Let’s learn about the future of smart clothing

New materials and devices could make clothes safer, comfier and more convenient

Smart materials are being developed for street-wear. Some types could better keep people warm in frigid conditions or cool while working out.

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Our clothes do a lot for us. They keep us warm in the winter or cool while we’re working out. They let us dress to impress or comfortably veg out on the couch. They let each of us express our unique sense of style. But some researchers think our clothes could be doing even more. Those scientists and engineers are dreaming up new ways to make clothes safer, comfier or just more convenient.

Some ideas for new apparel aim to protect people from harm. One new shoe design, for example, features pop-out spikes on the sole that grip the ground. This could help people keep their footing on slippery or uneven terrain. A new fabric coating, meanwhile, could absorb and neutralize some chemical weapons. That coating is made from a metal-organic framework that snags and breaks down harmful compounds. It could offer a lightweight shield to people in war-torn countries.

Not all advanced attire is designed to save lives. Some could just make clothes more comfortable. One day, for instance, you may not need to layer up to stay warm. Fabric embedded with nanowires could reflect your body heat back onto your skin. Electric current humming through those metal threads could provide warmth, too. This may be especially useful for hikers, soldiers or others working in super cold conditions.

On the flip side, another new fabric traps very little body heat. Tiny pores in this material are just the right size to block visible light waves — so the material isn’t see-through — but let infrared waves pass through. Those waves carry heat away from your body to keep you cool.

The future of fashion is not just about improving garments’ existing functions. Some researchers have dreamt up wholly new uses for clothing — like turning wearers into walking power outlets. Flexible solar panels sewn into fabric could soak up the sun to recharge phones or other devices on the go. And some types of fabric could harvest energy directly from a wearer’s motion. Triboelectric materials, for example, can generate electricity when bent or flexed. (Friction between different parts of the material builds up charge, like rubbing your hair against a balloon.) Piezoelectric materials, which produce charge when squeezed or twisted, could be fashioned into outfits, too.

While some fabrics help charge devices, others could serve as devices themselves. In one recent experiment, researchers stitched conductive thread into a t-shirt. This turned the shirt into an antenna that could send signals to a smartphone. Another team threaded fabric with magnetized copper and silver to write data into fabrics. Such data-packed fabric could be used as a hands-free key or form of ID.

Many of these ideas have not yet left the lab — and they’re still pretty far from hitting retail racks. But inventors hope these and other innovations could someday let you get more from your wardrobe.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

New cloth cools you when you’re hot, warms you when you’re cold 3-D printing makes this “phase-change” fabric, which has even more new tricks. (4/18/2022) Readability: 7.5

Flexible devices may help clothes solar power your screens A fluorescent polymer duo boosts the efficiency of solar cells. One day this material may coat your jacket, hat or backpack to offer power on the go. (12/16/2020) Readability: 7.9

Shape-shifting cuts give shoes a better grip The Japanese style of cutting called kirigami transforms this shoe’s sole from flat to grippy as it flexes. (7/14/2020) Readability: 6.7

A dress that flashes light pulses to the beat of your heart is just the beginning. High-tech clothes of the future could have all kinds of uses.

Explore more

Scientists Say: Piezoelectric

Scientists Say: Kevlar

‘Smart’ clothes generate electricity

Hot, hot, hot? New fabric could help you stay cool

Graphene fabric keeps mosquitoes from biting

Working up a sweat may one day power up a device

These antennas turn anything into a radio station

This battery stretches without losing oomph

Wet suits with hair?

Sunglasses on demand

U.S. Army is developing high-tech underwear

Specially coated fabric could turn a shirt into a shield

A better way to stop a bullet?

Future smart clothes could pack serious gadgetry (Science News)

Activities

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Do you have an idea for some wearable tech that could improve people’s lives? Or, want to try your hand at high-tech fashion but not sure where to start? Create your own smart clothes with resources from Teach Engineering. Find inspiration in online videos about wearable technology, then brainstorm ideas and sketch prototypes with a handy design guide.

Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News for Students. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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