The hard engineering of the past is now in competition with an engineering that is soft, sensitive and emotive. In the last five years, this has led to a revolution in technology-fashion experimentation.

Beyond wearable fitness and tracking devices, designers such as Anouk Wipprecht, Cute Circuit, Melissa Coleman and Ying Gao are re-framing technology through a creative eye. Traditional design-engineering often approaches design to ‘solve a problem’. In fashion and textiles, the process is different and artistic expression leads to unforeseen outcomes. Modern engineers working in this area have started to adopt more experimental approaches. They use materials and inks and pigments in an imperfect combination, experimenting and transforming their creations.  The result evokes qualities and senses which cannot be measured, such as imagination, feelings and aesthetics.

One such designer is Amy Winters, who develops interactive textiles that respond to external influences – such as light, sound, speed and moisture. Having founded Rainbow Winters in 2010, she joined forces with a group of engineers, chemists and materials scientists. Their goal was to create fabrics incorporating nanotechnology, printed electronics and colour changing inks.  Amy trained in theatre-design at Central Saint Martins, where she was drawn to embedding technology into fashion, making her costumes come alive.

An early piece, the ‘Thunderstorm Dress’, turns the wearer into a living thunderstorm, lighting up in response to sound. Amy was inspired by the powerful energy release of a violent summer storm she witnessed over the Alps, making the final dress automatically relatable. Who has not experienced the thrill and enchantment of thunder and lightning?

To make the dress, Amy brought together the electroluminescent sheets more commonly found on billboards with a sound sensor. Sound triggers the sensor which sparks an electric current in the panels that are sewn into the dress. This creative approach takes an engineering principle and places it into another context to communicate an otherwise abstract idea.

Alongside her work at Rainbow Winters, Amy is a doctoral researcher at the Royal College of Art.  Her focus is on the emerging role of materials in technology.  More specifically, she is incorporating ‘design-thinking’ into the fast growing space of soft robotics.  Soft robots lack a conventional, rigid framework and are often inspired by nature. They are often made from shape changing materials and move by forcing fluid or air into their ‘limbs’.

The field of soft robotics shares similar qualities with textiles and fashion. Some comparable techniques include seaming, mould-casting, printable electronics, pigment and fibre mixtures to create shape-shifting forms. Manufacturing processes such as 3D printing, laser-cutting and off-the-shelf electronics have recently become more accessible to students This has powered the rise of the ‘maker-culture’ and is driving the development of soft, interactive materials.

Re-imagining engineering concepts in a creative way allows for evocative as opposed to purely function-led outcomes. A designer’s sensibility can enrich engineering principles. Similarly, engineering can equip the designer with conceptual, inventive and technological tools. The future of experimental design-engineering lies in the potential to explore a whole range of sensations ready for the complex, emotional human beings we are.

Image courtesy of Rainbow Winters.

Amy Winters

Amy Winters

Amy Winters is an interactive material designer and founder of Rainbow Winters and a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art, London. Originally trained at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, her work lies at the intersection of fashion, material, visual arts, music, film, dance, and theatre.
Amy Winters

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