Smart balaclava would help athletes avoid chest infections in the depths of winter

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Flat-bed knitting technology allows heating wires to be woven directly into the fabric of the smart balaclava(Credit: Stoll GmbH)

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The onset of winter not only has serious implications for the residents of Westeros, but also for high performance athletes, given the higher chances of falling sick during this season while training outdoors. If you don't mind looking a bit like a Mortal Kombat character, a new electric balaclava would let you keep training like a champ in the cold while lowering the risk of contracting chest infections.

A collaboration between researchers at Nottingham Trent University in the UK and German advanced knitting machine manufacturer Stoll GmBH, this 3D-knitted headpiece prototype features a built-in heating area around the nose and mouth made of electric-conductive yarn. A knitted power socket at the rear of the garment allows the wearer to insert a rechargeable cell battery to power the device.

"By using electric-conductive yarns which are so tiny that they cannot be felt by human skin, we're able to provide a consistent level of warmth to a piece of clothing so that a runner only breathes in warm air," explains Tilak Dias, founder of the Advanced Textiles Research Group at Nottingham Trent University.

Designed for runners, skiers and other athletes training in cold climates, the balaclava is made of a Lycra-wool blend and includes other features, such as reflective yarns and four-way stretch. In addition, manufacturing waste is kept under one percent thanks to its fully-automated 3D pre-shaping. All these features impressed judges enough to give it the Gold Award at this year's Outdoor Industry Awards.

"This really is an innovation," the judges said. "The seamless construction is great – when we tried it on, the balaclava is really comfortable and the heating system around the mouth is a fine idea."

As for Dias, he believes there is a lot more that can be done with smart textiles and that the balaclava is just "the tip of the iceberg". Indeed, such materials are changing the way we think about clothes. From power-generating fabrics that harvest energy from sunlight and movement to embroidered circuits that can be used in medical and sensory applications, these new fabrics are part of a newly emerging industry that is poised to be worth $9.3 billion in 2024.

The textile industry is currently undergoing an evolution through the integration of electrical systems and electronic devices into fabrics. Done properly, they will introduce intelligence to materials for the first time, observes Dias. In particular, he believes the development of new fiber-based transducers will play a major role in wearable computing and the next generation of smart clothing that will be able to measure the body's vital signs. The potential for such clothes to monitor both the health and quality of life of wearers is "immense", he says.

The balaclava is currently still a prototype and there's no word yet on when it will be available commercially. What we do know is that it is part of Stoll's Performance Plus series, which includes running tights embedded with a Near Field Communication chip that can activate a smartphone's flashlight for increased visibility in the dark.

Check out the video below to see the balaclava in action.

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