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'Smart Clothes' Provide Function and Fashion - 2001-08-22


Do your socks tell you when they need cleaning? Can your shirt change color? Is your neck tie monitoring your blood pressure? Such possibilities are not far off. U.S. electronics, textile, and chemical manufacturers are all striving to create clothes that provide function as well as fashion.

Dupont Corporation spokesman Stacey Burr sees the effort to design "smart" fabrics as just the next stage in the historic evolution of material. First, she says, Dupont worked with natural fibers like wool and silk. Then there was the invention of man made fibers like nylon, and polyester.

Next, she says, Dupont developed "partially active" fibers like Lycra and spandex, materials that stretched and contracted to conform to a person's body shape.

"What we're really talking about now is moving into a different realm of active fibers, fibers that have the ability, when they are manipulated with electric impulses to have different responses," Ms. Burr explains. "Some of those responses might be lending heating or cooling to the fabric that they're in. They may have different sensing capabilities."

She says the trend is fueled by the fact that electronic components are becoming tinier and tinier.

"Everything is becoming smaller, circuits and chips in particular. These are things we're looking at in very small form to be incorporated into apparel and textiles," she says.

And they are not alone. Electronics firms are trying to develop smart clothes too, as are a host of start-ups.

Take Sensatex, for example. Spokesman Jeff Wolf says Sensatex was set up specifically to produce a T-shirt capable of monitoring everything from the wearer's heart rate to the number of calories an exerciser is burning.

"We are focused on utilizing the shirt as a platform to garner information from any sensor on your body and to move this information wirelessly anywhere you need it to the Internet," he explains, "to a watch on your wrist, or to a computer."

Such information could be used by athletic coaches, Mr. Wolf says, or by doctors monitoring elderly patients. Sensatex plans on having its first "smart shirt" on the market by the middle of 2002.

"And this will be a health and fitness product designed to monitor our daily activities, to determine a certain person's vital signs at any given time," he says.

We will expect the clothes of tomorrow to do more than just cover bodies, Mr. Wolf says. We will expect them to perform essential tasks.