Pinecone-Inspired "Smart" Clothes Expand, Contract

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When the idea was applied to the new fabric, this mechanism was reversed. "It's very simple," Vincent said. "You cut flaps in the clothing, and as the fabric absorbs water, one surface swells up and the flaps bend backwards."

The clothing is covered in these tiny flaps—each one just 1/200 of a millimeter (1/5000 of an inch) wide. When the wearer gets too hot, the flaps open automatically, so outside air can get through and cool them down. As the body's temperature drops, the flaps close again.

"It's the material itself which is responding, so it's only in the areas where you're a bit hot and sweaty that it's going to open up," Vincent said.

A waterproof second layer prevents any rain or moisture getting through to the skin.

Vincent was cagey when asked about the materials used in creating the heat-sensitive fabric. "All sorts of different plastics and polymers are available—it's a matter of choosing the right ones," he said.

Vincent says the new material could have a wide range of applications, from outdoor gear to dresses, hats, and dress shirts. He says the technology could be in everyday use within a few years.

London College of Fashion is the other major partner in the project. Ph.D. student Veronika Kapsali has been working on the prototype material for the past three years.

"It's going to lead to a fundamental change in clothing," Kapsali predicted. "It's up to me to make something that looks pretty cool as well as innovative. I see this as a fascinating interface between design and technology."

Social Function

Besides preventing damp patches under the arms, Vincent reckons the fabric could have some interesting social functions.

"Having clothing that changes its shape when it gets humid could be quite fun and is almost a fashion statement," he said.

He says it may also have a role to play in the dating game—by signaling interest to the opposite sex.

"When you meet someone you find attractive, you quite often get a bit heated, so the fact your clothes are getting a curly surface is a bit of a giveaway," he said. "What you could then do is have the inner layer a different color from the outer layer, so as you start getting interested your clothing changes color."

This isn't the first hi-tech garment to be inspired by a design found in nature. Swimsuits like the one worn by multiple gold medal winner Michael Phelps at the recent Athens Olympics mimic hydrodynamic ridges on a shark's skin and reduce a swimmer's drag in water.

Vincent and his colleagues at the University of Bath are also investigating the structure of penguin feathers with the goal of developing thinner, more efficient insulation fabrics.

"A penguin pelt has got a temperature gradient in the order of 80 degrees Centigrade [176 degrees Fahrenheit] across a thickness that's no more than two centimeters [0.8 inch]," he said.

Meantime, if someone of the opposite sex looks your way and their clothes start switching color like a chameleon, they're probably at the cutting edge of fashion. It's also possible they would like to get to know you better.

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