, so a wearer wouldn’t need to be concerned about the material having any dangerous chemicals being off gassed onto their skin. Safety considerations would be relatively minor other than the possibility of the fiber optics bending and breaking and perhaps scratching the wearer.  Seams would need to be sealed carefully to prevent wearers from being hurt by the sharp cut ends of the optics.

Thin metal threads have also been used to carry data and power.  Very fine threads of copper metal are created, and simply woven into the textile just like any thread.  Like the fiber optic thread, it too shares some of the same issues of not being able to readily connect the threads between two pieces of the garment, and while the copper thread would be softer and not prone to shattering, it might still be a scratchy experience for the wearer.  Moreover, such a garment would need to be cleaned very carefully, as copper is reactive to many substances, and over time, it can oxidize, which reduces its effectiveness as a conductor.  Lastly, it would need to be sealed in some way to prevent any voltage leaks or verdigris stains from the copper oxidizing.

The third sort of circuitry would be the use of metallic inks.  This is currently being used effectively in the toy and home furnishings industries, and can be easily printed onto a textile base.  Unlike the woven in fiber optics or metallic threads, metallic inks can be printed on a garment after it has been largely constructed. This means that there is a complete circuit, without gaps at the seams which need to be connected.  Moreover, the metallic inks can be overprinted by an impermeable, protective layer of polyvinyl chloride or polyurethane, which prevents seals the printed circuitry behind a protective layer that prevents leakage of voltage, data, or harmful chemicals from the ink itself.  While this may sound great, there are still safety considerations, as printing metal-based ink often produces toxic fumes which need to be handled carefully.  Metallic inks haven’t been in use long enough to know how they respond to laundering, and they have not been extensively used on a range of product classes, so it is unclear how they will wear or respond to cleaning considerations.

It is possible, that with something like a flexible OLED for the base material, that the circuits could be designed to be embedded into the base material, which would remove many of the safety considerations and health hazards that a woven or printed circuit would have.

Next time: powering up the garment.

Something Completely Visionary: Fashion, Tech, Innovation, Part 4

Armed with our initial vision of a base garment that could essentially play videos or images on its surface, let’s explore some of the challenges that need to be addressed before this could become reality.

Last time we talked about some of the properties needed by a material used for comfort.  This time, let’s discuss comfort as it pertains to the make and manufacture of the actual garment.

There are certain stress points in every garment that can cause discomfort to the wearer if the construction techniques used aren’t properly executed.  For example, all internal seams should be properly finished with an appropriate thread in order to reduce chafing and itchiness in the wearer.  Places where multiple seams meet need to be ‘graded’, or have the bulk reduced, so that they do not create a possible source of chafing.  Seam placement should avoid being placed across areas of the body where they may rub or chafe.

In the case of a base ‘video’ garment, seams should not only be placed carefully and finished to avoid chafing and discomfort, but they should also be sealed so that all circuitry is contained and not exposed to the wearer’s body.  This will prevent minute electrical discharges along the seam edges ‘shocking’ the wearer.

That of course, brings us to the question of the safety considerations of such a garment, next time.

Something Completely Visionary: Fashion, Tech, Innovation, Part 3

Armed with our initial vision of a base garment that could essentially play videos on its surface, let’s explore some of the challenges that need to be addressed before this could become reality.

Last time we talked about some of the properties needed by a material used for a base garment.  This time, let’s look at issues of comfort.

Comfort can be a very subjective term, because different cultures have different expectations of ‘comfort’ in their garments based on their societal expectations of behavior, the climate in which they are based, and the materials which are readily available and part of their cultural meme. What a culture based in the equator might regard as comfortable would not be regarded as comfortable by a culture based near the Arctic Circle.  And while this is of course an extreme example, it serves to highlight why comfort can be so challenging to define.

Nevertheless, for our purposes, comfort needs to be defined as ‘keeping the wearer comfortable in whatever climate they are in according to their societal memes.’

Most garments are made of woven textiles.  A woven textile is made of multiple threads, which cross each other at a 90 degree angle, and which are more or less tightly ‘packed’ together to form the weave. No matter how tight the weave may be, however, there are always small spaces or holes left between the crossing threads.  Even threads that to the naked eye seem to compactly touch one another are not actually completely meshed together.  These tiny holes allow air to enter the garment, and perspiration and heat to leave the garment.

Used with Attribution from Wikipedia

Warp and weft in plain weaving, from Wikiepeda, the free encyclopedia

The degree to which the fibers of the threads interconnect, the size of the thread, and of course, the spacing of the threads in the weave will all have an impact not only on the comfort of a garment, but also on its durability.

Even those materials which are not made of woven threads have small interstitial air holes or pockets, which enable garments made from these materials to ‘breathe’.  This concept of breathing is critical for comfort: in both warm and cold climates, materials that don’t breathe lock perspiration inside the garment, which eventually leads to discomfort from overheating.  In very cold climates, the inability of a textile to breathe, or vent water vapor, leads to clamminess and eventually to the wearer experiencing cold.

Any material used for a base garment would need to have the ability to breathe, regardless of whether or not it was a woven or a nonwoven.  The glass substrate might be able to have some sort of micropores (tiny holes for breathing) incorporated into it, which would help create a more comfortable material to be worn.

This question of comfort also arises in the make and manufacture of the actual garment, which we will address next time.

Something Completely Visionary: Fashion, Tech, Innovation, Part 2

Armed with our initial vision of a base garment that could essentially play videos on its surface, let’s explore some of the challenges that need to be addressed before this could become reality.

First of course, is the issue of the actual surface.  What we liked about the Corning video is the suggestion that they have a surface which could actually work as a ‘play back’ mechanism, although it is likely that wearing glass could present some challenges.

Fabric is very flexible and has a great deal of give and take, and shifts on the wearer’s body in response to movement.  It was remarkable tensile strength and can resist tearing even when subjected to substantial stresses (like those created over a joint when the limb is bent, or stresses created by the deformation of flesh in response to compression).  Glass is brittle and while appreciable changes can be made to its underlying chemistry to make it less brittle, it would also need to be able to move over the body like cloth does, which might go beyond current material science capabilities.

So perhaps Corning’s glass product wouldn’t be the best solution for the base textile, but there have been recent innovations with OLEDs (organic semiconductors) which might be suitable.  What is needed is a textile (woven or nonwoven) that has the capacity to have electronic wiring incorporated throughout the body of the garment in such a way that it can receive inputs and display those inputs on the outer surface of the textile.  The textile needs to be fluid enough to move smoothly over the body and to respond to the natural stresses place on it during the process of being worn, which could include abrasion and tearing stresses.

The textile will also need to be able to be cleaned, or to incorporate some sort of self cleaning mechanism.  There are any number of interesting innovations making their way into garments, everything from silver ions to reduce bacterial growth to the introduction of bamboo fiber, which has a natural antimicrobial which reduces the growth of microbes that cause sweat stains in fabric. There are also some interesting additions, which can help textiles shed dirt and stains more easily, as well as new ways of actually creating textiles to reduce their staining capacity.

We have also seen some interesting evolutions in the required electronic circuitry – everything from metallic inks (usually copper or silver-base inks) which can be literally printed from a special ink jet printer to lay down the pre-designed circuitry to very thin copper wire used as a thread in a weave.  While both of these solutions still have issues when applied to a garment, they both show merit in moving such a project forward. Some of the issues that will need to be resolved will be the ability to ensure that the circuitry doesn’t break as a result of standard wear caused by stresses in the stress areas of the garment/s (e.g., elbows, knees, seats, backs, and so on).

These solutions will also need to be able to be pass garment testing, and to be able to be cleaned to industry standard testing requirements.  For such a product to make it to wide-spread mass market acceptance, of course, the product itself would need to be both affordable, and the maintenance of the garment would also need to be affordable, and preferably accomplished using standard home cleaning products.

Then there’s the comfort question, which we will discuss next time.

White Paper Available: Leveraging the Power of Virtual Worlds for Collaboration

New York, NY March 24, 2011 – Fashion Research Institute Publishes Latest Thought Piece: Leveraging the Power of Virtual Worlds for Collaboration by CEO Shenlei Winkler.

Fashion Research Institute CEO, Shenlei Winkler, announces that FRI’s latest publication, Leveraging the Power of Virtual Worlds for Collaboration, has been published.

Based on a presentation initially made in January 2008 to IBM Research North America, this whitepaper incorporates case studies drawn from FRI’s well-publicized collaborations in business, education and fashion, and focuses on some additional use cases.

Leveraging the Power of Virtual Worlds for Collaboration may be downloaded from the Fashion Research Institute web site.

About Fashion Research Institute, Inc.: The Fashion Research Institute is at the forefront of developing innovative design & merchandising solutions for the apparel industry.  They research and develop products and systems for the fashion industry that sweepingly address wasteful business and production practices. Shenlei Winkler’s work spans both couture and mass-market design and development for the real life apparel industry. A successful designer, her lifetime sales of her real life apparel designs have now reached more than $70 million USD, with more than 25 million-dollar styles in her portfolio. Her couture work has appeared extensively on stage and movie screen.