Interview with Kitty Yeung, Art by Physicist:...
Interview with Kitty Yeung, Art by Physicist

Sustainable smart textiles with style

Dr. Kitty Yeung, founder and tech-fashion designer (Source: Art by Physicists)
Dr. Kitty Yeung, founder and tech-fashion designer (Source: Art by Physicists)

A Silicon Valley tech-fashion start-up, Art by Physicist, focusing on sustainable, electronically enhanced fashion for women, has teamed up with Armor ASCA to create solar-powered clothes allowing people to charge their electronic devices on-the-go (up to 5V). This project is part of the new technology-powered collection Art by Physicist successfully launched on Kickstarter in June 2021.

How can our electronic devices be charged on-the go? Tell us how these garments work. What distinguishes this garment?
We designed 2 garments, a cocktail bow dress and a lotus overcoat, with Armor ASCA’s solar power films. They are in an artistic lotus shape that matches with the paintings on the fabrics, featuring beautiful brush-and-ink style paintings of a lotus pond and the scenery by the Li River.
The front side of the films absorb solar energy. Through the printed electronics circuit on the back side, it connects to a charge controller which connects to a USB cable that can be plugged into any electronics with a 5V charging voltage, including phones and their batteries. All electronics are seamlessly embedded into the fabrics and USB plug in a pocket, so wearers can put the electronic devices in the pocket to get charged while walking around outdoors.

Which technology can be used to manufacture these textiles?
The solar films are laminated onto the fabrics. The solar films’ circuits are printed with conductive ink, which has the properties of being wearable, thin and flexible.

How long is a charging cycle, and which devices can actually be powered or charged with the clothes?
The lotus solar films can charge a phone battery by ~30% within 5 hours, and this number can increase with a longer exposure, including indoor lighting. Typically, we don't use the solar panels to charge when the device is out of battery, but to keep the battery full on-the-go.

What about the performance characteristics, such as washability, durability, friction and light fastness? Is this clothing still sustainable?
We do several things for sustainability. Designs at Art by Physicist are made-to-order so we don’t overproduce. All the graphics on the fabrics are my hand-drawn paintings on the computer, then printed onto the fabrics on-demand. Digital printing can offset fast fashion’s footprint. Our ethical fabric source uses pigment printing process, with reduced energy and water consumption, instead of reactive dye. We minimize fabric waste by only printing what is needed, and recycle and transform any fabric waste into other items. In addition, a portion of our sales always go to environmental protection non-profits. We want to contribute back to where our inspiration comes from – nature and science.
For this collection with Armor (Armor ASAC, a unit of Armor solar power films GmbH, Kitzingen/Germany), the solar film production is low carbon. Making organic photovoltaic film, Armor has selected the components of its formulation, excluding rare earths and chlorinated or fluorinated derivatives. ASCA films therefore present no carcinogenic or toxic risks. The end of life of the ASCA film has been anticipated right from the design stage, making the product 100% recoverable.

By embedding the films into garments to use solar power for charging also adds to our commitment to sustainability. Our customer will also treasure their clothes more and wear them longer and more often as they provide functional value in addition to aesthetics.
The solar charging depends on the light exposure. The electronics are part of the fabric, which is durable, and wearers don’t feel any friction. The films and cables are waterproof but it’s better not to put the USB plug into a washing machine. Washing machines could also cause mechanical damage to the electronic joints. We recommend handwash for the lotus overcoat while leaving the USB plug out. The cocktail bow dress, however, has the films on the bow, which is detachable, so one can take off the entire bow with the electronics and put the dress into the washing machine.

Which technology is applied?
In addition to the above-mentioned technologies: solar, lamination, printed electronics, digital painting and digital fabric printing, we also design our garments using 3D simulation. This is also a way to reduce sample production waste and increase efficiency.
We are a completely tech-driven fashion company from prototyping to production. In our other collections on our website, you will find designs using flexible LED printed electronics e-textiles for customized constellations shirts and wearable thin film heaters for winter coats.

What are the biggest challenges in terms of smart textile development at the moment?
Some components are still not quite wearable. Depending on applications, one may need a large battery capacity but can only find bulky batteries that cannot be part of the fabric, since thin film flexible batteries are still under development.
Not all electronics are washable. Mechanical damage and water damage are still problems to solve for the industry. Right now, our workarounds are clever designs that seal the electronics or make them removable. Again, it also depends on the application – some functional clothes may not need to be washed.
For some applications, electronics really need to be a seamless part of every garment. For example, if someone needs to wear a medical monitor every day, it is still easier for them to wear a gadget, rather than a garment made with smart textile because the person needs to change clothes. Until all their clothes have that functionality, smart textiles cannot dominate. In addition, if functional clothes are not fashionable, people don’t want to wear them all the time. These are also reasons why we start embedding technologies that already make sense in garments and make all kinds of fashion designs with technologies in them, since we want to help develop a world where every single piece of clothing, whatever look they have, is smart.  

Where do you see the biggest future opportunities for smart textile innovators?
To push smart textiles and wearable tech further, we need to develop ready-to-wears with technologies in them, not just functional clothes. Clothes are personal and cultural, proof-of-concepts are not enough.
We need to develop off-the-shelf components so creative designers can access them and make things people will actually like. Consumers do not know what they want until they see products already in the market.
We need to develop scalable processes. Just with individual components, designers and technologists can make something by hand very quickly and inspire people with demos. But that creativity needs to turn into productivity so that more people can benefit from smart textiles. Companies should develop scalable processes and help the creative community.
We need to develop smart textiles that allow customization. Let people decide what they want and let people choose where they want to put smart textiles. Even better, let’s not make them until people want them so no overproduction and more sustainable. Make smart textiles part of the on-demand digital design ecosystem so smart textiles become an option for people to customize.

Art by Physicist, ASCA = registered trademarks

The interview was conducted by Mechthild Maas, editor of TextileTechnology, with Dr. Kitty Yeung, founder and tech-fashion designer, Art by Physicist, Silicon Valley, CA/USA.


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