What is E-textiles? 

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What is E-Textiles?

E-textiles refers to the use of electronics in textiles products to add functional or decorative effects. They are sometimes called electronic textiles and wearable electronics. 

Rather than wires specialist conductive thread is used as this gives additional flexibility (although sometimes traditional wires are also used). The components that are used are specially designed for use in textiles products. You can’t get electrocuted, they don’t produce heat and there is no fire risk. There is no soldering and you just need basic sewing skills and very limited knowledge of circuits. 

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As well as basic electronic components such as LEDs and switches more complex components are also available which can be programmed to create more complex effects. Other more advanced uses include the use of fibre optics and weaving or knitting micro components and conductive threads into fabric. 

E-textiles has been around longer than you might think. Take a look at this timeline on the development of e-textiles and wearables

Adding Fun, Function and Fashion

E-textiles can add fun, function or fashion to a product e.g.

  • Lights e.g. illumination, warning signs
  • Sensors e.g. movement, temperature, moisture
  • Sound e.g. speakers, MP3 player
  • Measurement e.g. weight, capacity overload
  • Monitoring e.g. medical uses, protection
  • Entertainment e.g. stage costumes, toys
  • Communication e.g. phones integrated in items
  • Tracking e.g. e.g. GPS Sat Nav

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Products might also be designed to facilitate e-textiles e.g. hats or jackets with holes and channels for headphones. 

Creating your own e-textiles items using ready made electronic modules

You can buy ready made electronic modules that can be put straight into a textiles product.  Many of these items are not specifically designed for textiles items so they can be quite bulky.

Creating your own simple e-textiles circuits 

You can also create your own e-textiles circuits using components specially designed for textiles products. The advantage of doing this is that the components are much smaller and discrete than the ready made modules. You also have the option of creating a wider range of designs based on your own ideas. 

To create e-textiles circuits you don’t need knowledge of electronics nor any specialist equipment and there are no bulky wires and no soldering to do. The kits use conductive sewing thread that is similar to use to ordinary threads along with stitchable electronic parts with big, easy to sew holes and clearly marked to show the positive and negative connections. There are no safety issues as you can’t get electrocuted and the LEDs don’t get hot. 

A basic circuit is made using a specially designed cell holder (battery holder) and LED which are attached to fabric using oversewing stitches and a specialist conductive thread. There are some key rules to follow such as making sure the negative and positive sides of the circuit don’t touch but if you can sew a popper on and do basic hand sewing stitches you can do e-textiles. 

Designing with e-textiles

Some products that use e-textiles are just designed for fun but it is important to remember that many e-textiles have important functions and are not just a gimmick. This is especially the case if you are working with young people in schools as it is important that students understand the functional aspect of e-textiles and how this will play an increasingly important role in the textiles of the future. It is also important students consider the sustainability issues relating to e-textiles and power sources. 

Using e-textiles poses a number of design challenges that will need to be considered e.g. aesthetics of the product and the module being used, what the module actually does, washing and care of the product, battery storage, access to the battery so it can be changed, how LED lights will sit on / through the fabric.

(Click here to see the instructions for this tree)

E-textiles and the future

With thanks to Emtex for permission to share this information from their New Textiles poster resource

Other Links

Investigate the following companies that use e-textiles:

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