Like many 99 percenters, Orth can trace her drives to childhood. “The sewing machine I still use is the one my mother taught me to sew on when I was four. It’s like a part of my body,” she says. But for her, as for any entrepreneur, the critical existential issue is revenue, so Orth is readying a new line of consumer products that she hopes will start bringing interactive textiles into the mainstream. Her first product is a light switch that works like an ordinary dimmer but is faced by her electrically active fabric instead of a chunk of plastic. Another switch is controlled by patting a conductive pom-pom that looks as if it were plucked from a child’s sock.
Orth sees the switches and similar consumer devices as important steps, not just for their anticipated commercial success, but as a way to establish interactive textiles’ safety. Orth hopes the products earn “UL listings,” which designate that a device has been tested and deemed safe by the nonprofit Underwriters Laboratories. Existing safety codes for textiles and electronics weren’t created with woven circuitry in mind, and Orth faces an uphill battle educating standards boards.
Nonetheless, Orth sees that challenge as part of her artistic vision. “I think it’s actually a bit perverse to be selling a UL-listed pom-pom,” she laughs. “Textiles are incredibly intimate and tactile, and weaving technology into our intimate spaces changes the way we live.” When described that way, Orth’s aesthetically driven approach starts to make a great deal of commercial sense. “You can’t just dump information and technology into people’s personal spaces. It has to be beautiful or people won’t want it,” she says.
Orth’s stewardship of her company shows remarkable resourcefulness and care. She’s raised (and spent) only about $100,000 in investment so far, and while her sales figures are still small-she’s sold a few specialty wall hangings-her reputation brought her research contracts from DuPont and the U.S. Department of Defense. Orth is now seeking further angel capital to produce and market her consumer products, which she hopes to sell through stores like the Sharper Image.
International Fashion Machines faces a long road to commercial success. But if someday, as Orth would have it, your communication system is woven into your T-shirt, you can regale your kids with stories of how phones used to be easily misplaced lumps of plastic. And perhaps your shirt, when the perspiration threshold crosses that 99 percent mark, can reach out invisibly and turn down the heat.