THE FUTURE OF FASHION
The week of September 14, 2014

How to turn your boring wardrobe into smart wear

By Molly McHugh

The fashion of the future is already on the runway, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s on store shelves. You don’t have to wait years for that Wi-Fi-enabled skort you’ve always wanted, though. You’ll need a little ingenuity, an Internet connection, and some cash for supplies, but it’s easier than you think to make your own high-tech wardrobe.

Getting started

For some general advice, we turned to Meg Grant, a researcher, designer, and electronic wearables maker. “If you are starting from scratch, get an Arduino starter kit with a basic Arduino Uno board, a breadboard and traditional components—not a kit aimed at sewing and crafting,” she said. “These are much easier to play around with and to plan circuits before you sew everything in place.” (And then, as these things go, you’ll want to hit up the Internet for some Arduino tutorials.)

There are some “basics” you’ll want to come equipped with (or, go get equipped with). As Grant puts it, “You don’t need to be an electrical engineer,” but you should have a grasp on voltage, current, resistance, and measuring these things.

“You should know the difference between power and ground and an understanding of some of the more common components,” Grant said. “You need at least these basics so that you can explain your problems when looking for help.”

If you don’t come to the crafting table with this knowledge, there is still hope. “I find the Arduino forum is great for learning about electronics, for both Arduino-specific and general electronics,” Grant adds. “Stackoverflow is a goldmine of info as well. Also, don’t underestimate joining a workshop at your local hackerspace. Pick something like Arduino for Beginners and don’t worry that no one there is packing a seam ripper. You can apply the same principles to both ‘hard’ hardware and ‘soft’ hardware and it often helps to learn from actual live people!”

Stocking up

If you’re going to do this right, then you’ll need to do some shopping.

While Michaels and Jo-Ann Fabrics might be good pit stops for most of your DIY needs, they won’t cover all your wearables needs. Tindie is a “marketplace for maker-made products” (think Etsy for electronic crafts —there’s a section just for sensors) where you can find supplies and pre-made items needed for your projects. Grant points to “PlugAndWear for knitted sensors and lessemf.com for larger pieces of conductive fabric.”

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Photo via PlugAndWear

There’s also MbientLab’s MetaWear line, a certified Bluetooth provider for wearables crafters that basically offers the backend for you to build around. MbientLab’s Laura Kassovic says that its site features free 3D-printable cases for whatever you turn your MetaWear device into. She also mentions that they’ve had makers of all ages use their product to create wearable, including a woman in her 60s  who built a “Hot Flash” detector.

“We think we have seen it all and someone gets a hold of our board and does something amazing with it,” says Kassovic.

Setting a smartwatch

Smartwatches are the wearable du jour this season. The jury remains solidly out on whether these connected timepieces will be a revolutionary step in the wearables movement or a nerd-only novelty. Here’s how you can experiment with the latest craze on your own.

The Retro Watch is an open-source project detailed on the DIY site Instructables. You’ll need an Arduino microprocessor, Bluetooth modules, a mini OLED display, Lithium battery, and… well, to get Android developer cred. (That last step isn’t as difficult as it sounds; this particularly project has step-by-step instructions and an app in the Android store that pairs with it.)

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Photo via Instructables

It truly is a simple solution, but if anything with the phrase “soldering iron” scares the creativity out of you, there is a much easier solution. Apple actually already released a smartwatch back in 2010: the iPod Nano 6. If you can get your hands on one of these bad boys (and trust me, you can) then all you need is to fashion a band that looks less like a Playskool toy than those made for the Nano 6, and you’re set. If you want to really invest in this thing and confuse everyone around you, invest in custom an aluminum alloy setting for the faceplate.

Accessorize!

Maybe you think the electronics-disguised-as-pretty-shiny-things-for-ladies trend is embarrassing, and frankly, a little misogynist. Maybe you were of the bejeweled Razr variety back in 2001. If that early predilection for sparkly, Internet-enabled items has carried over to today, then one option is to get in on the ground floor of BlueJewelz. It’s an upcoming line of smart jewelry that uses a connected disc inserted inside jewelry that works with its app to send you notifications.

The jewelry that comes with this device can be easily unhinged from the disc, and that’s where the DIY comes in. It’s bigger than a teeny, tiny stone, so it’s ideal for something like a statement necklace. You’ll want to use a hot glue gun or other soldering equipment to make sure the disc isn’t damaged. This solution is what you might call “DIY lite,” but it still allows for far more personalization than pre-packaged current smart jewelry.

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Photo via BlueJewelz

If BlueJewelz’s “launching soon” status isn’t good enough for your impatient self, there are truly a wide variety of sensors that can fit inside DIY jewelry projects or just need a good decking out. Popular products like the Fitbit and Fuelband are discreet, and more importantly, have very active IFTTT channels, so you can set them up to do just about anything. Of course, these devices are more interested in monitoring you than letting you monitor the world, so it depends largely on your priorities.

Light up the night

Believe it or not, LED clothing is arguably the easiest type of smart clothing to make yourself. The Internet is home to a plethora of designs, and most of them call for the same equipment:

  • LED lights
  • Needle and thread and/or fabric glue
  • Batteries

Now, you can decide how creative you want to get. If you choose LEDs that light up at random and come with built-in battery packs, then things are quite simple. If you want a specific design to light up in a certain sequence, then you’re going to need to invest a little more time and brain power. But not that much more. Here are a few tutorials from FlashingBlinkyLights, an MIT media grad school project, and from How.do.

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Photo via Leah Buechley/MIT Media

Grant points to Instructables as well: “It’s a great way to get started with very simple projects, like a basic sewn circuit with an LED and a battery (conductive thread has inherent resistance, so often resistors aren’t even necessary!). If you’re a crafter who’s excited about wearable tech, but just getting started, sewing an LED and a battery might seem like a newbie exercise, but you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll learn just from that.”

And, obviously, there’s always YouTube.

If you want a multitasking wearable, this solar-powered LED shirt has your name all over it.

Suffice it to say the resources are there, and they’re only growing. So don’t be intimidated by the software-factor that comes with wearables. It’s high time we moved beyond bedazzlers in high-tech fashion.

Illustration by J. Longo