At this Penn State studio, researchers are literally weaving together science and art: BTN LiveBIG

At this Penn State studio, researchers are literally weaving together science and art: BTN LiveBIG

Across cultures, clothing and textiles have myriad uses. They can hide or reveal many things about people. Clothes can be used to highlight a person’s personality, with some cultures valuing vibrant colors and lively patterns as a form of expression. Other people and groups use clothing to conceal themselves and shield their individuality.

For Dr. Felecia Davis, an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State, clothing represents something special: a connection with her family.

“My mother loved to make us clothes,” says David, who teaches at the Stuckeman Center for Design and Computation. “We would select the pattern, modify it and cut it out. The we’d sit there and she would explain to us how to sew it. It was a time that we gathered at our dining table and we would make something together. That was always a pleasurable thing for me.”

Today, Davis is still working with clothing and textiles, but on a whole new level. Since 2015, her research studio, SOFTLAB@PSU, has been, in her words, “weaving science into art” as one of the premier makerspaces for people working with computational textiles.

“SOFTLAB is a place where people can go to work with soft materials that are embedded with electronics, sensors and other things that make fabrics responsive or behave in a certain way,” Davis explains. “One of the main things we’re doing is creating fabrics that communicate with people.”

That ability to communicate has a wide range of uses. For example, computational textiles could be used to create athletic clothing that can analyze a person’s gait. Sensors sewn into the fabric of a specially-designed pair of pants would be used to monitor the position of the wearer’s hip, knee and ankle. If the sensors detect a change associated with a poor stride, they can alert the wearer. That alert could come in the form of a change in the color of the fabric, or a notification sent to a smart phone.

In a medical setting, computational textiles could be used to less-intrusively monitor the health of newborns. Using fabrics embedded with materials sensitive to electrical resistance, a onesie could be fashioned that would track the expansion and contraction of the chest as a baby breathes. An abrupt interruption to that pattern could indicate a cessation in breathing and sound an alarm to hospital staff or caregivers.

With increased investment in computational textiles in the United States, which some see as a way to bring back the nation’s once-booming textiles industry, Davis notes that thoughtful inquiry into how they are utilized is the logical next step.

“We’re entering a phase where materials can do all these different things. The take away now is figuring out what we want to do with these materials and making sure that we’re thinking about the kinds of useful things that can be done with computational textiles.”

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