The Creative Chat: Step aside grandma – knitting is more than warm socks

Maureen Selina Laverty just made technology fashionable through high tech knitting

Maureen Selina Laverty (32) is rethinking the materiality and interactions we have come to expect – and even accept – from wearable technology in fashion. Armed with a fashion design degree as well as a background from London’s fashion industry and wearable medical technology development back home in Ireland, Laverty began knitting with conductive yarns to see if she could completely integrate sensors into everyday clothing.

“So far, I have only produced a few swatches. However, they are proof of concept that they have the potential to be developed into full garments,” Laverty explains to Creative Industry Brief.

Proof of concept. Knitted sensors can be the future of wearable sensor technology, Maureen Selina Laverty thinks.

Humans will always move around

The idea of the knitted sensors came to her while working with medical devices in Ireland.

“The current physicality of wearable technology, encased in injection molded plastic, is intrusive and fights against the body it is trying to measure. When working with wearable electronic medical devices, our engineers would get frustrated when the person moved because it offset their software readings,” Laverty says. “Human beings are always going to move! I was intrigued by this and saw it as an opportunity to actually use these changes in readings to map out the person’s movement.”

Laverty moved to Norway to pursue her masters degree in Industrial Design Engineering at NTNU in Trondheim.

And the knitting began.

Still soft and tactile. Rather than just attaching conductive fabric to garments, Laverty knits the metall into the garment itself.

She started by overlaying flexible conductive materials onto textiles, but soon discovered that it was even more exciting to create a conductive pattern directly into the textile by knitting.

“I began hand knitting with steel yarns, but it was a very slow and uncontrolled process. Understandably, knitting machine owners were very reluctant to let me use metal yarns on their machines! However, a friend discovered a beautiful vintage knitting machine at Fretex, and kindly let me use it for experimenting and prototyping rapidly and iteratively to produce the swatches.”

Monitoring elderly patients in care homes

There is still much developing work ahead, but the prototype response has been very positive.

“I was awarded an innovation prize by the Design Craft Council of Ireland, and have been approached about possible use cases, for instance monitoring the exercise of elderly patients in care homes.”

Laverty will spend the next few months developing better demonstrations of their data gathering capabilities. Next year, she plans to develop the sensors further as a part of her masters thesis:

“I will be part of a multidisciplinary prototyping lab and make use of its vast expertise on software, electronic and mechanical engineering. I will improve the accuracy of readings to make better sense of the data that the knitwear collects,” Laverty says.

She is looking to build relationships with Scandinavian knitwear manufacturers to prototype full garments and explore all the variables in industrial knitwear production. We had a chat with Laverty about creativity.

Feeling the motion, reading the data. Wearable technology will merge the fields of medical devices and clothing. These fabrics could be a big step forward.

Creativity is changing

What is creativity for you?

Maureen Selina Laverty

– My understanding of creativity has changed greatly over the years. When I studied fashion design, to be creative was to push yourself to create something unique and thought provoking, which of course is a little pretentious as nothing is ever truly unique. When working in the fashion industry, this definition became more refined: how you combine color and texture and construct a silhouette to craft something that looks and feels exquisite.

– When I moved into medical devices, I used my creativity to problem solve, to figure out how to balance functionality, regulations, manufacturing capabilities and cost. In retrospect, I think it’s quite sad that the look and feel doesn’t play a greater part in the design of a medical device – beautiful colors, textures and forms can be quite healing in themselves. I suppose that is what I’ve tried to achieve with the aesthetic of my conductive knitting. I want to create something soft and tactile, that invites the user to interact with it, and has the potential to be crafted into something exquisite.

What makes you creative?

– What drives me is collaboration and breathing space in equal measures. The fashion industry, and London in particular, was very fast paced, almost an overload for the senses. You designed something new for the sake of designing something new, not because the world needed it. In medical devices, although they were something the world needed, often you became so consumed by regulations and deadlines that you can lose sight of that the purpose of the device is to improve the life of the users. Going back to study and moving to somewhere quieter like Norway has given me the space to learn more about technology and design but also contemplate their existence together and value in the world.

The writer, Mellina Villanueva, is an editor in Untold Editorial, the group of students and young people that produce The Creative Industry Brief. 

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HEMLINES: THE FUTURE OF FIBRES – MAUREEN LAVERTY

A veritable trailblazer of wearable technology on Irish shores, Maureen Laverty saw the fruits of her labour recognised last month: winning the Future Makers Student Innovation Award from the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland.