©Esther Zahn ©Esther Zahn

Interview with e-textile designer Esther Zahn

The founder of UX.FTT, Esther Zahn, is an e-textile designer from Berlin who is dealing with flexible sensors that can be integrated in garments. In her work, she combines her passion for design, music and technology. In our interview, she spoke about the endless possibilities of electronic textiles that go far beyond self-tracking wearables and glitter pants.

© Kirsten Becken / Portrait Esther Zahn

You were at this year’s SXSW Festival in Texas with your new project UX.FTT where you presented your latest work. What is the project about?
In collaboration with Hans Illiger I developed a jacket that allows you to control the Ableton music software through textile sensors. Musicians can control their music live without using a computer or wired controller. They can move freely on the stage – which is particularly interesting for live performances – and at the same time control the software.

When did you found UX.FTT and what is the idea behind it? What does the name stand for?
In 2016, I started focusing on electronic textiles. However, I have worked in the field of textile microelectronics since 2012. I already started to integrate LEDs and sensors in textiles during my studies. The name UX.FTT stands for user-centred design, i. e. UX, in the field of fashion textile technology.
It is a challenge to combine the fields of technology and fashion, in particular because a lot of people think that we as designers simply create beautiful things. However, my work also includes observations of society. The way we dress tells a lot about ourselves and about society. In my studies, I have learned to train this understanding. It’s simply not enough to squeeze a sensor into a garment. If technology-based businesses were working more closely together with designers, there wouldn’t be so many self-tracking products, but rather a much wider range of wearables.

How did you get the idea for THE JACKET and THE SKIRT? How do the two musical wearables work?
It was clear to me right from the beginning that I wanted to control music with sensors. Music has always been an important topic for me. Every music style has inspired their very own fashion trends. This is because both fashion and music communicate emotions. New technologies allow those connected areas to merge.
THE JACKET serves as an input device. There are six capacitive sensors. In the music software, I can assign properties to these sensors. At a slight touch of the sensor, for example, a beat will be activated, and when I press the sensor even harder, a certain audio effect will be added. I can repeat the same thing for all the other sensors. However, another outfit, THE SKIRT, serves as an output device. It visualises the music by flashing or fading the integrated LEDs. I can also set the parameters for this in Ableton.

How long does it take from the first idea for such a wearable to the prototype?
It is an ongoing process. I always continue to develop my technologies. In the beginning, I worked with Max MSP. That is a graphical development environment for music and multimedia performances in which I want to interact live. It is difficult to predict how long this will take, as I am actually in a permanent process of development.

Do your ideas rather begin with the form or the function?
Can we actually separate this from each other? Doesn’t that all belong together after all? Materials and the feel of things often fascinate me. Then, the materials are lying around until I finally find a way to use them. Then I start making designs that are related to the function.

Who helps you with the implementation of your ideas? Do you cooperate for example with electronic experts or musicians, or do you acquire the interdisciplinary knowledge yourself?
I have a lively exchange with musicians, software developers and other artists. THE JACKET was developed in cooperation with Hans Illiger. He implemented the integration in Ableton, but we developed the whole project together and thought about how cool it would be if the jacket could talk to the skirt. Then we sent it to Anett Kulcsar (Dansor) from the Netherlands to play with it.

What is it you find most fascinating about electronic textiles?
The endless possibilities. There will be things that we are not yet able to imagine. This is much more exciting than designing ten thousands of glitter pants. And, there are many more interesting applications to use technology for than tracking muscle activities and vital signs. In the scene of wearables, there is a strange fetish of self-optimisation that I do not share. I think it is actually great that we do not need to wear corsets anymore. But then, a lot of startups emerge that want to sell us digital corsets. For me, this is quite an authoritarian way of using technology. With my developments, I can act against that. It should always be clear that we control the technology, but not that the technology tells us what we have to do.

After you obtained your diploma from Weißensee Academy of Art Berlin in 2013, you were working on a fashion design collection for children. Why did you change your target group, and what are the major differences in production for children and adults?
I love the idea of rainbow warriors, that’s the name of a children’s collection – sustainable fair-trade children’s fashion that glows in the dark without any electronic components. The fast fashion industry, however, has had a lasting negative effect on the perception of the consumers as far as the pricing is concerned. People think that they can get everything for little money. On the other hand, they are willing to spend large amounts on brand products, manufactured in sweatshops. That was very frustrating to observe...
Now, I am working on something that people have no real understanding of how it works. If we do things right, a manufacturing site for electronic textiles might be established in Germany, as the production is quite complex. This means it is also an opportunity for the German textile industry.

Have you already an idea of who might be your next target group?
The next step is to go from wireless to mobile. I would find it great if young people made music on the street and interacted with each other, instead of taking duck face selfies [laughing]… this is a bit too authoritarian from my side... I think there is a certain longing to interact with others and the time of monologues will soon be over.

You are a member of DesignFarmBerlin. Can you briefly describe how you started with that and what function this network has for you and your work? How did the support to the DesignFarmBerlin affect your work?
As a graduate student of the Academy of Art, one could apply for the funding. Meanwhile, it is also possible for external parties to apply. Support is given to design-in-tech concepts. When you receive funding, you will get very personal support. You have to present your concept in front of the other firms and you will get valuable tips. It’s like an exchange. In addition, one will get individual coaching in those fields that are important for yourself. It is quite unbureaucratic. Plus, you get 1,500 Euro per month to live on and for materials. That was the first and only funding I received as a single mother. The job centre rejected my application for a grant and recommended that I should become an educator, which is quite straightforward for someone who develops textile sensors. After six months working for the DesignFarm, I was out of the job centre and have remained so until this day. I am still in close contact with the DesignFarm until today. I have used the support in the right way and was thus able to free myself from a very difficult situation.

What makes Berlin a location for the tech fashion industry?
In Berlin, you can have a good life with little money; however, this is getting more and more difficult. There are a lot of people who are not afraid of new developments. The fashion tech scene thrives on interdisciplinary work. When you are international, you can also work in an interdisciplinary manner and you are more open-minded. Hans Fallada already wrote about the spontaneous mentality, the improvisation of Berlin entrepreneurs, and in his narrations, Berlin was as international as it is today...
However, with respect to the manufacturing industry, Berlin is unfortunately not so well-positioned.

What are the biggest challenges associated with e-textiles and how do you address them?
The interfaces are a huge problem and the discussion whether electronics (incl. control unit) have to be fully integrated into the textile and thus shall be washable or not. The technological side says yes, they need to be washable. I say no, as hardly anyone would put their suit into the washing machine and because no one would have a problem, removing their belt from the jeans when they want to wash it. In particular, as it would require to possess plenty of belts if you were not able to use them for all trousers. We have to find a solution that is both sustainable and intuitive.

How do you see the future of fashion in the field of e-textiles and smart wearables? What developments and changes can we expect in your opinion?
I think there will be some more male authoritarian startups that want to reinvent new restrictions. That was not different for the invention of the light bulb – one could have been happy to no longer need to sit in the dark with friends in the evening, but what did they do instead? People had to go to work earlier and stay at work longer.
This technology will be used first to compensate the lack of staff in the health care sector and to reduce health-related costs. This is something that I think is scary. Then, innovations focusing on the person wearing the garment will be promoted. When people are having fun it can also be beneficial to their health...

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