The Evolution of E-textiles in an Era of Uncertainty
As part of an ongoing series that examines the rapid changes to our world and way of life, Artemis Ward is gathering thoughts and analysis from leaders and experts to shed light on what’s already happening and offer insight on what’s to come.
March 15, 2021
By Chris Maier
Madison Maxey, founder of the electronic textiles pioneer LOOMIA, is a force of (fabricated) nature. An inventor, engineer, designer, and dreamer, Maddy — as her friends call her — has spent her 20s laser-focused on developing functional e-textile products and bringing them to scale.
When she was just 20 years old, Maddy became the first designer to win the coveted Thiel Fellowship, which grants $100,000 to up-and-coming innovators. Since then, she’s founded the Brooklyn-based LOOMIA, developed an award-winning e-textile circuit called the LOOMIA Electronic Layer (LEL), been named to Forbes 30 Under 30 Arts & Style List, and partnered with powerhouse brands and designers like Google + Zac Posen, Flex, and North Face. These days, Maddy oversees LOOMIA’s operations from the opposite coast, as she pursues a degree in materials science and engineering at California’s Stanford University.
During a break between work and classes (and attendance at an industry conference), Maddy caught up with Artemis Ward creative director Chris Maier to chat about the emerging field of e-textiles, the impact that the pandemic has had on her work, and her inability to escape from light-up pants.
When we use the term “e-textiles,” what exactly are we talking about?
Electronic textiles, known as e-textiles, are basically aiming to integrate electronics into textiles. There are many different ways of doing this, whether you’re talking about knitting conductive threads into materials to make that material behave like a circuit or laminating something like a printed electronic onto a textile that can be worn on the body.
But e-textiles can be used for things that aren’t wearables, too. So, it’s good to view an e-textile as a foundational material that can be used to give things different functions. Sort of like plastic. Plastic isn’t a plastic bottle, but it can be used to make that. And plastic isn’t a Tupperware container, but it can be used to make that, too.
And where does your company, LOOMIA, fit into the world of e-textiles?
We design and manufacture our version of an electronic textile called the LOOMIA Electronic Layer. Basically, it’s a flexible, traceable material that can be laminated to a textile in order to create an e-textile. We have patents on the techniques that we use to build these layers and we customize the build for each customer, depending on what their needs are.
Is it fair to assume that you see yourself as part of the fashion industry, too?
When I first started getting into this space, there was this trend where fashion brands would be like, “Let’s put some electronics in this clothing, and we’ll get some products, and it’s going to be awesome!” But a lot of those products never got to market because they’re impossible to manufacture.
So in terms of fashion — a fashion consumer has really high expectations of how something’s supposed to work, look, and feel. But when you’re dealing with emerging technologies like e-textiles, it’s very hard to meet those high expectations. And in general, fashion doesn’t need extra functionality. So, if the e-textiles industry is going to grow, we have to go where there is need, and tolerance for price, and tolerance for technical development time. And that’s generally not in the fashion industry.
Even if your work doesn’t have both feet in fashion, it certainly seems like you’re drawing on a wide range of disciplines and industries.
There’s a book I read a few years ago and really liked called The Science of Leonardo. In the world of invention, according to da Vinci, you need a very multidisciplinary mindset. So, it helps to have the tools to draw out your concept. And it helps if you have some mechanical knowledge, so it will work; some materials knowledge, so things are built materially compatible; some production knowledge, so you know that you understand how things can get made using manufacturing processes. And, of course, some logical knowledge is helpful, too, so you know what work’s left to do. On top of all of that, it helps to have some business knowledge, so you can actually get something out there. Those parts are all essential to the broader success of something.
In the world of invention, you need a multidisciplinary mindset.
It sounds like the process is not only multidisciplinary, but also iterative. Is that right?
Absolutely. And I think the incremental improvements are the difference between something that’s too expensive for the market and being at an affordable price point where it can actually succeed on the market
Speaking of getting your product out to the market, how has the pandemic impacted LOOMIA this year?
We walked into this year thinking this was going to be a great year. And then came March — and we were like, This could be a bad year. It’s been hard on us, business wise. But it’s been really cool to be almost forced to work on some things we normally don’t have time for. During these past several months, for instance, we’ve started building a prototyping kit for working with e-textiles, which is something that individual designers and engineers can use to build their own prototypes. So, it’s been really cool to be able to make so much progress on something new because of a situation that is otherwise unfortunate.
Industry-wide, do you think Covid-19 has opened up new opportunities for e-textiles to find footholds in the market?
I was just in a conversation today where everyone was talking about how important remote healthcare is becoming, especially during a time like this when people can’t go to see the doctor or when the nearest doctor is an hour away. In these cases, if somebody is at high risk, how do you continually monitor them? Garment-faced wearables, which are made possible by e-textiles, are a really powerful and interesting solution for that. So, from a true functionality perspective, I think remote healthcare monitoring is a really important space for e-textiles right now. That kind of remote monitoring can also be used for athletes to make sure they’re training safely. And industrial climate control is something that’s really interesting, too. For people who work in extreme environments, how do you keep them warm enough? How do you keep them cool enough? It’s really interesting.
There’s an accessibility question here, too. I mean, it can be harder for someone in low-income communities to access a doctor, but ideally health insurance could prescribe them, say, a shirt to wear that actually monitors their condition. This can prove very important to them. Unfortunately, the underserved people who need things most are often the least likely to get them.
Right now, I think people hear “e-textiles” and they think: “light-up pants!”
Are there examples of e-textiles out there in the world right now that are in fact accessible to most people?
An unexpected example is the heated seat in your car. It’s interwoven with a bunch of wires sewn into it. It’s like a very early version of e-textiles. That’s something most people have access to and just think of as part of the larger product — that is, as part of the car.
Within the world of e-textiles and smart textiles, who do you look to for inspiration?
The companies that I really admire are companies like W.L. Gore, which makes Gore-Tex, yes, but their technology is also in some crazy number of medical devices. Almost every plastic that goes into your body W.L Gore has touched. And companies like 3M — people think of sticky notes, but almost every adhesive uses their products. And there’s Henkel, which makes a bunch of encapsulates and materials that go into products. Being able to be part of what product developers are making by bringing in a functionality that they wouldn’t otherwise include, I feel like that would make me really happy.
Where do you see the e-textiles industry going over the next few years?
You wouldn’t believe how many calls I have where somebody mentions light-up pants, which is one of the worst applications of e-textiles. Why would you want light up pants? It’s not a mass marketable product. It doesn’t solve a problem! [Laughs]
But as we look ahead and away from light-up pants, we really have to get people in the mindset of thinking about e-textiles as a foundational tool for building something. And as engineers and designers start to use that tool, I think we can see more applications and we can see the industry grow. But right now, I think people hear “e-textiles” and they think: “light-up pants!”
For us at LOOMIA, having products roll out with our technology in them is super validating. But there’s also the goal of seeing the industry grow, of seeing more people understand what e-textiles are, of seeing them understand why e-textiles could be useful — that would also be really satisfying.