Between T-shirts that incorporate technology allowing people to chat up someone from across the dance floor to vests that can monitor the wearer's health, the past decade has seen some extraordinary developments in high-tech smart fibres and fabrics.

Scientists have been keen to explore their potential, and while more eye-catching garments may have been at the forefront of these technologies in the past, according to experts the industry for intelligent fabrics is now moving in the direction of less flash, and more functionality.

In the future, the separate roles of engineer and designer are likely to become merged and blurred, according to the UK's Nancy Tilbury, a former adviser to Philips' design arm, based in the Netherlands, and now course director of Kingston University's Fashion MA, in the UK.

"Everybody is looking to establish their sustainability and ethical portfolio and trying to have a definitive point of difference," she says. "They're looking at how smart technology can do that for their business. It's good to have curious ideas; but to make them real you need to be a cross between an engineer and a designer.

She predicts that as a result, in the future there will be fewer dominant brands, with smaller manufacturing companies specifically tailored to niche markets instead. "There's a cultural shift around gathering knowledge, and fashion has become very limited," said Tilbury.

"It's no longer the named designers to the fore, so it's critical for there to be collaborations. It's clear that consumers have a desire for more interaction."

The most major shift that consumers are likely to see, according to Tilbury, is in 'seamless' or intangible applications. "The talk has been for some time about cufflinks you can press to send a text message - but if that was a really killer application then somebody would have designed it by now," she says. "I'm more interested in the potential for clothing to be connected to emotion."

Tilbury expects that soon, consumers will be able to walk around wearing T-shirts that can do things such as update Twitter messages, and show the wearer's emotions. "You will have a wrist piece that picks up your stress levels, emotions, and arousal, and reflects this on your clothing. It will be like a human Morse Code; body texting, if you like."

Healthcare transformation
In addition to T-shirts that are in touch with feelings, Tilbury also predicts that smart garments introduced in the medical field will dramatically transform healthcare. The design of heart monitors embedded in clothing by companies such as Philips continues apace, but technology will shortly go even further, she says, with clothing offering an intricate and constant monitoring process of the wearer's everyday life.

"Before long, women probably won't wear a bra without it having a suite of indicators linked to your doctor, the gym instructor and your nutritionist. Medical wear will get a lot less invasive and more sensitive."

But it is not just the technological additions to garments and apparel that are likely to transform and develop; the composition of textiles is slated to evolve, too.

Rogier Van der Heide, Philips' chief design officer, takes the view that innovation in fabrics will only flourish in the future if major companies are prepared to engage with smaller businesses and enterprises that can offer flair and a different perspective. "Innovation doesn't happen in a vacuum," he says. "It takes collaboration with creative, like-minded individuals who can explore the possibilities from multiple angles and areas of expertise."

One example of this has to do with biomass: increasingly deployed as a major source of green energy, textile manufacturers are beginning to explore the potential of biomass for use in fabrics.

Tencel, for example, is the brand name for lyocell, a regenerated cellulose fibre made from dissolving pulp (typically eucalyptus), manufactured by Lenzing AG of Austria. Tencel is part of the rayon family of fibres made from renewable plant materials. The technology has already been applied to women's garments but manufacturers are now developing cellulose-based fabrics for a variety of textile products such as sheets, upholstery fabric, blankets, and towels.

Upcycling opportunities
And while the recycling of biomass for garment fabrication is gaining in popularity, another emerging trend likely to grow and benefit from technological advances is that of "upcycling": the process of converting waste materials into new materials or products of better quality, or a higher environmental value.

One of the companies that pioneered this approach was US-based handbag manufacturer Ecoist, which caught the public's eye by making purses out of recycled chocolate wrappers, food packages, fizzy drink labels, and even metro maps.

Jonathan Marcoschamer, co-founder of the company, says he believes that new technology is likely to augment 'upcycling', and provide new opportunities for the textile and garment industries.

"The potential is really there for innovation in this field - new textiles, new patterns, new colours...upcycling is here to stay. There are many more uses - we have barely touched the tip of the iceberg. There are new ways of cutting, we can use the roles in different ways, make products in different sizes, widths and textures," he says.

Ecoist is currently at a research and development stage in terms of producing new products, but Marcoschamer says he believes in general that the technology will manifest itself in apparel details, including features on shoes, jeans and other accessories. "It will also be used for wallpaper and home accessories," he adds.

"[Upcycling] can really go a long way. We have to be realistic; waste will always be a by-product of manufacturing. Some companies have developed biodegradable packaging, but many, many more have not. And they will produce more misprints than we can ever use - the supply is almost infinite."

However, the coming years are also likely to bring increasing caution and questions over the safety of smart materials, particularly nano-based fabrics.

The European Commission is set to act on a report published this summer - 'Environmental and health effects of nanomaterials in nanotextiles and façade coatings' -  by scientists at the EMPA, a Swiss-based research institute, which forecast future assessment criteria for such products.

These, it concluded, would cover environmental effects; solubility in water; sedimentation; stability during incineration; impact on wastewater facilities; human toxicity; DNA impairment; crossing and damage of tissue barriers; translocation effects in skin, and impact on gastrointestinal or respiratory tracts.

Follow the links below to read other articles in this month's management briefing.

just-style management briefing: Fibre and yarn market continues to fluctuate

just-style management briefing: Yarns and fibres see domestic sourcing shift

just-style management briefing: Cotton supplies fuel industry struggle in India