And Fashion said: Let there be light

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For over a hundred years, Forster Rohner AG has stood for high-quality embroidery. They produce embroideries for elite fashion houses, and range from ready-to-wear to haute couture. With their new innovation of wearable technology by implementing light into textiles, they are going to conquer new markets, reports Regina Henkel.

When Conrad Forster-Willi founded his embroidery company in 1904 under the name of Forster Willi & Co, embroidery was Switzerland’s most important exports market. Although this segment of the Swiss textiles industry has since undergone major transformations, the fascination for this unusually versatile product still remains, besides the invaluable know-how that has been handed down from one generation of employees to the next. The idea to implement light in fabrics is a result of both.

With the integration of active bright light in textiles, Forster Rohner expanded fashion design to a new dimension, and managed to create the world’s first true hybrid of textile and technology. The special feature: the Forster Rohner fabrics retain their textile properties even after integration of a technical application. In other words: “It was important that the fabric remains a fabric, and also behaves the same way as before, including washability,” explains Jan Zimmermann of Forster Rohner. “Even though it’s a technical product”, he adds, “everyone expects full washability.”

For further development, in 2009 Forster Rohner established a separate department for innovation in the field of technical textiles. It is led by Jan Zimmermann, who is an expert in interdisciplinary sciences, not in textiles. For three years, the company from St Gallen has sought a solution – how to integrate LEDs in textile surfaces, without having to give up the textile characteristics of them.

The idea of embroidering electrical circuits with electrically conductive yarns was feasible. In these circuits, LEDs were incorporated in the form of sequins, which are decorative even when switched off. Also, the machinery had to be converted and new machines developed, for example for the application of the LEDs. From lace to robust wovens or leather, nearly every fabric can be embroidered and illuminated. And everything can be washed several times too. Only the battery has to be taken off; all the other applications like the LEDs remain on the fabric.

The first illuminated product was a corsage for the underwear brand Valisere. By choosing underwear, they demonstrated how cuddly and comfortable the materials were. Even the placement of the battery was no longer a problem, thanks to ever-smaller battery and battery solutions.

“Nevertheless, it is clear,” Zimmermann continues, “that as a power source, there is currently no way around a battery. Other possibilities of the power supply, for example through self-generated power in shoe soles, etc, are far from realisation.” The next product was a curtain, which could also serve as a source for light, which Forster Rohner developed for interiors company Creation Baumann. Since last year, when thanks to luminous LED sequins the evening wear of the Swiss high fashion label Akris sparkled on the runways and US Company Switch Embassy presented a T-shirt with a luminous lettering for a public relations campaign, the interest in the new technology has been great.

“The technology inspired many, and we are getting a lot of inquiries from different areas”, said Zimmermann. The possible application areas for the new lighting technology are widely spread. The palette ranges from fashion, sportswear and interior manufacturers to medical applications. “We have shown that the technology is ready for the market. Now we are looking for suitable partners who want to develop our product for mass production,” says Zimmermann.

The next new idea in the field of wearable technology is to implement a heating system in clothing. Several companies have been experimenting with the idea, but a convincing solution is not yet in the market. “The biggest challenges are costs,” Zimmermann says. “The market is price-sensitive, and no one is willing to cut margins or accept higher retail prices. But adding technology always means higher prices.” Forster Rohner and German wearable technology specialist Interactive Wear are working on a new and more competitive solution to integrate a heating system in clothing. It will be presented this fall.