Amazing Things Your Clothes Will Do

John Miley, Reporter, The Kiplinger Letter
August 9, 2013

Soon your bedroom closet may hold much more than shirts, dresses, and socks. Clothing manufacturers are teaming up with scientific and university-based researchers to develop an amazing array of apparel that blends technology and fashion -- highly practical clothing that even fashionistas will want to wear. In the future, "the science and the design -- there can't be a disconnect," says Juan Hinestroza, professor of fiber science at Cornell University.

Athletes, soldiers and hospital patients will be among the first to wear many of the new clothes, but they'll also soon appear on fashion runways and in upscale stores. The innovations will be pricey at first, but the costs are sure to come down over time.

Red Today, Yellow Tomorrow

View photos

Courtesy XS Labs

In the works at Concordia University and XS Labs in Montreal, Canada: clothes that can change the way they look from day to day. The same shirt, showing green on, say, Wednesday, can turn itself into red on Thursday. Or a short skirt can morph into a longer one. The upgradable patterns and designs will likely spell new revenue for clothing companies. They'll sell the initial clothes on the cheap, but new design apps that can change the way the clothes look will cost extra.

Clothes That Sew Themselves

View photos


Scientists are working on self-repairing fabrics that will automatically fix punctures and tears in apparel. A rip or a tear in a raincoat, for example, will activate tiny capsules in the fabric to burst and release a sealant that will harden on contact with air. Nike recently partnered with NASA seeking ideas for such self-repairing fabric, which can be commercially viable in two years or so. The fabrics will also use a special coating to withstand chemical abrasion and heavy washing.

Also in the works: Body armor that's just as strong as today's armor worn by soldiers, but is much lighter and easier to wear. Carbon nanotubes are woven together to create a material that's stronger than carbon fiber at a fraction of the weight.

Why Cheap Clothing Is a Costly Mistake

Invisible You

View photos

Mockup by HyperStealth Biotechnology Corp.

Someday you'll be able to channel your inner Harry Potter by donning an invisibility cloak and disappearing from sight. One potential technology for accomplishing this relies on choleric liquid crystals that react to temperature and light to match background colors. Fabrics will sense the environment and respond with color that matches. Think chameleons, which have transparent skin with a layer of color-changing cells underneath.

Another design from HyperStealth Biotechnology Corp., a Canadian firm, features a cloaking mechanism that renders a person virtually invisible by bending light around him or her.

One clear application: stealth camouflage clothing for the military.

Monitor Your Health

View photos

Courtesy Zephyr

Coming soon: Shirts that measure your heart and breathing rates as you're walking, running, etc. They'll do so through microchips seamlessly embedded in the fabric to collect the data and provide real-time feedback to you or your physician. The shirts will build on current Bluetooth-compatible products, such as BioHarness from Maryland-based Zephyr and Adidas' miCoach product lineup, which includes a sports bra with a heart rate monitor.

Outfits that Knead You

View photos

Courtesy CuteCircuit

Need a massage? There are clothes in the works that will give you one via embedded sensors that emit buzzes and vibrations. Or they'll rely on sensors to activate tiny liquid pockets in the fabric, hardening them into massaging beads upon demand and softening them when they're not needed. Such shirts will create the sensation of tapping, stroking or pressing. They'll be used first in hospitals and other health care facilities to simulate the therapeutic power of human touch.

Meanwhile, London-based CuteCircuit, a clothing design company, is creating the Hug Shirt, a hooded shirt that can wirelessly send and receive hugs. The shirt uses actuators to replicate the strength and feeling of the sender's hug.

Phone Calls From Your Dress

View photos

Courtesy CuteCircuit

CuteCircuit is developing a dress that will feature a SIM card slot, enabling it to work like a phone. The microphone and receiver are in the sleeve. A simple gesture, such as raising your hand, will make or answer a call. The technology is sure to be applied to other clothing, too.

CuteCircuit is also developing a dress that can send and receive Facebook and Twitter messages.

5 Budget-Friendly Essentials for Your Work Wardrobe

Chase Away Bugs

View photos


Enjoy the great outdoors with fewer bug bites and sneezes, thanks to clothes with built-in insecticides, such as the insect-repelling ingredient permethrin. Clothes that can deter mosquitoes and other bugs are especially big news in areas prone to malaria-carrying mosquitoes. No Fly Zone technology from Burlington Worldwide, a North Carolina-based apparel company owned by the International Textile Group, is an early developer of such clothes, which are already commercially available. The clothes are still nearly 90% effective after 70 washes.

Also in the works: clothes that can absorb airborne allergens, making the air around you easier to breathe and to thwart allergic reactions.

Cut Down on Laundry Chores

View photos


Attention, men. Imagine never having to change your boxer shorts again. That's one of the possibilities of next-generation fabrics that kill mites, fungi, bacteria and viruses. They'll eliminate foul odors caused by bacteria, so clothes stay clean and smell fresh without washing. The technology promises to be a big improvement over the current generation of anti-odor sportswear. Baltimore-based Under Armour is already developing anti-odor sportswear.

The military will be a first adopter. Adding nanolayers of chemicals to cotton fibers will destroy toxic pathogens during biological warfare without affecting comfort or durability.

How to Sell Clothes on Consignment

Ward Off Stains Longer

View photos


Stain-resistant coatings in today's clothes tend to wear off after repeated use and washings. So manufacturers are working on building the stain-fighting, as well as bacteria- and virus-fighting, properties into the fabric itself. Schoeller, a textile technology company in Switzerland, is creating self-cleaning fabric that keeps its ability to repel even after frequent washing.

Help Your Golf Swing

View photos

Courtesy Electricfoxy

Lack the coordination of Tiger Woods or the tactile genius of a master pianist? No worries.

Haptic, or tactile, feedback from conductive fabrics in gloves will help you keep your form with vibrations that will guide your golf swing or your hands on the piano. Meanwhile, they'll record and analyze your movements so you and your swing coach or piano teacher can study them later. From Eeonyx Corp., a conductive fabric company based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Another idea from Electricfoxy, a design firm, features a garment that buzzes dancers, yoga practitioners and others on the hips or shoulders in real time to adjust -- and improve -- their moves.

Make You Glow in the Dark

View photos

Courtesy Oryon Technologies

Fabric being manufactured by a number of companies with electronic technology that enables clothes to glow brightly will find practical uses far beyond novelty wear sold at amusement parks. The clothing will be bright enough to let first responders, evening joggers, bicyclists and others be seen without the need for additional lighting. The apparel will be comfortable, with lots of give, and machine washable. Philips has experimented with luminous garments that display texts, graphics or animation as and is now producing luminous textiles that can be used as wall coverings and carpets.

Dallas-based Oryon Technologies has developed ELastoLite -- a thin, flexible material that lights up and can be used in many applications. Oryon illuminated the futuristic threads seen in the 2010 blockbuster Tron: Legacy. It's flexible and machine washable, key for widespread use.