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Smart clothing is becoming all the rage, with garments that can do things like light up or detect the wearer’s pulse. Now, designers are also experimenting with color changing clothing ink, and how it can be integrated into smart textiles for a variety of fashionable and functional results.
Thermochromic inks have been in use for decades, from novelty items such as mood rings, to packaging that indicates when your food or drink is at the right temperature, to more utilitarian applications such as thermometers and battery indicators. Color-changing clothing, however, is relatively new and still being developed.
One of the people working in this area is doctoral student Marjan Kooroshnia from the University of Borås. Working with leuco dye-based thermochromic inks, she has developed methods to allow colorful patterns to appear on solid-colored fabric in response to environmental temperature changes.
Leuco dyes are colored when below their activation temperature, and clear or very light above that temperature. They are usually blended with other pigments, which allows them to change from one color to another. Kooroshnia experimented with different blends in order to create inks that look similar to each other when below the temperature threshold, but reveal multiple hues when warmed. She has also created designs with inks that activate at different temperatures, creating textiles that change multiple times as the temperature rises.
A fashion student at Nottingham Trent University in the UK is looking at practical applications for color-changing textiles. Georgia Demetriou has created a collection of performance fabrics designed to indicate how hard the wearer has trained. Among them is a thermochromic long-sleeved shirt that turns white at 31°C, once the wearer’s body temperature has risen. Demetriou views this as a motivational feature, giving the person exercising a visual indicator of how hard they are working, as they can watch the color gradually change with their body temperature.
In the US, a group of researchers has taken a different approach to color-changing textiles. Ebb is a new technology that uses color-changing threads that respond to electrical charges. The threads are conductive and coated in thermochromic pigments. The developers are weaving and crocheting these threads to create different designs and effects. While the color change is currently slow, they hope to eventually make it as fast as e-ink, which would open up many possible applications.
Researchers and designers around the world are developing techniques and technology with exciting possibilities. Color-changing textiles are still in their infancy, but knowledge around them is beginning to spread. Based on her experiments and their results, Kooroshnia is creating educational tools to help others work with these materials. As the properties and interactions of these inks with fabrics become better known and communicated, these techniques will doubtless begin to make their way into the mainstream textile market, providing countless new design opportunities.
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