Interview by Michelle Hua @MadeWithGlove
Passionate about textiles with a twist of technology, Elina is a textile engineer and wearable tech developer. Originally from Finland, she obtained 2 master’s degrees in textile engineering from Europe before moving to Montreal, Canada. She’s worked in the forefront of textile based wearables development with leading wearable tech companies Clothing+ and OMsignal, developing biosensing apparel such as the OM smart shirt and the OMbra. Elina is currently working on new material innovations for maternity bras and intimate apparel at a Toronto-based company Bravado Designs.
You studied Textiles Technology in Finland and then 2 Masters in Textile engineering and fibre and textile technology. What led you to being interested in studying technical textiles?
I was never really interested in fast fashion and supporting mass consumerism where tons of textiles end up in the landfills every year, so I wanted to continue and direct my studies towards more technical and sustainable aspects of the textile industry. So that’s how I got into my 2 masters degrees, where I could really dig deep into the technical textiles, and specialize my skills in that field. During these years I became particularly interested in wearable electronics, and how they could be used not only in sports monitoring but in other aspects of life as well.
How is technical textiles related to wearable tech? Is there a difference?
Technical textiles are a wide field and can be divided into several subcategories such as sports textiles, medical textiles, protective textiles, industrial textiles etc. Depending on how you look at it, wearable tech either is a separate subcategory or falls into several of these subcategories based on their purpose. When we talk about wearable tech, people often imagine it as hardware: a bracelet or a smart watch, or a box that clips to a chest strap or a garment. But when it comes to integrating electronics directly into the garments, it is actually the garment that plays a pivotal role in the data detection, and the hardware is there to collect and process the data. If the garment fails to properly detect the signal, there’s nothing useful to collect and process by the hardware. In building these garments, we use technical textiles such as conductive fibers and yarns, conductive polymers, adhesives, wires, and other components or processes that are unusual to the conventional garment industry.
What are the challenges of working in technical textiles?
Working in technical textiles often requires a technical or engineering degree, which, unfortunately are not that common in textile education these days. I would love to witness more educational institutes offering textile technology or engineering degrees alongside with fashion design degrees. I know many companies in the textile industry in Canada, who have struggled to find people with technical know-how e.g. in spinning or weaving because that is simply not taught anymore. This limits the textile companies’ capability to innovate and weakens their competitive advantage. On the other hand, from my personal point of view as a technical textile developer, domestic sourcing of various materials and components or manufacturing capabilities is really difficult because there just simply are not that many companies left, and that just forces us to outsource even more.
Do you feel there a gender imbalance in the technical textiles industry or wearables industry?
I don’t know of official statistics, but I do see more women working in the fashion industry and more men working in the technical textiles industry, but I also think that this has started to be reformed by newer generations that lead the evolution in the industry.
With regards to wearables however, since wearables is fairly new industry and not always based on textiles, we can see an array of people with various backgrounds working in the space; both men and women, so I’d say that this new generation of textile related engineering may be more gender neutral than traditional textile industries that go back decades.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
The most important achievement in my life was immigrating and settling to Canada, which was not always all that delightful, but has brought to me incredible opportunities. I also greatly value getting my 2 masters’ degrees and my work in the forefront of wearable electronics development.
What projects have you worked on?
In my recent work at OMsignal I worked on various wearables projects, the ones I can mention are the heart rate and breathing tracking OM smart shirt and bra, and the Ralph Lauren Polo tech shirt that are currently on the market.
What will be the key trends in technical textiles/wearable tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I see the wearables industry spreading from activity monitoring to other consumer products, as well as to the medical and industrial fields and military. The consumer industry is easier and faster to penetrate and is therefore the #1 target for majority of the products at the moment. As the technologies become more mature and reliable they become safer to integrate into more demanding end uses. The miniaturization and development of components specific to wearable electronics such as batteries, sensors, and connectors, will lead the way to a more seamless integration and better cost efficiency, and increasing the consumer awareness and acceptance of these technologies will create larger markets for wearables. I think it still remains to be seen, whether gadgets like bracelets and smart watches will continue to dominate the consumer market once textile based wearables become more common.
Another interesting trend that has started to take place is that the textile companies are moving operations back their own country. This is driven by increasing prices in Asia and the cost of transportation and tariffs. I think this encourages consumers to re-think their buying habits and support local, responsible manufacturing.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to women in the technical textiles/wearables industry?
My favourite quote is from the book Alchemist:
There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure. I think you have to believe in yourself, don’t give up, accept failures and learn from them, and always take responsibility for your own actions.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearables/textiles?
First and foremost, my mom. She taught me to sew, to knit and crochet at a young age, and even when I threw tantrums over my projects when I didn’t get it right, she’d just encourage me to take a break and continue. I don’t know if I would have chosen a career in textiles if it weren’t for her influence so early on in my life.
I’m honored to have had the chance to work with Joanna Berzowska, the way she mixes art with electronics is inspirational and she has had an amazing career in the wearables space.
I’m also inspired by Stephanie Kwolek who is the award-winning inventor of Kevlar, one of the most influential materials in technical textiles.
What is your dream job?
Everything I do! Work is really important to me and I always try to find jobs that meet the ‘dream job’ criteria. Textiles are my passion and whether it is in the technical textiles industry or wearables, or elsewhere, I want to continue to develop advanced technologies that drive the innovation in the textile industry without compromising the safety, quality, and sustainability. My dream job is a perfect mix of challenges and responsibility, learning new things and getting my hands dirty in the process of creation and problem solving.
Website: Bravado Designs
Linkedin: Elina Nurkka