Barbara Layne

Barbara Layne received her MFA in Textile Design at the University of Kansas and is currently an Associate Professor of Studio Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec.  She is the Principal Investigator of a major infrastructure grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and her work has been supported by the Hexagram Institute, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.

Layne’s main research interest is the development of intelligent cloth structures for the creation of artistic, performative and functional textiles.

These fabrics incorporate microcomputers and sensors to create surfaces that are receptive and responsive to external stimuli. Recent explorations feature an array of Light Emitting Diodes that present changing patterns and texts through the structure of cloth.  Wireless transmission systems are also being incorporated to support real time communication.

The following interview was developed through an email exchange between Barbara Layne and Ricardo Dal Farra on July, 2007.

Would you tell us about your academic activities?

I am a Professor of Fibres in the Department of Studio Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The programme offers a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) and MFA Degree (Master of Fine Arts) in Fibres.  Although we provide technical instruction in areas such as weaving, papermaking, printing and dyeing, we are most interested in supporting artistic practices that embrace, extend and challenge traditional techniques, materials and ideas surrounding the textile arts.

I am also a founding member of Hexagram, the Institute for Research and Creation in Media Arts and Technology, which was launched in 2001.  Hexagram has 83 artist-researchers at four universities in Montreal and supports projects that intersect art, science and industry.  There are 5 studio-laboratories working with innovative textiles including my own, which is named Studio subTela. subTela comes from Latin, meaning “under the cloth” and referred to small threads that support larger decorative elements in the fabric.  (It is also the root of the word, subtle.)

Interactive textiles, intelligent garments… how fibres and electronics found their way together in your work?

As the Director of subTela, I supervise five graduate students from Fine Arts and Engineering in the development of interactive garments and wall hangings.  Natural materials are woven in alongside microcomputers and sensors to create surfaces that are receptive and responsive to external stimuli.  Recent explorations feature an array of (Light Emitting Diodes or LEDs) that present changing patterns and texts through the structure of cloth.  Wireless transmission systems have also been developed to support real time communication. In both wearable systems and site related installations, textiles are used to address the social dynamic of fabric and human interaction.

Two recent garments were recently modeled at the opening reception of the Palabras Cruzadas exhibition featuring textile arts from Quebec and Argentina (organized by Florencia Caliguri and Ana Victoria Stanley).  The handwoven jackets, one male, one female are programmed to scroll individual patterns and texts on the LED displays woven into the back of each garment.  When the wearers hold hands, the garments recognize the physical contact between the two and a new message scrolls from the back of one to the other using a radio signal communication.  For the duration of the exhibition (July 7 – August 12, 2007 at El Dorrego, Centro Metropolitano de Diseño) one garment will be on display, featuring a scrolling text from Borges’ illustrious list in the short story, El Aleph.  All of the jackets are made from handwoven black linen fabric with silver threads and electronic components embedded at the loom.

In addition to garments, interactive wall hangings are also produced at Studio subTela.  interested in the history of textiles as carriers of cultural information, and how the meanings of cloth can change through time. Just as traditional textiles can acquire stains and holes from use and wear, our cloth has the ability to change its surface through electronic means.  As we move a wall hanging from one location to another, we often add new layers of text or design, based on the location in which it is seen.  The cloth becomes filled with complex meaning and experience as it moves from one site to another.

Your projects Twining and Wearable Absence…

subTela has many research activities that involve international collaborators, including the Twining project with choreographer-dancer Yacov Sharir (Texas).  Sharir wears an LED jacket whose changing messages are transmitted wirelessly by an off-stage programmer.  The garment also triggers projections of virtual fabrics that move and fall, interacting with the dancers.  The dance not only incorporates smart textiles but uses textile as the major theme of the performance.

We are also working on a project entitled Wearable Absence with Janis Jefferies and her team at the Digital Studios, Goldsmiths College in London, England, in the development of an interactive garment that triggers visual and audio responses using biometric sensing devices that measures changes in body temperature, movement, etc.)  Our newest project will involve the creation of sustainable architectural structures and light emitting textiles in collaboration with Mahesh Senagala, an architect at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Jacket Antics are two garments that have unique texts and designs scrolling through the LED array on each of the backs.  But when the wearers hold hands, the LED arrays presents a third, synchronous message that scrolls from one to the other, presenting a new pattern of communication.  When the wearers let go of their hands, the message reverts back to the individual themes.

How can a cloth become a dynamic electronic fabric?

Natural fibres and cloth can be manipulated at any level of production to have the potential to become techno textiles.  Conductive fibers can be carded (brushed) and spun, or plyed along with traditional materials to create conductive threads.  These threads can be made into cloth through techniques of weaving, knitting, felting, etc.  On existing fabrics, flexible circuits can be created by stitching with hand embroidery or by using a sewing machine.  At subTela, we have also done successful experiments by embedding flexible circuitry into handmade paper. Any cloth or flexible substrate can become a dynamic electronic fabric. The primary problems in dealing with soft technologies are in developing robust connections and using lightweight, portable energy sources.  As the field is so new, there are many innovative solutions being used to resolve these issues.

Do you think interactive textiles will have a big impact in our daily life soon?

The applications for smart textile are quite diverse and are being developed by the military, in scientific laboratories, by industrial research and development areas, and in art and design studios.  I just returned from TechTextil, an enormous textile trade fair in Frankfurt Germany where I saw many companies displaying new conductive fabrics, prototypes of electronic garments, and the formation of new companies who bring together well-known garment manufacturers with engineers and designers for commercial development, all promising a future full of smart textiles.  Some commercial industries, such as Reebok, already encourage people to go online to customize their own shoes, where you can design colours, and even embroidered texts on the shoes.  Will we all be wearing smart textiles in ten years?  I am doubtful that this will become our everyday wear, but expect we will all own a few pieces that can make our lives better, such as heated gloves, or enhanced sportswear and safety gear.

The fabric of the Tornado Dress features a mimaki print of a tornado, photographed by Nebraska storm-chaser, Mike Hollingshead, The image includes a funnel cloud and lightening bolts, printed on linen fabric. The lining of the dress has been embroidered with conductive threads and electronic components including super-bright white LEDs. Three small photocells have been stitched to the outside of the dress and detect the amount of ambient light. Depending on the quantity of light that is sensed, different flashing patterns are triggered in the LED display, reminiscent of lightning effects that can accompany severe weather situations.

Several companies are creating non-invasive bio-sensing garments for medical purposes.  These can record changes in patients, alert them when they need medications, or automatically contact a doctor in the case of an emergency.  Other companies are creating fabrics, garments and cloth accessories for safety (i.e. for children, for firefighters, construction workers, etc.)  The military continues to develop techno-camoflauge uniforms or garments that can monitor the status of soldiers in the field.  A few fashion houses have been working with smart textiles, finding the costs of development and production are very high, and the applications remain fairly simple. One example is the use of key pads (soft buttons) embedded into the sleeves to control MP3 players.  Angel Chang (New York) is one of the first designers to successfully develop an intelligent textile/fashion collection into a commercial venture, including the soft switches for sound components. Philips Design (England) is receiving much attention for its programmable, flexible display system, Lumalive.  They have just launched a “kit” which can be bought and embedded in garments or domestic accessories, such as a pillow.   Although it offers only very low resolution, it supports a full colour palate.  Luminex (Italy) has created glowing textiles with the use of custom- made side-lit fibre optics with dramatic effects. This technology was dramatically incorporated in costumes for the New York Opera and spectacular wedding dresses.

I find that the most interesting advances in smart textiles are being done by a new genre of artists-designer-engineer-programmers:  people who have strong expertise in one area and have also learned skills in complementary fields.  They are driven less by commercial interests and more by an intense curiosity about the relations between textile and social interaction, and the disruption of traditional computer science and engineering approaches.  Creative artist-researchers can also have form small teams that often include engineers and computer programmers:  the key is in being able to develop a common language, understanding of the limits of the various approaches, and being willing to push those parameters into new configurations.

Other projects with interactive textiles you would like to talk about …

My Hexagram colleague, Joey Berzowska (XS Labs), has been creating extraordinary electronic textiles, exploring color-changing and shape-shifting properties that augment body language and examine new ways to use and distribute power.  She received a degree in Mathematics from MIT and co-founded International Fashion Machines (along Maggie Orth, who was responsible for many early innovations in the field of soft electronics.) As Joey’s lab is next door to mine, she has generously shared her technical expertise with our team, saving us many hours of materials research.

Rachel Wingfield ( develops interactive architectural constructions by combining new materials (electroluminescent wire) with traditional textile techniques (knitting, lacemaking, etc.) She has worked on architectural commissions, fashion projects and product design, and conducts an extensive range of research activities in collaboration with industry.

Despina Papadopoulos (Studio 5050) examines the relationship between the social body and public space with her reconfigurable garments.  Her projects, day-for-night and 1000 (little tips of communication) challenge existing approaches to ubiquitous computing, revealing the technology rather than trying to hide it.

Time Magazine declared the Hug Shirt, by Cute Circuit to be one of the most innovative inventions of 2006. This garment simulates the experience of being hugged by a loved one. When someone sends you a virtual hug, your cell phone notifies the shirt via Bluetooth and the shirt then re-creates that person’s distinctive embrace.  This product is now being developed for commercial distribution.

In Argentina, Luminic Design is experimenting with a variety of light emitting technologies to create shimmering textiles projects.

And there are very wonderful works by Kelly Dobson, Elise Co, Adam Whiton & Yolita Nugent, Katherine Moriwake…etc. etc.

Are there any conferences focusing on electronic textiles?

Unravel is an annual runway show of innovative and experimental work in “computational and conceptual couture, fashion with a social agenda, science-inspired form, and new technologies of material fabrication.”  It takes place at the SIGGRAPH conference, held each year in a different location in the United States.  Reskin is a long term project in Australia that includes workshops, demonstrations, lectures and exhibitions, and puts together artist-researchers from many arts and design fields.  Seamless: Computational Couture features an amazing fashion event at the Museum of Science in Boston each year.

Links de referencia: Barbara Layne
Joey Berzowska 
Rachel Wingfield
Katherine Moriwake
Cute Circuit
Kelly Dobson
The Aphrodite Project
Elena Corchero
Elise Co
Luminic Design