Faculty and students in apparel, merchandising, and design are creating fashionable pieces using principles from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Apparel program infuses fashion with STEM

Iowa State University faculty and students are on the cutting edge of infusing apparel with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Their innovations range from clothing with sweat biosensors and LED lights hidden inside the fabric, to zero-waste garments developed from bacteria and yeast, to apparel inspired by geometric designs.

“Everything you put on your body will make a statement, but there’s also a lot that went into it, from the fibers to the cut of the garment,” said Sara Marcketti, an associate professor of apparel, events, and hospitality management and the associate director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. “All of these things can be drawn back to STEM.”

Fashionable Side of STEM museum exhibit

When Marcketti received the Rossmann Manatt Faculty Development Award in 2014 for her historical synopsis of the “fashionable side of STEM,” she didn’t know it would spur a major departmental collaboration showing science, technology, engineering, and math principles in fashion.

Marcketti partnered with Janet Fitzpatrick, the curator and collection manager of Iowa State’s Textiles and Clothing Museum, this spring to display fashions showcasing aspects of STEM.  

“The apparel industry is multidisciplinary and ever changing; it's more than just the latest fashions people see on the runway, or for sale online and in retail stores,” said Fitzpatrick, who’s also a senior lecturer in apparel, events, and hospitality management.

Twenty-four faculty and students this spring showcased cutting-edge designs showing the intersection between STEM and fashion. Marcketti explained that fashion’s use of STEM principles is common, but little known outside of designer circles.

“The faculty and students have been doing this for years, all the time,” she said.

Hidden inside the fabric

Allison Cargill, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, is working to integrate sweat-based biosensors with fabric garments.

“If these sensors can be integrated into fabrics, consumers could receive constant information about their health just by wearing a piece of clothing,” Cargill said. “They can provide critical information to consumers about their biological processes without them even noticing.”

Math concepts also abound in fashion, both in design and merchandising.

Jody Aultman, a graduate student in apparel, events, and hospitality management, created an award-winning dress called Turtle Turtle using geometry. Using a photo of a turtle shell, she sliced the picture into multiple half-circles and wedges of fabric that created the skirt portion of the dress when assembled.

“When I start a new design for a garment or quilt, I rely on STEM to create the best design that I can,” Aultman said.

Global wearable technology and sustainable apparel

Technology is present in many designs.

Kyung Lee, a graduate student in apparel, merchandising, and design, incorporated LED lights into cycling wear to enhance safety and encourage more bicycle-friendly lifestyles. She said the global wearable technology market was worth $20 billion in 2015.

“I want consumers to know that STEM in clothing helps solve real-world issues and problems in comprehensive and useful ways,” Kyung Lee said.

Sustainable apparel’s growing popularity reflects aspects of all STEM fields. To create biodegradable clothing that uses fewer natural resources in its production, a designer has to take math, environmental science, structural engineering and new technologies into account.

Young-A Lee, an associate professor of apparel, events, and hospitality management, develops novel methods to create zero-waste garments. For a men’s sleeveless jacket, her team created fibers using bacteria and yeast from fermented green tea. The team even dyed the garments with coffee grounds and red and yellow onion skins.

“It is crucial for me to keep asking how we design, develop, produce, and consume materials and products in sustainable ways, while still participating with fashion,” Young-A Lee said.

Marcketti and her colleagues and students in the apparel, merchandising, and design program will continue to showcase STEM principles in their work to educate the public about what goes into making clothes.

“We have all of this incredible talent,” Marcketti said. “We needed to have it displayed and shown off. It is a wonderful testament to our incredible program.”