Maths can lead to a career in anything... including fashion

My passion for the fusion of science and design developed at University. Although I learned to knit and crochet as a child, it was while at university studying maths that my interest in knitting really developed, and I started to design and make unusual and interesting clothes. Being self-taught, I was not restricted by any boundaries and felt I could translate any idea into knitting by working out a logical way of doing it.

This approach clearly owed something to my mathematical background, and for me, there was a natural relationship between the two. I often put many ideas and techniques together to create complex designs, many of which are are non-repetitive, and combine colour, texture and form so that the result appears totally natural. Even now as a research professor, knitting continues to be, for me, the perfect blend of creativity, craft and technology, which my education seemed to want to separate.

Knitting used to be the poor relation of textiles but has now grown to be properly recognized, and has a vital part to play in fashion. I built an international business in fashion knitwear and yarns, with my designs and knitting kits selling in major retail stores worldwide such as Liberty and Harrods in London, Saks on 5th Avenue in New York and Takashimaya in Tokyo. Innovative and experimental crafted knitwear have recently made a big splash on the London Fashion Week catwalk, with Mark Fast’s intricate designs.

But knitting is not the only textile that has been influenced by science and mathematics. My current work as director for the Centre for Fashion Science at the London College of Fashion aims for collaboration between scientists and designers to create new concepts, products and processes which harness innovations in science and technology. This will break new ground in fashion–related research and hopefully merge desirability and fashion with sustainability and well-being.

The convergence of digital technologies and disciplines such as nanotechnology, with materials and cognitive sciences has opened up unprecedented possibilities for these technologies to create fashion and textiles that can respond to the user and have a function which enhances other aspects of our lifestyles.

For example, some of the centre’s researchers are exploring applications of body scanning for made-to-measure fashion and accessories and virtual try-on developments for key retailers. This could allow consumers to see if trousers fit their figure without having the hassle of the changing rooms.

Other areas of research include the development personalised design. This includes projects in to bespoke bags, which are ergonomically designed to fit the body; research examining how new forms of textiles can be developed to conform to the body providing clothes that truly are the ‘perfect fit’; and the study of seamless garment knitting for comfort and personalised fit utilising advanced knitting technology. A team at London College of Fashion is also developing an online style advisor system for ‘mass customization’, allowing the consumer to make clothing to their own specification. This is part of a European collaborative research project involving manufacturers and institutions from Germany, France, Greece, Italy and the UK.

Wonderland, a research project funded by the EPSRC, is collaboration between Professors Helen Storey (co-director Centre for Fashion Science at LCF) and Prof Tony Ryan (a polymer chemist from Sheffield University) which is enabling fashion to create the seemingly impossible. For instance, the disappearing dress, made from dissolving textiles which disintegrate in water, creating vibrant underwater fireworks; bringing a whole new possibility for sustainable clothes development. There are also incredible extensions of this, using the technologies to explore intelligent packaging, which once finished with, can be dissolved under hot water to form a gel in which seeds can be grown. This concept could revolutionise the packaging industry and resolve the age old problem of waste plastic.

These are just a few examples of how science and technology will increasingly link up with textiles, fashion and the creative industries to both push the boundaries of useful new technology and create design-led and innovative product ideas. These are exciting times for fashion and science, and I am excited to be at the cusp of the research which could change our lives.

Sandy Black is supporting the Science: [So what? So everything] campaign, which aims to highlight the science behind our everyday lives and the exciting careers in science.

Professor Sandy Black works at the Centre for Fashion Science, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London