Aalto University in Finland, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Cambridge, have developed new textiles that change shape according to temperature levels.

Weaving together old technology and a new approach, the fabrics use liquid crystalline elastomers (LCEs), which were developed in the 1980s. LCEs are a smart material that can respond to light, heat, or other stimuli. Although LCEs have been made into fibres, they have yet to be made into textiles until now.

This innovation offers opportunities in the apparel sector for adjustable aesthetics, fabrics that could help monitor people’s health, and improve thermal insulation.

According to India-based market research company Coherent Insights, the smart and interactive apparel market is set to be worth US$6.5m by 2028.

To develop this smart fabric, the team at Aalto University used conventional textile crafting techniques and tested two versions with soft or stiff LCE yarn. Under an infrared lamp, all of the LCE fabrics contracted as they warmed up. The changes were reversible as they relaxed back to their original shape once the temperature dropped.

Pedro Silva, a postdoctoral researcher who led the study, commented: “At first, the impact of using industrial textile techniques with these kinds of new materials wasn’t clear to us. The elasticity of the two types of LCE yarn is comparable to spandex or even softer. That meant it was essential to understand if the textile industry could use these yarns and how the combination with conventional yarns would impact their movement.”

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Following this, the researchers combined LCE yarns with linen and nylon in a radial pattern to weave a circle that would lift itself into a cone when heated. Heating the pattern caused the LCE yarn to contract into a cone before it relaxed back into a flat circle.

Maija Vaara, a PhD student at Aalto University who crafted the weaves and laces, hopes that the work will “trigger new ways of thinking when it comes to the materials of tomorrow.”