3D printed clothes: are we there yet?

3D printed clothes: are we there yet?

A year ago, at her TedYouth talk, Danit Peleg, a young fashion designer, told the audience this story: she went for a big tech conference and the evening before, in her hotel room, she decided she had absolutely nothing to wear (I know that feeling). But this is not the point so bear with me. So Danit didn’t go to the nearest store but instead she designed an outfit on her computer and pressed the start button on her 3D printer. In the morning she had a unique set of clothes ready for her.

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3D printed dress by Danit Peleg

Futuristic fairy tale? Not at all, and to prove her point, Danit pointed at the beautiful black pencil skirt she was wearing. It was part of her collection of clothes she printed in 3D in her home.

When you think of it, it definitely could work. We would be able to print exactly the exact design we want in our exact size. The process is environmentally friendly, as there is no waste involved. Clothes would be produced on demand, so less logistics costs linked to transportation and storage (zero stock!). There could be different possibilities, from printing by a specialised company based on customer’s own design or on an existing design that he or she could modify. We could also print in shops or some sort of 3D printing cafés or even in our homes. And then, once bored with the current 3D printed dress we could break it back into filament and create something new. Difficult not to get excited about this!

So why aren’t we seeing more of 3D printed clothing? Well, let’s say there are a couple of issues that need to be fixed.

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Photo Iris van Herpen dress from 2010 Crystallisation collection in collaboration with architect Daniel Widrig and Materialise

In the early years, the 3D printed clothes were very rigid and resembled a body-armour in which it was rather difficult to move. The examples are the clothes from Iris van Herpen’s 2010 Crystallisation and 2011 Capriole collections. In Capriole she presented skeleton-like dresses inspired by anatomy of animals.Iris van Herpen dress from 2010 Crystallisation collection in collaboration with architect Daniel Widrig and Materialise

Iris van Herpen Skeleton dress from 2011 Capriole collection, in collaboration with Belgian architect Isaïe Bloch, 3D printed using white polyamide

Iris van Herpen 2012 Hybrid Holism collection. Dress printed by Materialise using stereolithography technique
Iris van Herpen dress from 2012 Hybrid Holism collection. Printed by Materialise using stereolithography technique

Few years later, with the development of flexible filament for 3D printing, the clothes, or their 3D printed elements become flexible.

In the Voltage couture collection (2013) Iris showed a dress and a cape that resulted from her collaboration with Neri Oxman of the MIT Media Lab. It was printed using Stratasys’ unique Objet Connex multi-material 3D printing technology. It allows a variety of materials, both hard and soft, to be printed in a single build.

Another piece designed in collaboration with Austrian architect Julia Koerne and 3D printed by Materialise is a stunning black semi-transparent dress. It looks like some sort of spider-woven intricate lace and was developed using an experimental new material and a laser sintering technology. It’s a technique that uses laser beam that scans the powdered surface and selectively binds together, at high temperature, the powder particles of the corresponding cross section of the product. It sounds complex but this video explains it very well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNpbLRrdJxQ

Iris van Herpen Skeleton dress from 2011 Capriole collection, in collaboration with Belgian architect Isaïe Bloch, 3D printed using white polyamide
Iris van Herpen Skeleton dress from 2011 Capriole collection, in collaboration with Belgian architect Isaïe Bloch.

Although Iris van Herpen has been showing 3D printed clothes on her runway since 2010, so far they remain on the catwalk or in museums that happily show Iris’ creations (one of the most important was the Manus x Machina at the Met in 2016).

We are still far from clothes that could be worn every-day. This is because adhesive manufacturing fails to obtain this thin but flexible textile structure that is not transparent and protects us from weather conditions. When natural or synthetic fibres are interlaced, they form a soft but highly movable structure resulting from fibres being close to each other but not too close to limit movement. Due to relatively low resolution of 3D printers, it is so far impossible to copy the same structure, with very small spaces between single ‘threads’ that would allow for the movement.

The clothes of the Israeli Danit Peleg are quite close to what could be our every-day clothes in the future. And she proves that all of us can, in theory, print our own clothes. Danit’s entire collection was printed using FilaFlex, a strong and flexible filament produced by a Spanish company Recreus. The same filament has been used by Dutch influencer Troy Nachtigall to print the Spike Shoe, one of the first 3D printed shoes for women that can actually be worn and is, apparently, quite comfortable. Clothes printed with FilaFlex manage to achieve good flexibility and they move beautifully however they don’t feel like traditional fabrics and lack some of the ‘usual’ properties.

What would definitely facilitate the adoption and further development in this area is if we could print a natural fabric. Here a US start-up Electroloom is, or rather was, an interesting example. This start-up experimented with an electrospinning process to convert liquid solutions of polyester and cotton blend into fibres. The process involved designing a special mould, which could look like a shape of a t-shirt, for instance. The mould would then be placed in a special chamber. Electric field would guide the liquid solution to cover uniformly the mould and produce a material that resembles textile. The idea sounded promising and Electroloom raised over 80,000 USD on Kickstarter. However, last August they announced that they had to discontinue the project due to lack of funding.

Another barrier is the limited development of textile CAD data that needs to be adapted from the creation of classical textiles to additive manufacturing. For amateurs, designing their own blueprint will be very tricky, that’s why some companies offer templates designed by experts. Moreover, at the industrial level, there is very little knowledge as to how to integrate 3D printing processes into in-line processes of the textile industry.

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Pieces from Danit Peleg’s collection

To boost the development of 3D printed textiles and clothing it is crucial to promote collaborations between research institutes and the textile industry, that remains somehow sceptical. It would be also important to involve designers and 3D printing communities that can bring fresh ideas and push the boundaries further. More work is also needed on mechanical properties, industrial processes and on linking together the relevant actors who at this moment remain scattered.

3D printing is not yet ready to offer clothes as we know them. But it opens new possibilities for designers to experiment with new shapes and aesthetics that couldn’t be achieved with traditional materials. This seems to be the case for Iris van Herpen, who often uses 3D printed structures as inspiration to develop purely handwork techniques. It also allows adding interesting, 3-dimensional elements to clothing, as seen in the 2014 Pringle of Scotland’s collection which incorporated laser-sintered nylon pieces into their luxury knitted clothing.

Sooner or later 3D printing will revolutionise the clothing industry. But it isn’t just yet.

Photos from Danit Peleg’s collection courtesy of Danit Peleg.

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