For Becky Stern, wearable electronics are a form of self-expression

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

A niggling concern with wearable electronics is that one day everyone will be wearing nearly identical watches and pairs of glasses. That’s fine for something like a phone, which rests in your purse or on your desk, but the thing about wearables is that they are wearable. When you put technology on your body, it suddenly becomes a fashion statement. Luckily, a small army of makers, crafters, and tinkerers are reimagining wearables as a medium for self-expression.

when you put technology on your body, it suddenly becomes a fashion statement

The team of DIY hackers at Adafruit Industries, for instance, has given birth to a wide array of hip, chip-enabled garments and gadgets. While other wearables come ready-to-wear with few options, Adafruit’s projects are tailor-made and offer a burst of individuality. Mass-produced wearables are for “consumers of the technology,” says Becky Stern, the Director of Wearable Electronics at the west Manhattan-based company. “But our community is full of makers, using our tutorials and parts to create their own wearables,” she explains. Their mission is to teach others to make really cool stuff.

Stern helms a vlog on YouTube where on any given week you can find her stitching a chip into fabric or wiring a zipper as an on-off switch for a textile potentiometer hoodie. The aim of the channel is educational (although there are random fun videos, like one of her getting a large tattoo of a tree on her side). Frequently the subject is how to think creatively with Adafruit’s versatile line of wearable microcontrollers, tiny chips that can do fancy acrobatics like communicate with GPS sensors, or simply bling-out a New York Yankees cap with a rainbow of colors.

The influence for Stern’s creations are eclectic. “Ideas come from all over,” she tells me, not just the lab. “New York City provides a significant chunk,” she admits. The motivation for her flat-brimmed hat with a 3D-printed logo, for instance, came from the subway. “But ideas for new wearables can come from concepts like protection, expression, mischief, curiosity, observation, and activism.” To that list you can also add doggie Halloween costumes.

Though these accessories are coveted by humans and canines alike, there is one big caveat. “[They] are meant to inspire others to learn a new skill, such as programming, or sewing with conductive thread,” she says. “If you want one, you’ve got to build it yourself.” Thus, viewers often take her ideas and run with them. You might find a teenager creating a de rigueur prom dress that is activated by dance, or a cyclist who invents a solar-charged messenger bag. “It’s our goal to help enthusiastic novices take agency over the high tech that’s already all around us,” she tells me.

A quick perusal of Adafruit’s gif-laden website shows just how dynamic the field of creative wearables can be. There’s neckwear, hairbands, even a glowing pair of Chuck Taylor’s. It’s obvious that technology has a lot to offer things like clothing and fashion—more than just body metric readings and email notifications. “Bodies are an extremely personal place to put electronics, and everyone has different motivations when doing so,” says Stern.

technology is more than just body metric readings and email notifications

It follows that wearables should be highly personalized, because people have vastly different tastes about what they like to wear. This provides all the more reason to do it yourself. “When you wear a circuit you built yourself, it’s easy to feel a confidence boost not only over the fashion statement you’re making but also because you’re empowered by having created it,” she says. Maybe that is the true beauty of wearables: Since they can be reconfigured in endless ways, they give people endless ways to express themselves.