Iowa State apparel students in Ellen McKinney’s AMD 426 Creative Design Processes class work on a class project incorporating electronics into wearable art. Contributed photo.

Apparel and engineering students partner to develop wearable electronics

Iowa State University apparel, merchandising, and design students partnered with engineering students this semester to develop "wearable electronics."

Twenty-three students in assistant professor Ellen McKinney’s AMD 426 Creative Design Processes class spent the spring semester designing a garment for men, women, or children that incorporates electronics and in some way relates to a water theme.  

When complete, the projects will be displayed at Reiman Gardens — which this year is celebrating water as its theme along with the plant, insect, and human lives that water sustains.

Electronics as a tool to meet design goals

While the apparel course usually includes a “non-traditional materials” project, this is the first time students ventured into wearable electronics.

“The goal was to add electronics as a tool (just like choice of fabric, sewing technique, or pattern-making technique) that would allow the students to meet their design goals,” McKinney said. “In one example, students are developing an ‘art-to-wear’ piece that has a wearable fish tank. A battery-powered bubbler was needed to keep the fish alive. Another is using a motor and other electronics to convert her ensemble from one look to another.”

Ellen McCauley and Allison Kirstukas, both seniors in apparel, merchandising, and design, worked together to design a wearable art piece inspired by the immortal jellyfish, Turritopsis dohrnii — a creature that defies death. When the jellyfish dies from natural causes such as shock, it reverts into its “polyp” or sedentary cylindrical body  phase, and restarts its life cycle.

“It also works well with electronics because when something runs out of power, whatever we use isn't dead. It just needs to be recharged,” McCauley explained. “In this design, we wanted to use thin LED (light-emitting diode) rope to mimic the glow that jellyfish have in the deep water.”

Emily Koppang, a senior in apparel, merchandising, and design, is creating a costume inspired by Ariel from The Little Mermaid that she hopes to someday see in a Disney Parks parade. The idea is to show Ariel's transformation from mermaid to human, and vice versa.

“It starts as her blue dress that she wears on a tour around the village with Prince Eric,” Koppang explained. “I am using motors to pull up the blue skirt to reveal a green mermaid skirt underneath. There is a separate top to mimic her blue village dress, and when you take off the blue top, it reveals a skin-toned top with purple seashells. These shells have purple LED piping that lights up.”

Engineering students provide consulting

The project taught apparel students to work with materials outside of their normal realm, and with students from other disciplines.

“Safety is the most important thing,” McKinney said. “Electricity can be dangerous, if not used properly.  Before getting started, we talked about key safety points.”

AESHM-wearable-art-contentFour undergraduate engineering students attended the class and consulted with the apparel students. They discussed what parts were needed to meet the design goals, where to get the parts, and how to put the parts together.

“You have to be aware of the weight and size of the electronics, considering that whoever is wearing the garment will be carrying it around with them all the time,” said David Bis, a senior in software engineering. “I've been assisting the apparel students with finding the components for their projects that will minimize their weight and size, while still being capable of carrying out their job, alongside of putting together the circuits and code for their electronics to function as intended.”

McCauley said the biggest challenge was trying to conceal the big battery packs. Students talked about including solar panels to recharge the batteries so their jellyfish-inspired garment would be truly immortal.

“Unfortunately, tech is expensive so we've been trying to balance our ideas and costs to a manageable in-between,” McCauley said.

Koppang said the project was difficult, but it was fun to collaborate with the engineers and share expertise to create something great.

“Incorporating technology into dress is such a new topic, and it is hard to figure out where to start,” she said. “I really learned how to keep an open mind when collaborating with the engineers, and from this, the design only improves each time I speak with them.”

Shannon Roth, a senior in mechanical engineering, consulted with apparel students on their ideas, and helped them to brainstorm how technology could align with their creative goals. She said it was a learning process for her, too.

“I most definitely learned many new things throughout this class, such as how to use technologies in new and unconventional methods,” she said. “It also taught me how engineering can be found in many different disciplines.”

Providing expertise in wearable products

McKinney is a member of Iowa State’s technical design and product development team.

She teaches and researches the design of wearable and computer-related products, the functionality of wearable products for users, the sizing and fit of wearable products for specific user populations, computer-based apparel pattern-making, and bridging theory and practice in the apparel industry.

Last summer, McKinney and assistant professor Fatma Baytar attended a weeklong workshop on wearable technologies at Cornell University in New York. This is one example of how McKinney has integrated the experience into the class she teaches.

She specializes in the interface between body and product to create appropriate fit and sizing for user populations, with a focus on better design of worn products for human users.

Her past research has included a body-worn Global Positioning System carrier for soldiers, clothes for children getting cancer treatments, more user-friendly garments for breastfeeding mothers, and the application of 3-D software in generating apparel patterns.