Smart fashion comes with microelectronics

Can fashion do more than dress? In the “Re-FREAM” project, artists and researchers are working together to find synergies between textiles and technology to make clothing smart. Scientists like Christian Dils from Fraunhofer IZM are taking care of the integration technologies and electronic modules needed for this.

© private
Christian Dils.
© Jessica Smarsch
Style and functionality combined: here with clothing that measures muscle activity and thus optimizes rehabilitation processes.

Mr. Dils, while watches have become smartwatches and wristbands have become fitness trackers, clothing has remained clothing. Has fashion already arrived in the digital age?

The first textile products are already available today that can record vital functions and fitness data and send them to a smartphone, warn of dangers at work, or quite simply, keep you warm. Compared to smartwatches or fitness trackers however, electronic textiles – so-called e-textiles – have not yet reached the mass market. At the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM, however, we are firmly convinced that e-textiles have great potential for innovation and growth.

What would be a fitting example from the Re-FREAM collaboration?

The “Connextyle” project around designer and product developer Jessica Smarsch. She and her team have developed garments that can optimize rehabilitation processes after a stroke. To do this, muscle activity is measured with textile-based electromyography sensors and sent to a textile-integrated electronic module by means of stretchable conductor paths data can then be transmitted to the responsible therapists via smartphone. However, the application scenarios are unlimited and not limited to fashion. One subproject in Re-FREAM is “Alma,” with which the Italian designer Giulia Tomasello wants to uncover taboos surrounding female health and realize monitoring of the vaginal flora. Another example is the sub-project “Lovewear”, which develops underwear to help people with physical disabilities explore their own intimacy.

What technical challenges must be overcome in the process?

The contact points between electronics and textiles are particularly demanding, as these must be producible on an industrial scale and still function reliably when worn and after washing. This is made possible by the strong miniaturization of the electronic modules, special coating and encapsulation processes or contacting technologies suitable for textiles, such as bonding process specially developed at Fraunhofer IZM. Another challenge is the integrated conductor structures, which must be similarly soft, stretchable, bendable and foldable as textiles. The project is now in its second phase.

What can we expect in the coming months?

During the three Art-Tech projects in the first phase, innovative concepts for wearable and sustainable health applications were developed. In the second phase, we have again found three talented and motivated designers with whom we are looking at further implementation options for e-textiles Progress can be followed at any time on our project website. I would also like to invite anyone interested to connect via our Re-FREAM group on LinkedIn.

Christian Dils studied microsystems technology at the University of Applied Sciences (HTW) Berlin and graduated in 2005 He worked for International Fashion Machines in Seattle, a pioneer company for electronic textiles, and at the TZI – Center for Data Processing and Communication Technologies in Bremen. In 2007 Christian Dils joined the research group “Systems on Flex” at Fraunhofer IZM as a research associate. His research interests include the development of stretchable and textile-integrated electronic systems, especially in the field of substrate processing, manufacturing technologies and interconnection techniques.