Designing for Future Textiles – Challenges of Hybrid Practices

Zane Berzina
Goldsmiths College, University of London

The potential of the future for both science and design lies in a multidisciplinary approach. Disciplines are merging, boundaries are melting and “many […] technologies are not significant when looked at in isolation, but become of critical importance when coupled with other technologies.”


This paper offers a condensed case study of a cross-disciplinary practice led Ph.D. research “Skin Stories : Charting and Mapping the Skin” which dealt with issues across the fields of design, art, textiles technology, electronics, biology, material science and psychology in an attempt to bridge the gap between aesthetics and technology. The artistic investigation examines skin as a naturally intelligent material on the premise that it can serve both as model and metaphor for creating innovative textile membranes, which look, behave or feel like a skin. Attention is focussed on the living skin “technology”, meaning its complex working mechanisms, and how these have been translated into a textiles vocabulary following the principles of biomimetic design. The paper examines a range of smart textile concepts for both the body and its various environments developed during this research project at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London (2000-2004).

The paper also addresses the current textile practice and research of the author which deals with issues surrounding human sensory perceptions (touch, smell, vision, hearing) and how our sensory experiences could be enhanced using smart design concepts. It has been proven that the environment has a huge impact on peoples’ behaviour, relationships, their physical and psychological wellbeing. The author is particularly interested in the emerging scientific notion – called “sensism” – of how “subtle multisensory cues drive our perceptions, behaviour, decisions and performance.”

For example, visual images and olfactory messages influence peoples’ minds in subliminal, emotional, subconscious ways and this can be successfully used in new polysensual and therapeutic design concepts that support peoples‘ wellbeing and interactions. Addressing this context the practice led inquiry reflects on current developments within materials research and technologies by considering their possible applications within design and arts to create new sensory environments that respond to peoples‘ needs and improve the quality of our lives. Identification is made of areas of applications where responsive, active and interactive textiles systems, adapted from the biological skin workings, could prove to be of some value. Albeit the preoccupation with the technological and biomedical aspects the author also was constantly interested in the poetic and social context of the epidermis, as from a designer‘s point of view it was important to capture the multi-layered nature of the skin.

On this project the author collaborated closely with the Institute for Biology and Zoology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, with TITV – Textile Research Institute Thuringia-Vogtland in Germany, the Institute of Textile Technology and Process Engineering Denkendorf in Germany and the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research in Berlin.

Re-working the Skin through the Medium of Textiles

The research, discussed in this paper, explores body and skin tissue in terms of biological chain reactions and mechanisms aiming to translate the unique skin “technology” into the textiles vocabulary. The intent was to examine the “living fabric” from a textile designer‘s perspective, employing biomimetic design methods, in order to use it as a model and metaphor for the development of new textile systems. Being our largest organ, skin also represents personal and social identity. In fact, this sheltering envelope may be viewed as the fabric of the body (figs. 1a, 1b, 1c). The skin, being an interface between the body and its environment, is a major site for intercommunication between the two. “Here […] a number of different body systems come together in synergy to fulfil general overall functions beyond their individual specialized functions”.

This complex “technology”, incorporated into the sensuous fabric of skin provides us with an impressive example of an intelligent approach to problem solving by working interdisciplinarily. At various levels, there are many lessons we can learn from the skin in order to engineer and design new surfaces and products.

Figs:1a, 1b, 1c. “Skin Topography.” Micrographs of magnified skin surfaces. Photo © Zane Berzina
Figs:1a, 1b, 1c. “Skin Topography.” Micrographs of magnified skin surfaces. Photo © Zane Berzina

The principal objective of the research was to develop and test functional, active and interactive textiles that enable individuals to experience a responsive and polysensual environment addressing the biological senses e.g. vision, touch, smell. It was anticipated that the new textile systems should respond to peoples’ needs, enable them to enhance their sense of wellbeing and offer them the possibility of interacting with their surroundings.