Stylus Fashion Interviews Becky Stern #WearableWednesday

Becky Stern

I was interviewed by Julie Taraska for the closed community Stylus Fashion. It is with permission that we re-publish a version of her article here!

Becky Stern: Pied Piper of the DIY Maker Movement

Adafruit’s Director of Wearable Electronics inspires new textile uses for microcontrollers, Arduino boards and conductive thread.

By Julie Taraska

Could fashion brands learn from the Maker movement and its open-source approach to design? Becky Stern thinks so. “Makers share their experiments, their methods of building and their successes and failures,” says Stern of this brand of DIY crafters who incorporate tech into objects in unexpected ways and reveal the results online and at Maker Faires around the globe.

By pooling information, fashion companies “could start making their own tech in-house instead of partnering with a big firm or established brand,” she adds, retaining control and cutting R&D costs.

Stern should know. The director of wearable electronics at Adafruit, a New York-based hardware manufacturer and online learning hub, she has been combining textiles with electronics for the past decade. But though Stern is a designer, her passion lies in education, with her online guides, YouTube talk show, and weekly projects aiming to teach all, regardless of age or technical ability, how to create their own wearable technologies.

Detail of Firewalker LED sneaker

Microcontrollers, Arduino boards and conductive threads are Stern’s tools of choice. A footstep is enough to trigger a rainbow of colors along the edges of the Firewalker LED sneakers, the effect created by weight on the pressure-sensitive Velostat sensors in each shoe’s heel. In the same spirit the VU Meter Baseball Cap features a NeoPixel strip of LEDs that flash according to sound volume. A mike fixed to the side of the hat registers the noise levels, communicating them to a FLORA microcontroller that adjusts the light’s speed.

CuteCircuit's Twirkle shirt

Both projects require the ability to solder metal parts and write code. However, with the rise of washable connectors and longer-lasting batteries, Stern anticipates a day soon when tech will be routinely incorporated into everyday wear. “I think we’ll see modules that snap in and out of garments to control embedded LEDs and fabric sensors,” she says. “For example, take a look at CuteCircuit’s Twirkle Shirt,” a motion-activated T-shirt. “It features a ‘brain’ that can be removed prior to washing and then replaced afterwards.”

VU Meter cap with FLORA detail

Aside from demystifying technology, Stern’s experiments hint at new levels of clothing customization. Most of Stern’s – and other Makers’ – projects run off Arduino, an open-source hardware platform that supports various types of sensors, including those for sound, pressure, light and temperature. Include them in a garment or accessory, and it could change color from day to night, when music is played, or when the temperature soars or plunges.

Though the possibilities of wearables and interactive fashion are great, Stern has some advice for brands ready to try out the field. “Don’t cheap out on the design or execution of your electronics,” she says. “They should get just as much attention as the garment and its construction.”

If you are thinking of designing your own hardware, don’t go it alone. “Hire an electrical engineer who knows how to design circuits, order printed circuit boards, and connect with contract manufacturers,” Stern advises. The power of many is greater than one, after all.

A version of this article appeared on Stylus Fashion.

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