An Exploration of Textiles in the Digital Age

a research endeavor through UNC Digital Humanities

February 1 – 28

In February, I have been printing the pieces for the garment, designing and making the shell of the dress, and prepping for some events I’ve been asked to be a part of!

Below are a few of the sketches I’ve made for the dress.

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In designing this dress, I’m thinking about the conceptual relationship of the “smart textiles revolution” and the Industrial Revolution – one in which the first is emphasizing the wearer and the individuality of the garment, whereas the latter is focused on the commodification and replication of a wearable. The silhouette of the dress is reminiscent of the hoop skirts of the turn of the 19th century, but with a modern length and top half.

I’m also still looking at the 3D printed interpretation of the molecular makeup of cotton fibers and TPU fiber as inspiration for what it is that I’m modeling and printing. The dress is being made to fit a specific model, my friend and fellow MFA candidate Britta Anderson, and with the use of the 3D scanning app Nettelo, we are constructing a dress that fits her exact dimensions (except the neck – see below). Another friend and designer, Mathilde Humbert, has been guiding me in the construction of the shell of the garment – the size of the printing bed is the most obvious obstacle in printing a large amount of material, so we are having to print piece by piece to sew onto the shell of the garment, which will be made of cotton.


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As for now, I am printing every chance I get and constructing the garment in between! The goal is for the dress to be 100% complete for a presentation I am giving April 12th.


January 1 – 31

Since coming back from break, I have been primarily researching and modeling for the garment I’m printing! I have been researching the Industrial Revolution and the garments of that time and conceptually connecting that to this contemporary garment. I have been doing a lot of testing of my prints, and today will start printing for the actual garment if all goes correctly. The goal is for the piece to be entirely printed by April 12th for a presentation I’m giving on my research.


I envision this dress to have a skirt that is made of a flexible fringe-like material – resembling the makeup of cotton fiber beneath a microscope, seen below (I will upload more visualizing sketches of the garment very soon). The model interpretation of this is seen below the microscope picture.
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I knew that this model would be difficult to print, primarily due to the lack of “scaffolding” beneath the parts that curl off of the bed of the printer. Below is my first print and then my second. The first print was too thin, as you can see that the strands are basically nonexistant. The second print was more successful, but still looks too sloppy.



You can see in the second print that the “fringe” is extremely thin and that some of the strands are not complete. After thickening the strands in Tinkercad, I printed this sample below.


This print is much more successful, but some work still needs to be done in perfecting the thickness of the model. Looking at the two latter prints side by side is helpful in gauging how I should adjust the thickness in moving forward.






On the top half of the dress, I am modeling a form resembling the makeup of TPU (the filament I’m using to print). I have not yet printed a sample of this model, but am going to have to sew the components together in constructing a garment, hence the small holes. This microscope photo and inspired model is seen below.



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On the third and last section of the dress (on the back of the garment – this will be much easier to visualize with sketches), I wanted to model a component of the garment that wouldn’t require a sewn attachment. I still allowed two small perforations to anchor the pieces as I see fit, but the mechanics of this part of the dress that is unique is the pseudo ball and socket joint holding it together.







I felt these prints to be a bit too large, so scaling them down will be done before reprinting.


This research and production connection has been so fun for me to explore, and I can’t wait to update you guys on the garment creation as it continues!

December 1 – 16

The past few weeks, I have directed all my time in this fellowship to the idea of 3D printing incorporated into textiles. I have been studying the garments and processes of Iris van Herpen and threeASFOUR, as well as combining open source 3D models from Thingiverse and Tinkercad to create samples of potential textile uses. I have recreated some old samples to test the scale as well as printed one new sample:


This sample was based on a basic weave structure grid, and provided surprising flexibility, although only diagonally. This was made from TPU and took two hours to print. I was a bit hesitant to print this model  because of the lack of support structure (I was scared it would collapse as it started to print), but was pleasantly surprised by its success as well. Moving forward towards the idea of garment creation, I am modeling samples that have joints that can be pieced together, similar to the triangular model from my last post. The size of the bed of the 3D printers are rather small, so creating a seamless piecing method will be key in creating something meant to function as a garment.


What I’m most excited about right now is testing the various filaments that BeAM at Murray has just ordered in – so far I’ve tested the linen, bamboo, and silk filaments and still have several more to test!


The filament on the left is the standard PLA that 3D printers use. To the right of that is the linen, then the bamboo, and finally the silk filaments. The filament make-up is still partially mixed with a plastic in so that the material can melt into a liquid state. There was some minor profiling to be done for these new filaments as the printer had to know how hot the bed and nozzle needed to be, as well as at what rate the filament should extrude.


Although all three of these new materials were exciting to work with, the silk is most unique. It has a sheen similar to a silk fabric. Sadly, these filaments have no elasticity to them and behave like the sturdy PLA or HIPS filaments. I am really excited to test the other new filaments and to continue modeling and printing in the new year!

November 1-18

This month I continued my research by first interviewing Dr. Suh from North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles. I had come across her name a few times in my research for apparel design that utilized 3D scanning technologies to make a garment more individualized, and got a chance to talk to her about her current research.

Dr. Suh is particularly interested in the female body’s specificity in functional apparel. When looking at the body’s response to physical exercise, she was sure that there must be a way that the sports bra could perform better. In beginning her research, she knew it was critical to define the mass of the breasts to proceed to examining their interaction with the bra, but found that there was no accurate means to measure that mass yet. This is understandably difficult, but once she and her colleagues found a way to measure the weight and volume, they could then understand and anticipate the movement of the breasts. The research then led to experiments with the force felt by wearers from their bras – too much versus too little support – to minimize the discomfort. Her students have since then interpreted this project and are working with several different aspects of the bra in which they see potential for improvement, i.e. the underwire, the mass measurement, using 3D scanning to individualize cup shape and support.


I have been spending a good bit of my research time designing and tweaking open sourced 3D models to print, to more closely analyze the potential for textiles to incorporate with the 3D printing technology. The following are open sourced models from Thingiverse.


This above sample is made of Ninjaflex (TPU) filament  that I printed on the Lulzbot Mini printer (only important to know if you were to recreate this). This filament is much more flexible than the standard PLA or HIPS plastics that are commonly used in printing, and has a much more dynamic malleability; this filament could be used to create a high fashion garment or a specialized piece of a garment, but I can’t imagine that it would serve as a commodified fiber in the near future.


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The (above) sample is made of the same filament, and I was much more excited to interact with this piece once it printed. Perhaps it behaved more like a fabric – it was primarily solid, and the design was rather interesting. This one behaved like chainmail as well, the triangle motifs having ball and socket joints on the underside (pictured in the second photo – I decreased the size of this print without realizing that the joints wouldn’t be as distinct. They look like a joint undoubtedly, but printing at the original size would have made the sockets more aethetically pleasing and more functional I imagine). These joints allowed me to connect the edges of the sample to form a cylindrical sample (second video).

I am currently in the process of designing samples of my own – inspired primarily by geometric chainmail as well as basic weave structures.


This (above) video is my first real exploration in sensor use with microcontrollers. In this smart textiles revolution, sensors are the key to having a garment that responds – to the wearer, to the environment. There has been a steady progression in sensor use in the last few decades – from sensors being attached to apparel (like Nike’s Nike+ sensor), to sensors being embedded in garments (like Ralph Lauren’s PoloTech shirt), to the garment being the sensor itself (BeBop – all of their products).

What I did with this test was use an Arduino controller and a compatible touch sensor to change the color of the LED on the circuit depending on where I touched the sensor. This was an “example” code on the Arduino software, and it was fairly simple to hook up. You can see the LED changing color as I swipe my finger along the sensor. In addition to touch sensors, there are light, motion, color, water flow, temperature, humidity, piezo, altitude, Hall effect, bending, gas leak, squeeze, UV, muscle temperature, bar code, fingerprint, soil moisture sensors, as well as amplifiers and GPS trackers.


In the next few weeks, I am experimenting with new filaments for 3D printing (thanks Charlie!), thinking about app development, and planning something big for next semester!

October 17-28

The past two weeks have been so much fun. I spent a lot of time researching outside of the Kenan Science Library – talking about 3D printing at a faculty appreciation event one day, interviewing the incredibly intelligent Dr. Ghosh from North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles another, and doing some research on North Carolina textile production history in the meantime.

This morning I documented some of my exploration of conductive fabric with the Makey Makey and wanted to share.


I knew about conductive thread and its importance in creating circuitry in smart textiles (and many other things) and luckily had some beautiful copper bamboo thread from Habu to experiment with. I used my knitting machine to make a small swatch to test its conductivity, knowing that the knit is much looser than standard conductive fabric (particularly the fabrics I’ve fallen in love with from Lessempf). I was a little apprehensive that the structure would be too loose to conduct energy.



The Makey Makey is a phenomenal little tool. Its tag line is “an invention kit for everyone” and is popular among beginners to Arduino and micro-controlling, and for my investigations into circuitry, it serves its purpose well. Some of my favorite Makey Makey projects are here.


Without going too much into how the platform works (it’s incredibly simple and comes with laid out instructions), basically you connect the board to a computer for power, attach an alligator cable to the bottom of the board (“earth”), and pinch the other end of that cable between your fingers. You now have a circuit that is complete when you touch the controls on the board!

In order to see if this fabric was indeed conductive enough to operate in this circuit, I simply connected it to the clip that I would normally hold to the fabric and pinched the other end of the fabric. There are some basic controls on the board but for this purpose I only used the “space” button – that when pushed, your computer understands as you pushing the space bar on your keyboard. I tried this in Microsoft word and it worked!

I then wanted to see if I could use the fabric itself as the sensor, instead of pushing the “space” button on the board.


So, a pretty simple change – but in order for me to complete the circuit now I must touch the fabric, not the board.

You can see the board lighting up when I touch the fabric.

And here’s the screen that is being controlled by me touching the fabric to complete the circuit. I am “typing” the spaces in a bigger font in the middle of this text so that you can see the spaces more easily.


This test was really exciting for me – if information can be translated through human touch to fabric to type into a computer, what else can touch communicate?

October 1-15

As my research broadens, I am increasingly interested in more aspects of this field of smart textiles.

Initially, I envisioned my research dealing mutually with circuitry and sensors, and while I am still very interested in the possibility of incorporating these aspects in my research, I am seeing more and more ways that local resources (specifically the Makerspaces at Kenan Science Library, Murray Hall, and Hanes Art Center – all affiliated with BeAM) can aid my exploration and curiosity.

I suppose this transition was sparked by an interview I held with Rachel Pollock in the UNC Costume Department, who showed me a beautiful antique woodblock made new through 3D printing by Katie Keener. These woodblocks are surprisingly fragile, and part of the wood had broken off due to age and use, making it impossible to create a complete pattern.197491_600

Photo from Rachel Pollock at

Photo from Rachel Pollock at

This idea of taking an old fragment of textile production and replicating it, only making it functional again by the use of modern technology, struck me as important. I began correspondence with Brent Lane of UNC’s Economics Department and we are continuing conversation about the history of textile production, specifically Southern textiles, and the parallels between the Industrial revolution and the revolution we’re seeing today. (An article Brent contributed to that I found wonderful:


I began exploring the potential of 3D printing and looking to leaders in its exploration to see where the current research is heading, and found the experimentation with various filaments to be extremely exciting. Most 3D printers are built to systematically melt forms of plastic (PLA, HIPS, etc.), but I knew that that must be limiting to production and implementation, particularly in my interest of smart textiles. I am currently working with the UNC BeAM employees to test the performance of these machines and their inputs.

I attended a Simple Circuits workshop at Kenan Science Library to learn the basics of circuitry using a breadboard, LEDs, resistors, and a potentiometer, and have been lucky to acquire a plethora of conductive fabrics, thread, and a Lilypad from my advisor to experiment with the potential of creating circuits directly on fabric and garments. I have also been creating samples of knit fabric with conductive copper wire and testing its conductivity with Makey Makey (video to come soon!).


The first few weeks of this fellowship were a whirlwind – coming from a Design background, I was absolutely captivated by the spectrum of projects done by digital humanists, and spent a lot of time looking at the institutional knowledge and exploration of the field. Here are a few of my favorite projects:

These complex, imaginative, sensory experiences magnify the way we interact with the world and made me start thinking about my role in this field. Through talking with my fellowship supervisors, I decided that researching smart textiles would be something exciting to delve into.

I started my research by thinking of this new, energetic research in smart textiles as a potential revolution for the textile and garment industries, and most importantly, for the relationship we have with our clothes.

I quickly learned this category of technology and textiles is more than incorporated circuitry; there are active sensors being pursued for commodity markets, 3D printed fabrics [] [], alternative sourcing of fiber polymers [], and just plain cool high fashion pieces [].

I know that one year is not enough time to research and experiment with everything that the field touches; the hard part is going to be choosing the most interesting endeavor to invest in.