lighted clothing design team Rachel Merrill and
Devon Merrill at her Carmel Valley home and
studio. She's wearing their Lightning dress and
standing next to their Light Dance project, while
he's in their Wearlight vest.
do you get when you combine a mom with a passion for
fashion design with a son whoís a Ph.D. candidate in
computer science at UC San Diego?
the case of family entrepreneurs Rachel Merrill and
Devon Merrill of San Diego, you get Lighted Clothing, a
new company that is pushing boundaries in the field of
they started their collaboration about 18 months ago,
the Merrills have co-created five fashion pieces that
incorporate LED lights, fiber optics, hidden batteries
and tiny computers that create streaks of lightning on a
dress, moving bands of color and pictures on a vest and
waves of glowing light on a skirt that grow brighter
whenever its wearer moves.
month, the Merrills won a national "Textiles in
Technology" award in the Surface Design Associationís
Future Fabrication: Exhibition in Print 2017. They were
among seven winners chosen from a field of 250 entries
by jurors Richard Elliott, a textiles expert and
professor at the California College of the Arts in
Oakland, and Cathryn Hall, from the Houston Center for
said the concept of illuminated clothing has been around
for at least five years, but the Merrills have taken the
technology up a notch in a visually striking way.
work really exemplifies the optimal combination of sheer
fabric to diffuse the light, so itís not so gaudy and
bright, and the element of motion that mimics the
movements of the wearer," Elliott said. "Whatís
fascinating about their collaboration is that itís
cross-generational. I havenít seen that before and
their abilities are so compatible with one
Merrill ó a retired biotechnology acquisitions
attorney who lives with her husband, Lex, in Carmel
Valley ó said sheís enjoyed finding a new way to
express her creativity. But sheís most happy about
collaborating with her 29-year-old son.
feel like itís a gift," she said. "Not many
parents have an opportunity to do something with their
grown children thatís so creative and that draws so
completely on their different interests and skills. Itís
and Devon Merrill both come from crafty backgrounds, but
illuminated fashion wasnít on either of their radars
taught her self to sew in her mid-20s by bringing home
Vogue patterns and learning to make clothes by trial and
error. Devon developed a love for tinkering from his
dad, Lex, whose hobby is rebuilding antique radios. By
the time he was at Torrey Pines High School, Devon was
soldering his own home electronics and writing computer
hobby the family shares is hiking. When Rachel retired
in 2012, she spent four months hiking the Pacific Crest
Trail, eventually logging more than 2,000 miles. But
injuries forced her to give up the sport three years ago
and she went looking for a more sedentary hobby. She
found it when she signed up for a fashion design class
at San Diego Mesa College in spring 2016.
of her first fashion ideas was Starlight, a hand-dyed
blue silk dress with a mesh liner interwoven with 700
strands of illuminated superfine filament. There was
just one problem. She had no idea how to work with fiber
optics, electronic circuits or computer code.
she asked Devon ó who lives in the UTC area with his
girlfriend Enjoli Gomez ó to teach her about lights,
soldering and building circuits. After she finished
weaving the fiber liner for Starlight, he built the
computerized controller and wrote the code that creates
subtly moving waves of white light.
sounds easier than it is. The reason illuminated clothes
arenít on every store shelf is the danger factor. A
miswired circuit could mean a very real risk of fire.
burned myself a few times," he said, "but I
havenít had a model spontaneously combust yet."
Starlight won best of show in Mesaís 2016 Golden
Scissors Fashion Show, the collegeís department chair,
Susan Lazear, invited Devon to begin teaching a seminar
class every semester on wearable technology.
the first seminar session, the Merrills co-created their
next project, Wearlight. Rachel designed the black
cotton/polyester zip-up vest and Devon implanted it with
96 hidden fully programmable LED 2-inch pixels that can
create millions of colors, patterns and pictures. It won
two awards at Mesaís next fashion show.
spring, they created Lightning, a lavender sheath dress
implanted with four branched channels of light that
create the illusion of a moving lightning storm.
biggest project to date was Light Dance, a haute-couture
dress built for last fallís Women & Science
fashion gala at the Salk Institute. Rachel was tasked
with creating a dress inspired by the work of now-former
Salk researcher Hermina Nedelescu, who studies the
neural pathways in the cerebellum.
photos of cells and neurons in the cerebellum were
printed on the dress bodice and decorated with pearls
and fine silver chain. The skirt was made with
undulating layers of fabric that resembled the folds of
designed the computer controller which was hidden in a
cerebellum-shaped plastic headpiece he created on a 3D
printer. It was connected to the dress via a cable that
ran down the modelís spine, the same way the
cerebellum sends neural signals to the body. The
movement-sensitive "cerebellum" controller
caused the dress lights to glow brighter whenever the
model turned her head or walked.
most recent project is Illumination, a denim vest with a
quilted fabric panel designed by Rachelís sister. Its
computer controller shifts the light around to different
sections of the artwork in a pattern.
said working over the past 18 months on these projects
has been illuminating in more ways than one. Besides
teaching at Mesa, he also teaches the wearable fashion
technology to freshman computer students at UCSD. He
sees vast differences between the studentsí
educational and socio-economic backgrounds and their
abilities to learn the technology.
help close that learning gap, he recently launched the
Gadgetron Robot Factory (robots.gadgetron.build), a
drag-and-drop website where people can learn how to
build circuits and electronics without any fiery
their website (lightedclothing.com) the Merrills hope to
attract some commissions so they can work together again
both taking it in the directions we want to," she
said, "and somehow weíre doing it together."