On May 27th, the Stereolux art and technology laboratory in Nantes organised an intelligent and connected textile day. The opportunity to provide an update on the DIY dressmaking world.
(Nantes, special envoy, text and photos)
A small world
9 o’clock. In a large wooden hall, Claire Eliot and Martin Lambert from the Stereolux art and technology laboratory introduce the “intelligent and connected textile” thematic day by presenting the four round tables of the morning. With at least three speakers, each one taking between ten and fifteen minutes to introduce himself/herself, the thirty minute round tables become something like project presentations. Which at least provides an overview of the actors.
Labs, schools, researchers, makers, manufacturers…and feminity. One cannot but notice that, unlike many maker or hacker events, more than half of the speakers and the public are not men… Geographically, the vast majority of speakers were in the Paris-Nantes TGV (high speed train) that same morning and took it in the opposite direction later in the afternoon, once the workshops were over.
Even though many labs in France have sewing equipment, only two Parisian places (to the best of our knowledge) bring the maker/hacker and the textile worlds together: Alice Gras thus represented Hall Couture, between fablab and coworking space dedicated to innovative fashion design, hosted in the basement of La Paillasse in the centre of Paris, whereas Maurin Donneaud (read our description) and Martin de Bie acted as ambassadors for Datapaulette, textile hackerspace in the 12th arrondissement of Paris.
“It really is a small world”, confirms Martin de Bie. If it is easy to get hold of electronic prototyping material in France, it’s a different kettle of fish for textile. “It’s easy to find base components like conductive thread or LEDs to sew, but for technical fabrics, it is near impossible.” Alice Giordani, founding maker of the young blog Smooth Wearable, opens her eyes wide in astonishment in front of Martin de Bie’s fabric samples. Manufacturers only sell in bulk whereas textile DIYers only need very small quantities. “Having an entity like Datapaulette should help us to convince manufacturers to issue us with samples”, says Maurin Donneaud.
Fashion design, couture… notably absent
No ready-to-wear or haute couture label was present, nor was a single fashion school, neither the French fashion institute. “The bridges with the clothing industry are yet to build”, admits Claire Eliot, co-organiser of the day and graduate of both ENSCI (higher education national school for industrial creation) and the Duperré school.
For the time being, emerging applications are essentially linked to sport, health, and professional clothing, say in unison Danièle Clutier, secretary of R3ilab, the network for textile professionals, and Philippe Morin, clothing industry and training director of the French Institute of textile and clothing.
“We don’t have any haute couture professional hackerspace members for the time being”, confirms Maurin Donneaud. For Claire Eliot, maker aesthetics would seem a little scary for fashion. Blinking LEDs, visible cabling and connections, the DIY aspect would create a visual block for brands often focused on a fluid, “nude”, uncluttered style. “However one does not preclude the other, but there is still a lot of work”, explains Claire Eliot.
“In France, we are rather behind with regards to connected textiles”, assures Aurélie Mossé, teacher at Ensad and doctor in textile design. She is back from several years abroad, including a visit to the Textile Futures Research Centre of the prestigious Central Saint Martins in London, where “students have being doing Arduino for several years already”.
Broadly speaking, “a lot of know-how is likely to disappear in France”, explains Marion Olekhnovitch between two conductive sewing sessions in the afternoon. This young engineer-entrepreneur who came to discover connected textile realized, during numerous workshop visits for her start-up project, that “the majority of qualified seamstresses in France were close to retirement, and companies are finding it difficult to find replacements since the young train more in fashion than in dressmaking”. Time will tell whether connected textile will bring back the will to work with materials.
The future is in the material
The world of connected textile did not appear overnight. Martin de Bie recalls that “some ten years ago, stage directors used costumes embedded with electronics to turn lights on on stage”. Many maker seamstresses’ projects concentrate on the integration of electronics (sensors, LEDs, displays…) on the fabric.
Like a zip fastener of which you detect the length of the closed part, LEDs reacting to body movements, scarves the flexions and tensions of which trigger sounds… But for everyone, the future is in the material itself.
The principal barrier to break down is the transition from embedded electronics to integrated electronics. Once this is achieved, one can imagine components directly woven into the material. In other words, wearing an Arduino T-shirt not only with a simple logo on one’s chest, but one that would be a true functional Arduino.
Philippe Morin (French Institute of textile and clothing) lists a few connected textile products: the Hexoskin heating garment, the Bioserenity epileptic fit detector T-shirt… According to him, “the challenges to make the transition from prototypes to products” are about resistance to use, to washing, to the integration of innovations in production chains… Otherwise, “creations will remain costly demonstrations for exhibitions”.
Head in the clouds, hands on the machine
The afternoon was dedicated to three simultaneous workshops. Thirty odd participants were split between “critical textiles, technological innovation facing social issues”, “what uses for intelligent textiles” and, more practical, “discovery workshop around intelligent textiles”.
In the discovery workshop, following an introduction to the world of rapid prototyping, open source, Arduino and Lilypad (a special textile Arduino), participants discover an entire folder of electronic textile. Like children in a toy shop, they all bombard Martin de Bie and Maurin Donneaud with questions on the samples of conductive, resistive, piezoelectric, thermocromic fabrics, of conductive Velcro, of shape memory thread… Then, each participant had a go at making a textile double switch to light a LED. Back to basics and simplicity that thrills participants, following a morning spent imagining the future.
“This is great, it’s the first time I am sewing conducive thread!”
The drawing of a textile switch consists in two bits of conductive fabric separated by perforated foam. By applying pressure on both sides of the holes in the foam, the two conductive fabrics come into contact, close the circuit, the current flows, the LED lights up.
The other two workshops generate ideas such as a splint-garment the mechanical properties of which would help to heal an injury or live better with a handicap, or woolly hats knitted according to patterns deriving from the digital processing of a piece of music.
Following the restitution, Patrick Guilleminot from the company Mulliez-Flory specialized in professional clothing, reminds us that the development of textiles, as with any innovation, raises practical and social issues: when his company developed non-chill garments a few millimetres thick (compared to several centimetres usually), the workers supposed to wear them refused them. Psychologically, the garment did not look warm, and the constraints of their thick garments allowed them to have breaks that the innovative ultra-thin garment deprived them of!
The cycle “Connected and intelligent textiles” goes on at Stereolux with practical workshops on the 11th and 12th of June.
Maurin Donneaud shares on his website numerous examples and electronic textile projects in open source.