While the most common selling points for apparel used to be that that they would keep you warm (or cool) - and look good at the same time - rapid advancements in technology have been creating a whole new industry of 'smart' fabrics, which can offer all sorts of intelligent, functional properties to its wearers.

Smart fabrics are any fibre-based structures that can react to stimuli, and include 'enhanced fabrics' (garments specially treated to be wrinkle free, spill or stain resistant, anti-fading, etc), fabrics with nano-coated materials, and electronic textiles.

The smart textiles industry is still a relatively nascent one - with the first conceptual demonstrations having emerged in the 1990s - but it is already demonstrating significant opportunities.

"The industry has made great strides in showing what is possible - heating, lighting, medical monitoring, communication, data transmission, and displays have all been demonstrated at the prototype level," says Justyna Teverovsky, partner at US-based consulting firm Fabric Works LLC.

In fact, according to research from UK-based market research firm Smithers Apex, while the global market for smart fabrics was valued at EUR188.15m in 2011, it is forecast to see a compound annual growth rate of almost 23% by 2016. External drivers contributing to the growth of smart textiles include sensors and electronics getting smaller in size and weight - and cheaper - along with a major rise in smart phones, and the possibility of developing communications applications which link phones to garments.

Teverovsky agrees the way in which society is evolving technologically poses real opportunity for smart textiles. "We are increasingly a mobile society, accustomed to having access to information and entertainment anywhere at any time," she explains. "Smart textiles enable the development of devices and systems that further enhance our mobility and our ability to do more while on the go."

Ongoing research and sales trends indicate smart textiles - from clothing with antimicrobial nano properties to electronic fibres for communication woven into uniforms - have particular potential for medicinal, safety and protective garments, through personal and portable physiological monitoring, lighting, heating, and communications functionality.

Christian Dalsgaard, director of Danish smart textiles development company Ohmatex, says that currently, the main focus areas for R&D in smart textiles are in healthcare and protective uniforms for the military, fire-fighters, police, etc - "clothing where there is a kind of early warning system for things like gases, heat, and radiation."

As well as their obvious benefits in these fields, the price of adding electronics or intelligence features into garments is less sensitive for professional buyers, Dalsgaard adds.

Dr Martin Kemp, theme manager for engineering applications at UK-based NanoKTN (Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network), says that overall he has seen smart textiles being gradually adopted in two main areas: sensing capabilities, and/or added functionalities such as self-cleaning or anti-microbial properties.

Kemp adds that the market has been slow to develop for a number of reasons, though, including challenges that exist around how to integrate/develop power sources for electronic textiles, and how to actually wash 'smart' garments.

In order for these challenges to be met, he says, there firstly needs to be more demand in order for development to really take off: "You need some sort of market pull that gives [smart textiles] a reason to be there."

Smart products and innovations
So although the industry is moving slowly in terms of commercialisation - especially when it comes to electronic textiles - there are still several examples of smart products and innovations coming onto the market.

In the US, for instance, fabric innovation company Nano-Tex provides nanotechnology-based textiles enhancements to the apparel industry, selling products with functions like stain repellency, moisture management, odour control, and static elimination.

In the UK, retail giant Marks & Spencer has developed a range of anti-bacterial socks under the name 'Freshfeet', which are treated with sanitised silver to stop the growth of the bacteria responsible for odour.

Major performance apparel brands are also using smart textile opportunities to monitor and track athletic performance. For example, German company O-Synce's data4vision running cap allows athletes to visualise training data through a panel in the brim that displays the wearer's heart rate, pace, speed and distance run.

And heart-rate training technology company Polar USA recently introduced the Polar WearLink+ that works with the Nike+ SportBand and the Nike+ iPod Sport Kit, enabling athletes to run and train with heart rate monitoring. After training, heart-rate data can be transmitted from the textile chest strap to nikeplus.com, where athletes can track their heart-rate progress over time.

Industry creativity
Beyond the professional services and sports sectors, too, the industry is getting creative. In 2011, UK mobile phone network Orange teamed up with renewable energy designers GotWind to develop the Sound Charge T-Shirt for the Glastonbury music festival, which converted sound into electrical energy through a piece of piezoelectric film placed on a T-shirt, with the goal of being able to charge a smartphone.

Cosmetotextiles is another emerging subsector, which merges cosmetics and textiles through the process of micro-encapsulation. Italian knitter Eurojersey, for instance, has a range of intelligent cosmetic textiles under its Sensitive Fabrics brand which deliver beauty cream to the wearer; while Swiss textile chemicals company Clariant offers textile manufacturers its 'Quiospheres' line, which uses state-of-the-art cosmetic microencapsulation that can be applied to any fabric. 'Quiospheres Moist', for instance, provides hydrating and moisturising properties for the wearers' skin.

So, while the smart textiles industry still remains largely niche for the moment, Sabine Gimpel, head of research management and marketing at Germany's Textile Research Institute (TITV Greiz) believes the future looks bright.

"Chances are good that smart textiles and their additional functions are well-received and bought; provided that they do not disturb the user, are easy to handle and offer an extra benefit," she says. "Smart textiles are products which can make people's lives better and more worth living."