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Australia's smart fashions: interactive textiles and cyber-jewellery

Donna Franklin, Fibre reactive hybrid dress, 2004-08, Australian orange bracket fungi, silk, organza, perspex, wood. Image courtesy of Australian Network for Arts and Technology and Samstag Museum of Modern Art.

Wearing textiles and jewellery with embedded technology has undergone a fashionable renaissance with creative designers working across art, fashion, design and technology. Today, artists are using traditional textile practices and exquisite smart fashion textiles to produce works that are warming, growing, blossoming and singing in interaction with human beings.

In the past, humans have used technology to separate themselves from the immediate experience of the natural world. Technologies tended to disassociate humans from the raw materials. Today in the world of reactive textiles, the mediated experience gives us a direct experience of both raw materials and the human associations with particular textiles, cuts, styles and garments. Dresses can now be made of fungi, smell like red wine, whisper intimacies and fit as snugly as a second skin.


Fashion textiles have been very successful throughout history and across different cultures in communicating many aspects of our personal and cultural identity. Textiles and garments have effectively been used for thousands of years across cultures to hide, reveal, and distort the self that we present to the world. Fashion, in itself, is used to express social, cultural, economic, religious, sexual, and professional aspects of our identity, among others.

Textiles surround the body in every way:

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.
Angella Mackey, 'Cuddly Cyborgs' in Coding Cloth, Filter, Issue 69 Summer 2008.

High Tea with Mrs Woo, reSkin, 2007. Image courtesy of Australian Network for Arts and Technology.

There are obvious applications for textiles with embedded technologies in health, wellness, sports, and performance products, often involving biometric monitoring and tracking applications. There is also an obvious link and interest from the military industry, consumer electronics companies and in fashion design. The challenge is knowing how to reach a broader consumer base that will support a greater reach and have a wide benefit.

The belief of the new wave of designers is that utilising technology with textiles should create products that are at once both soft and wearable (other than to take advantage of fads or fashions), as well as allowing us to do something more efficiently, in more comfort.

A wearable technology can be customised to be truly individual; it is ultimately portable; it can be used (and misused) in private; and ultimately will allow us do the things we like to do in certain places and with certain people, while in different locations.
Joanna Berzowska,

Whispiral shawl developed by Elena Corchero and Stefan Agamanolis when working for the Human Connectedness Group at Media Lab Europe. Image courtesy of Australian Network for Arts and Technology and Samstag Museum of Modern Art.

Designers are part of the new social networks where contributors see the future as social. Garments and textiles are thus also seen in this social context. Smart textiles will connect people to their Facebook page or share this information with friends wearing garments that will share this information.

Today this includes garments like Whispiral a spiral-shaped shawl that carries whispers of your loved ones.

This connection to the body – the soft, tangible interface in technologically inspired or infused fabrics – allows artists to conceive work that physically connects with other human beings ... technology becomes less of an end product and more of a conduit for our inspiration and social desires.
Alison Lewis, Femme Fashion Tech in Coding Cloth, Filter, Issue 69 Summer 2008

Interactive textiles – and the couches of tomorrow

Yala Sofa is a furniture piece designed by Elliat Rich that quite literally blossoms into life when touched by the warmth of humans. The sofa is an elegantly designed reactive' furniture piece, whose thermo chromatic Yala flowers printed on the sofa, remain invisible until body heat activates the ink — and the flowers appear (just as the Yala plants bloom after life-giving desert rains).

Based on the concept of Ipomoea; a plant that grows throughout the central deserts of Australia, the Yala Sofa provides an inspiring space for people to come together. The Ipomoea plant, otherwise known as Bush Potato or Yala by Pintupi people, provides a rich source of bush food for those who live in harsh conditions in the central desert. A potato-like tuber grows in the roots of the plant, and digging these up is an opportunity for socialising. The Yala plant flowers after desert rains.
Elliat Rich.

A collective known as Twenty121, developed Zizi the affectionate couch, a couch that supports you not only physically but also emotionally. Zizi is

a mixture of a shaved poodle, a fluffy cat and an exotic sea slug. Zizi growls when sat upon, purrs when touched and groans with delight when you stroke her fur.

Zizi is an experiment in human computer interface, making a move away from the screen and mouse based interactives that are the dominant paradigm in media art works.

Donna Franklin and the Fibre Reactive dress from orange bracket fungi

Donna Franklin's 'living garment' is a dress that you grow, made from the Australian orange bracket fungi. It smells like red wine and feels like sludge when wet, but the cotton-like cellulose dress fits snugly as a second skin. The orange hue produced is an adaptation of the organism's fruiting body stage.

The glowing and seemingly floating hybrid Fibre Reactive dress challenges us to consider how we as a society commodify and manipulate other living entities, and how that will manifest in the not too distant future through the physical and cultural impact of biotechnology.
Melinda Rackham, Coded Cloth Essay, Samstag Museum of Modern Art, 978-0-9803661-43

Donna Franklin, Fibre reactive hybrid dress, 2004-08, SymbioticA. Image courtesy of Australian Network for Arts and Technology and Samstag Museum of Modern Art.

Donna Franklin's Micro'be' project is asking us to 'imagine a fabric that grows a garment that forms itself without a single stitch'. The project is investigating the practical and cultural biosynthesis of microbiology and forms of futuristic dress-making and textile technologies. It is exploring the possibilities of living microbes which will 'ferment' a garment. As well as redefining the production of woven materials, the project will also examine the practicalities and cultural implications of commercialisation.

The Fibre Reactive frock 'fashioned from the mycelium and fruiting bodies of the fungus, Pycnoporus coccineus (orange bracket fungus)' was exhibited at the Biennale of Electronic Art Perth (BEAP) in 2004. This dress was 'grown' at the Institute of Agriculture, University of Western Australia (UWA) in collaboration with SymbioticA:The Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory. UWA researchers Gary Cass, Donna Franklin and Alan Mullett authored Micro'be', an arts project using science to convert wine into a cellulose product. Inspiration for the cellulose garments came when Mr Cass noticed a skin-like layer covering a vat of wine that had been contaminated with bacteria and gone 'off'.

'Fibre Reactive' confronts the viewer with a physical reality of a garment and an actual internal experience of a living organism. There is a confronting juxtaposition of the familiarity of a garment with an 'alien' living organism. Who is in control – the living organism or the garment?

Tailored cut and style join functional technology – High Tea with Mrs Woo

High Tea with Mrs Woo, Hidden, January 2007. Image courtesy of Australian Network for Arts and Technology and Samstag Museum of Modern Art.

Exquisite tailoring hides a high tech secret in an elegant dress jacket by Newcastle fashion designers High Tea with Mrs Woo. The three sisters Rowena, Juliana and Angela Foong describe their travel wear for the 21st century woman as 'fashion with secret powers prepared and invincible'. This ultimate travel wear has inbuilt heating circuits in its pockets.

Hidden is a shirt-dress that combines fashion and functionality. Inspired by travel ... Invisible warmth has been achieved by seamlessly integrating electronics into the garment's construction ... the soft switch and circuitry has been designed to be washable and the belt to be a removable, rechargeable battery pack.

Cyber-jewels and techno gadgets

Jewellery is expanding in scope from the production of a beautiful adornment serving as a marker of individual status to jewellery as a functional device, an agent of social change and a way of bringing people together (Elisha Buttler, FORM), as well as having therapeutic applications.

There's already smart jewellery... the Bluetooth or security key fobs. Some are being tested: watches to monitor blood-sugar levels. Others are in research: electronic name badges to transmit and receive information through filters to the wearer. In other words, wearable technology is the new jewellery.
Susan Cohn, reSkin, 2007.

Catherine Truman, reSkin, 2007. Image courtesy of Australian Network for Arts and Technology.

Catherine Truman, Master of Australian Craft 2008–10, is a contemporary jeweller and object-maker. She is a co-founder and current partner of Gray Street Workshop in Adelaide, one of Australia's most established artist-run spaces. Recently she was awarded an Australia Council Fellowship. Current work is focused upon an interest in the history of two and three-dimensional imaging of human anatomy.

Jonathan Duckworth is an artist and architectural designer who explores spatial design and interaction in the creation of virtual environments. He is particularly interested in physical forms of interaction in relation to understanding the qualities of digital space.

Jonathan Duckworth (with Catherine Truman), Embracelet, reSkin, 2007, Nitrile, rubber, acrylic, brass, electro luminescent strips. Image courtesy of Australian Network for Arts and Technology.

As part of the Elements project (supported through the Australia Council's interdisciplinary arts initiative Synapse and the Australian Research Council), Jonathan Duckworth has teamed up with Peter Wilson, Associate Professor in Psychology at RMIT, to develop a virtual reality workspace that helps patients with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) regain movement.

In 2008–2009, Melbourne artist Leah Heiss developed Shape Change Jewellery, a range of wearable artefacts that change shape in response to human warmth. Heiss is currently working with scientists at Nanotechnology Victoria to develop garments and jewellery with therapeutic applications. The outcome is a collection of jewellery scale artefacts and vessels which are both delicate yet compelling in their curative applications, exhibited as 'Liminal', at RMIT. 'Liminal' means of, or relating to, the limen or threshold.

Leah Heiss, [medic alert] Ring from liminal, RMIT, 2008. Image courtesy of Leah Heiss at ANAT.

Heiss has created designs for a ring that contains tiny doses of insulin, freeing a diabetic from the tedious routine of daily injections, and a pendant that contains a powder that removes arsenic from drinking water. 'Diabetes' is a range of jewellery which works in tandem with NanoVic's transdermal patches that allow insulin to be administered through the skin, replacing syringes. 'Arsenic' encompasses a series of vessels which act to remove arsenic from water and are designed for people in transit in areas where arsenic is prevalent in well water.

reSkin Wearable Technology Lab 2007– research and development

reSkin Wearable Technology Lab intertwined the practices of media arts and sound design, textile and weaving, jewellery, object and fashion design. This collaborative project of the Australian Network for Arts and Technology (ANAT), the Australian National University School of Art, Centre for New Media Arts (CNMA) and Craft Australia, placed jewellers and fashion designers with new media artists in an intensive three week research and development lab.

The 'reSkin' partnership opened up a new world of possibilities; the outcomes of which are still being revealed, but have included interactive, proactive and reactive clothing, jewellery, shoes, bags – and much more that is wearable and technologically integrated.


Robyn Petterd, reSkin, 2007. Image courtesy of Australian Network for Arts and Technology.

Six international and national facilitators worked with twenty-one participants making for interesting synergies and collaborations. reSkin ended with the WearNow Symposium – a day of critical dialogue presenting diverse perspectives on the historical, innovative and developmental aspects of this rapidly developing hybrid arena. Discussions were held at the National Museum of Australia and streamed on the Internet.

Elastic Field is a body of work that experiments with the expansion of traditional notions of space through the development of electronically enhanced garments and artefacts.

Heat-modifying, moisture repellent, sensory perceptive textiles – commercial opportunities

It is no surprise that many of the smart textiles entering the market aim to regulate body temperature. Called phase-change fabrics, heat-modifying textiles are mostly seen in outdoor gear like windbreakers and beanies.

Mani jacket womens

Mountain Designs, Mani jacket women's, Fabric-Pontetorto Tecnopile. Image courtesy of Mountain Designs.

Mountain Designs says its hats, beanies and jackets are often treated with paraffins. 'Paraffin changes its character. As you get hot it becomes more liquid and allows that heat to pass out. As the body gets cold it solidifies and keeps heat back with the wearer.' (Junor Campbell, design and development manager, Catapult, ABC)

Australia' s wool industry has long depended upon innovation to remain in the market place. Sheep farmers have developed finer wool, and new processing mechanisms made wool finer, softer and more suitable for everyday clothing. Smart textiles and the next generation of wool fabrics called 'moisture wicking products' help to keep the body dry by pulling moisture away from it.

'Wool has a great ability to absorb liquids and gases. It can take up to a third of its own weight in liquid vapours. It's used a lot in active sportswear; it keeps you feeling comfortable.' (Gary Robinson, Manager of processing technologies for Australian Wool Innovators, Catapult, ABC.)

Woolmark Australasia has a patent on 'Sensory Perception Technology' that adds smells to fabrics, a process called microencapsulation. The potential market could be every textile we wear but sleepwear is potentially very popular. (Leah Paff, Woolmark's general manager).

The Woolmark Company outfitted over 500 Australian athletes and officials in their Ceremonial Uniforms and Formal Uniforms for the 2004 Olympic Games, with uniforms made from Australian Merino Wool - SportwoolTM, Cool Wool and Sensory Perception TechnologyTM. Woolmark worked in partnership with Sydney-born designer Marc Newson.

The future ...

The annual Smart Fabrics conference is held yearly and the subject of 'Fashionable Technology: The Intersection of Design, Fashion, Science, and Technology' is now in print for the public to explore.

The experimental wearable arts of today's artists will become pivotal in our understanding of how we are evolving as a culture and utilising new technologies.
Dr Melinda Rackham, Australian Network for Arts and Technology.

Useful links

Australian smart textile resources

Australian smart textiles exhibitions and events

Australian smart fashion designers - select list

Australian smart fashion design spaces

Listen, look and play

Fashion and textiles education

Last updated: 18th March 2009