Maggie Orth is tired of high-tech gadgets encased in hard, shiny plastic. Instead, she weaves metals into soft fabrics to create everything from a jacket that plays music to a cocktail dress that lights up like a firefly. "Injection-molded plastic is not my cup of tea," says Orth, whose Seattle firm International Fashion Machines just released a line of fuzzy light switches--small cloth pompons that turn on or off with a squeeze, thanks to conductive fibers woven into them.
Trained as a painter, Orth got her Ph.D. at M.I.T.'s Media Lab, where she had an epiphany: "I thought, Wouldn't it be cool if you could make clothes that compute? There was something magical about that," she says. That led Orth to a jean jacket with a built-in synthesizer and a keypad embroidered on the lapel. Pressing different places on the jacket changes the electrical charge on the metal fibers and creates sounds.
In a recent show at the Cooper-Hewitt museum in New York City, Orth exhibited a fabric with a hue that alternates from a nearly monochrome gray to a tricolor gray-red-and-green jacquard. The colors appear when electrodes woven into the cloth generate heat, which in turn causes temperature-sensitive dyes in the cloth to change hue. "Making this fabric is like making an interactive painting," says Orth, who has come full circle since her undergraduate days spent painting on canvas. --A.H.