Insight - 11/21/22

What are E-textiles?

5 min

By Meghan Day

What are E-textiles?

We love innovative technology at Interwoven Design, and when you are talking about wearable technology, one of the most innovative tools at our disposal are e-textiles. What are e-textiles? Well, it can be a bit confusing. We’ll explain what they are, what they aren’t, and why we love them in this Insight article. You can also check out our fantastic interview with LOOMIA e-textiles expert Maddy Maxey to learn more about why e-textiles are a powerful addition to your design toolkit. 

There is a lot of jargon around textiles and clothing with electronic components or capabilities, some of which is official industrial jargon and some of which is convenient non-official jargon that also serves to confuse. Wearable technology, e-textiles, smart textiles, smart clothing, active textiles, functional fabric…what is the difference? 

A working definition

E-textile is short for electronic textile. It’s one of those terms that doesn’t have a standard definition, so even within the industry you hear a range of meanings. The concept involves some combination of electronics and textiles, but there is a spectrum that ranges from combinations that are high on the electronic part and low on the textile part to those that are low on the electronic part and high on the textile part. 

This streetwear brand uses e-textiles to create luminescent garments and footwear. Image via Halo Streetwear.

Here is Textile Learner’s definition

“Electronic textiles, or simply e-textiles, are textiles with embedded electronics and some fiber materials possessing electrical characteristics and providing some useful functions. An electronic textile is a fabric that can conduct electricity. If it is combined with electronic components it can sense changes in its environment and respond by giving off light, sound or radio waves.”

Here is Science Direct’s definition:

“Electronic textiles (e-textiles) are textiles that are, or are part of, electronic components that create systems capable of sensing, heating, lighting or transmitting data.”

We like LOOMIA’s definition best: 

“An electronic textile (e-textile) is a circuit that is either constructed into a textile or created with the intention of being integrated into a textile.”

While they are all valid and reading them gets us closer to an understanding, we find LOOMIA’s the most flexible and useful as it helps us to understand the two main categories of e-textiles: laminated and embedded. Let’s look at that definition again: An e-textile is a circuit that is either constructed into a textile (embedded) or integrated into a textile (laminated). What is a circuit? A circuit is the complete path of an electric current; a series of electronic components that create a loop through which energy can flow. 

The Sound Shirt allows deaf users to feel music on their skin. Image via CuteCircuit.

Embedded e-textiles

Embedded e-textiles feature electronic components woven or knitted into fabric. Directly printing or embroidering a conductive circuit onto a textile also falls into the embedded category. This type of e-textile tends to look and feel more like a textile, and is more likely to be driven from textile engineering. 

Take the example of a vest woven with a blend of cotton and a heat-conductive fiber to keep the user warm. The heat-conductive fiber is a conductive fiber, and any fabric woven with it is also an e-textile. 

Because they must be integrated at the level of the fiber, yarn or into the weave, embedded e-textiles tend to be softer, more sleek, and more comfortable to wear against the body, which makes them the more popular of the two categories. That said, the small scale needed for embedding limits the strength and complexity of the electronic components the final e-textile can contain, and ultimately limits their energy output. 

Laminated e-textiles

In contrast, laminated e-textiles involve electronic components like circuits and sensors that are affixed to an existing textile. These may be sewn on, joined with adhesive, attached to another substrate which is then attached to the textile, or attached with any number of methods. Laminated e-textiles tend to be bulkier and less comfortable than embedded textiles, though the development of increasingly small electronic components means that the gap between embedded and laminated e-textiles is getting smaller every year, with the bulk of laminated options going down and the performance of embedded options going up. An example of a laminated e-textile is a medical gown with a sensor built in to monitor biodata.

In this example, heart monitoring technology has been integrated into a sports bra and an athletic top. Image via Sensoria.

What aren’t e-textiles?

Wearable technology is not synonymous with e-textile though an e-textile might be used to create a wearable technology product. Wearable technology refers to an entire wearable device, not to a component. The same goes for a piece of smart clothing, which might incorporate an e-textile but not constitute one. An active textile or functional fabric refers to a textile with a special performance function like moisture-wicking or thermal regulation, and has nothing to do with electronic integration at all.

The term smart textile may be used to refer to an e-textile but is a larger, broader category that may also include metallic textiles, wearable electronics, fabric with medical applications or fabrics that can respond to stimuli non-electronically, like color-changing textiles that respond to heat levels. Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, the principal designer at Interwoven Design, has written the book on the subject, Smart Textiles for Designers: Inventing the Future of Fabrics. She defines smart textiles as textiles that use our senses “as a way of gathering information from and about us by means of pressure, temperature, light, low-voltage current, moisture, and other stimuli…Smart textiles “learn” from our bodies and our environments, and react.”

In sum

An e-textile might look more electronic or it might look more textile-like depending on its intended purpose and whether it’s embedded or laminated. The creation of an e-textile might be driven by an electronics engineer, a textile engineer, or neither. Could you incorporate an e-textile into a future project? More and more e-textiles are popping up on the market each season as it is a growing industry and a space worth watching for those interested in innovation and technology.

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