(01/20/23) BATON ROUGE, La. — When babies are born, a knit hat is one of the first pieces of clothing they will wear. But what if that hat could be used for more than a warm and cozy covering?
One LSU researcher is exploring ways to use “smart clothing” to track newborns’ temperatures.
Sibei Xia, assistant professor in the LSU Department of Textiles, Apparel Design, and Merchandising, is developing body-tracking wearable technology, or smart clothes, through thermochromic yarn that changes color based on body temperature.
The hat will monitor the infant’s temperature. Its threads will change colors to alert others if there is a temperature spike.
“If the newborn’s temperature goes really high, it’s going to change the hat to a beige color so that we don’t have to necessarily measure the temperature that often or use other technologies to monitor temperature,” Xia said.
Using thermochromic technology may reduce the need to monitor a newborn’s temperature using thermometers and other invasive technologies. The hat also has the potential to reduce the number of times the infant is disturbed for a temperature check.
Xia’s hats are designed to have a band that combines functional and cotton yarn to detect temperature without influencing its comfort.
Xia said advanced knitting technology makes it possible to explore functional yarns in the medical field.
“One requirement of wearable technology is to make it really close to our body, and that can be achieved perfectly through knitting technology,” she said.
The prototype for the hat was produced using the department’s flatback knitting machines. These versatile machines are fully computer-controlled, allowing the operator to customize patterns and tension.
The thermochromic yarn threshold temperature can be changed by adding additional yarns or changing the knitting pattern. Xia’s research explores different yarn colors, knitting structures and threshold temperatures to determine which combination produces the desired color-changing effect.
“We are hoping that by implementing other structure variations and color variations, it will create the linear range between 37.5 Celsius to 38.5 Celsius,” she said. In infants, a temperature of 37.5 degrees Celsius — about 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit — or higher is considered a fever.
The Provost’s Fund for Innovation in Research is funding this emerging research. It supports interdisciplinary research in five priority areas, including biotechnology and agriculture.
The funding will be used to test the threshold temperature that is most accurate for infants. The threshold temperature is the temperature the yarn will change color. Xia’s prototype changes from purple to beige around 36 degrees Celsius.
Xia will be testing the color change through heated water. She plans to collaborate with faculty in the School of Renewable Natural Resources to further test the garment in a thermal chamber that allows the researchers access to a controlled environment.
As part of the study, she is developing a survey for mothers at various stages to understand their expectations for the product and to explore their needs for the garment.
Xia hopes to secure funding for an infant thermomanikin. This manikin is controlled for both thermal and moisture levels and could simulate sweating and fevers. She thinks the manikin would be a major player in the testing procedures.
The department is exploring other ways to implement functional yarn that can be used for other medical needs — such as highly elastic yarn used for compression.
“I’m very fascinated by the technology and all the products that can be made from the knitting machines,” she said.
Xia recently trained on new knitting machine technology that has many applications in the medical field. If the department can acquire the new machine, it would open opportunities to explore other medical uses of functional yarns.
The department currently has two knitting machines and three design stations communicating to the machines.
“If we broadcast the technology, we will have a lot of creative ideas, and then we could work collaboratively for potential applications, not only in functionality, such as wearable technology, but also creative design,” Xia said.
Researchers are not the only ones using these machines. For example, fashion design students could use the machines to design clothing.
Xia hopes the department can introduce knitting technology to students who want to learn about product development and entrepreneurship.
Sibei Xia, assistant professor in the Department of Textiles, Apparel Design and Merchandising, received a grant from the Provost’s Fund for Innovation in Research to develop thermochromic clothing to track newborns’ temperatures. Photo by Annabelle Lang/LSU College of Agriculture