Smart Fabric, or “Wearable Clothing”
E. Rehmi Post
Physics and Media
MIT Media Laboratory
Wearable computers can now merge seamlessly into
ordinary clothing. Using various conductive textiles,
data and power distribution as well as sensing circuitry
can be incorporated directly into wash-and-wear
clothing. This paper describes some of the techniques
used to build circuits from commercially available fabrics,
yarns, fasteners, and components.
While wearable computers are empowering fashion
accessories, clothes are still the heart of fashion, and
as humans we prefer to wear woven cloth against our
bodies. The tactile and material properties of what
people wear are important to them, and people are
reluctant lo have wires and hard plastic cases against
their bodies. Eventually, whole computers might be
made from materials people are comfortable wearing.
To this end, we have built electronic circuits entirely
out of textiles to distribute data and power, and perform
touch sensing. These circuits use passive components
sewn from conductive yarns as well a.s conventional
components, to create interactive electronic
devices, such as musical keyboards and graphic input
For years the textile industry has been weaving
metallic yarns into fabrics for decorative purposes.
The first conductive fabric we explored was silk organza
which contains two types of fibers, as seen in
Figure 1. On the warp is a plain silk thread. Running
in the other direction on the weft is a silk thread
wrapped in thin copper foil. This metallic yarn is
prepared just like cloth-core telephone wire, and is
highly conductive. The silk fiber core has a high tensile
strength and can withstand high temperatures,
allowing the yarn to be sewn or embroidered with industrial
machinery. The spacing between these fibers
also permits them to be individually addressed, so a
strip of this fabric can function like a ribbon cable.
This sort of cloth has been woven inIndiafor at least
a century, for ornamental purposes, using silver, gold,
and other metals.
Circuits fabricated on organza only need to be protected
from folding contact with themselves, which can
be accomplished by coating, supporting or backing the
Opera of the Future
MIT Media Laboratory
Figure 1: Micrograph of silk organza.
fabric with an insulating layer which can also be cloth.
Also, circuits formed in this fashion have many degrees
of flexibility (i.e. they can be wadded up), as
compared to the single degree of flexibility that conventional
substrates can provide.
There are also conductive yarns manufactured
specifically for producing filters for the processing of
fine powders. These yarns have conductive and cloth
fibers interspersed throughout. Varying the ratio of
the two constituent fibers leads to differences in resistivity.
These fibers can be sewn to create conductive
traces and resistive elements.
While some components such as resistors, capacitors,
and coils can be sewn out of fabric, there is still
a need to attach other components to the fabric. This
can be done by soldering directly onto the metallic
yarn. SurfacemountLEDs, crystals, piezo transducers,
and other surface mount components with pads
spaced more than 0.100 inch apart are easy to solder
into the fabric. Once components are attached, their
connections to the metallic yarn may need to be mechanically
strengthened. This can be achieved with
an acrylic or other flexible coating. Components with
ordinary leads can be sewn directly into circuits on
fabric, and specially shaped feet could be developed
O-8186-8192-6/97 .00 0 1997 IEEE
Figure 2: A fabric breadboard or %martkerchief)l .
to facilitate this process.
Gripper snaps make excellent connectors between
the fabric and electronics. Since the snap pierces the
yarn it creates a surprisingly robust electrical contact.
It also provides a good surface to solder to. In this
way subsystems can be easily snapped into clothing
or removed for washing.
Several circuits have been built on and with fabric
to date, including busses to connect various digital
devices, microcontroller systems that sense proximity
and touch, and all-fabric keyboards and touchpads.
In the microcontroller circuit shown in Figure 2,
a PIC16C84 and its supporting components are soldered
directly onto a square of fabric. The circuit
uses the bidirectional I/O pins on the PIG to control
LEDs and to sense touch along the length of the fabric,
while providing musical feedback to reinforce the
sense of interaction. Building systems in this way is
easy because components can be soldered directly onto
the conductive yarn. The addressability of conductors
in the fabric make it a good material for prototyping,
and it can simply be cut where signals lines are to
One kind of fabric keyboard (see the top of Figure
3) uses pieced conductive and nonconductive fabric,
sewn together like a quilt to make a row- and
column-addressable structure. The quilted conductive
columns are insulated from the conductive rows with
a soft, thick fabric, like felt, velvet, or quilt batting.
Holes in the insulating fabric layer allow the row and
column conductors to make contact with each other
when pressed. This insulation also provides a rewardingly
springy, button-like mechanical effect. Contact
is made to each row and column with a gripper snap,
and each snap is soldered to a wire which leads to the
keyboard encoding circuitry. This keyboard can be
wadded up, thrown in the wash, and even used as a
potholder if desired. Such row-and-column structures
can also be made by embroidering or silk-screening the
Keyboards can also be made in a single layer of
fabric (see the bottom of Figure 3) using capacitive
sensing [I], where an array of embroidered or silkscreened
electrodes make up the points of contact. A
finger’s contact with an electrode can be sensed by
Figure 3: All-fabric switching (top) and capacitive
measuring the increase in the electrode’s total capacitance.
It is worth noting that this can be done with a
single bidirectional digital I/O pin per electrode, and
a leakage resistor sewn in highly resistive yarn. Capacitive
sensing arrays can also be used to tell how
well a piece of clothing fits the wearer, because the
signal varies with pressure.
We have shown how to combine conventional
sewing and electronics techniques with a novel class
of materials to create interactive digital devices. All
of the input devices can be made by seamstresses or
clothing factories, entirely from fabric. These textilebased
sensors, buttons, and switches are easy to scale
in size. They also can conform to any desired shape,
which is a great advantage over most existing, delicate
touch sensors that must remain flat to work at
all. Subsystems can be connected together using ordinary
textile snaps and fasteners. Finally, most of
what has been described can be thrown in the wash if
soiled by coffee, food, or sand at the beach.
Emily Cooper built the musical potholder shown
at the top of Figure 3. Professors Neil Gershenfeld
and Tod Machover have been particularly supportive
of this work, as well as the Media Lab’s Things That
Think Consortium. Special thanks to Zehra Post for
help in finding some of the textiles described above.
[l] Larry K. Bax er, t Capacitive Sensors: Design and
Applications IEEE Press, 1997.