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The Clothes That Make Us Human: Hi-Tech Fibers and Smart Textiles

The clothes we wear often reflect the impression we want to make onto the world. Oftentimes, people are unnecessarily judged by the clothes they wear. Paul Graham, one of the former directors of yCombinator has spoken in his blog about how he prefers California to New York City because he is able to walk into a posh restaurant in California wearing just jeans and a t-shirt and still receive excellent service, whereas in New York, he is treated with disdain. In a parallel manner, anyone caught wearing a full suit and tie will probably be subject to having rocks thrown at his car in Silicon Valley; as the uniform there has always been about having a nonchalant, relaxed cool style as there is a pervasive cultural distrust of anyone who is too dressed up. This kind of sensibility is probably closer to the U.K.'s institutional art world, in which people are expected to dress down at any event or private view, and often people achieve status by wearing the same ropey, old clothes everyday. However, this old attitude might be due for a re-invention as smart fabrics become more pervasive in our society.

If we examine where fabrics, textiles and clothes are moving towards in the next generation, the marriage of art and science has created an interesting array of smart textiles that could change the way we perceive clothes.

Kazuhide Sekiyama​, Spiber Moon Parka, 2016

"Elastic but strong, spider silk is equal to steel in tensile strength and much tougher than carbon fiber." -Spiber

This makes spider silk ideal for a variety of applications that could go beyond the fashion world of textiles towards medical, military and scientific applications; in addition to being environmentally sustainable. Likewise, a U.S. clone company to Spiber cropped up in 2009 in the form of Bolt Threads, located in California to mass produce this spider silk technology for the United States. Currently, Bolt Threads is teaming up with Patagonia to produce spider silk parkas.

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In the near future, all our leather might be derived from pineapples. Piñatex, pineapple leather (above).

Another fabic in our new horizon is made from pineapples. Ananas Anam is a UK based startup based at the Royal College of Art that has developed an entirely new type of leather- Piñatex, which is derived from pineapples. Dr. Carmen Hijosa began her research in the Philippines and Spain before being based in the UK. Piñatex is made from pineapple fibres that are extracted from the leaves in the decortication process. This environmentally sustainable process leaves behind by-products that can be converted into organic fertilizer or bio-gas and the extraction of the fibres undergo an industrial process into a nonwoven textile.

Leather traditionally has appealed to both the luxury world and the population at large, despite the fact that its production entails an unsustainable process of animal farming and cruelty and its tanning process toxic to the environment that often negatively impacts the health of workers involved in the tanning process. Although many alternatives to leather have been produced in recent decades, from pleather to synthetic leather derived from petroleum products to cork leather to even laboratory produced leather by Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn based startup that produces synthetic leather derived from animal DNA which recently raised $40 million in funding; Dr. Carmen Hijosa has produced a new kind of sustainable leather that can be said to be far superior to animal leather, with similar suppleness, texture, breathability and durability.

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The production of leather has been for centuries unchanged, an environmentally unsustainable practice that creates toxic by-products, waste and encourages wanton animal cruelty; a practice that has often been quietly swept under the rug in the name of luxury goods and high fashion. Innovative startups like Ananas Anam and Modern Meadow are now challenging that production method by creating hi-tech fibres without the unnecessary slaughter of animals.

The Gaze has always been a subject for artists working in visual media, architecture, urban design and multimedia. How people look at objects and how objects are objectified has integrated concepts in gender studies, sociology and aesthetic design. Ying Gao is a Montreal-based designer and professor who has produced a pair of dresses that light up when someone looks at them. The dresses have an eye tracking camera that activates the dresses to change shape and illuminate.

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Ying Gao, eye-tracking illuminating dresses, 2013

Integrating the same technology, Behnaz Farahi is a UX designer and architect based at the University of Southern California, who has used eye-tracking cameras to produce a 3D printed jacket that resembles the plummage of birds that move when people are looking at it.

Behnaz Farahi, the Caress of the Gaze, eye-tracking jacket, 2015

Lauren Bowker, a graduate of Manchester School of Art and Royal College of Art, has launched her smart fabrics line of jackets that react to the environment and changes colour in her London based startup the Unseen. Her clothes and accessories are now available at Selfridges.

Lauren Bowker, the Unseen, chromic colour-changing jackets, 2015

Chromic colour-change inks have been around since the 1980s-1990s. The rapid success (and sudden disappearance) of brands like Generra Sportswear Company of Seattle that first produced t-shirts that change colour with heat seem to be making a come-back and many designers are integrating these materials to react with the environment.

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Chromic colour-changing fabrics were popular in the 80s and 90s and now making a comeback with many designers integrating these fabrics into user interaction with the environment.

Dr. Susumu Tachi, University of Tokyo's Tachi lab, Invisibility Cloak, 2009

Other applications of nanoparticle fabrics have included bullet proof clothes, and waterproof and stainless clothes. However, the problem with nanoparticles is that they are easily absorbed by the skin's dermal layer, and might potentially negatively affect processes in the human body. Nanofabrics often include an external layer of silica and titanium dioxide, with the latter element causing many reported health issues. In addition, nanoparticles in cosmetics and interior paints have been known to cause cancer and autoimmune diseases. It might be that nanoparticles in clothing may not be ready for mass production just yet, although its usages have varied military applications; for consumers, we may want to wait until it has been proven to be safe to wear.

However, the trend seems to be clear; we are moving towards synthetic versions of animal skins, and away from the farming of animals to be used in our clothes, bags and accessories.