Is Custom Clothing the Future?
A few months ago Mad Art Lab quickies mentioned the 3D printed Petal dress shown above.
It is really cool. REALLY cool.
But as anyone who has ever worn sequins can attest, it is probably impractical. How do you sit down? On the petals? Not comfortable.
The company behind the Petal dress, Nervous System, has a line of amazing 3D printed jewelry based on organic shapes. I’ve seen them in a a few science museum gift shops and they are as pretty in person as online.
The part that was the most impressive to me as an engineer was the customization. The demo video showed them changing the models measurements as well as the petal size, shape, and direction, all updated in real time. Nice.
This made me ask: is computerized customization the future of clothing?
I did some Youtube and Google searching to learn the state of the art for customized clothing.
Short answer? No, not for a long while.
But what IS available now?
One of the more affordable is eShakti.com. Many of their styles can be modified for different necklines, hemlines, sleeves, and measurements. It is difficult to know how much of their clothing production is automated or if they achieve their low prices through low wage labor in 3rd world countries. Their website states:
eShakti adheres to the strict labor laws of India which are in compliance with internationally-accepted requirements. It is also true that the welfare and dignity of our employees is as high a priority for us as delighting customers.
I’m no expert on international labor laws, so its hard to judge how much of this is simply marketing PR. A quick google search did not turn up any accusations of abuses.
My guess is they produce their clothing through a combination automation and low wage labor (lower than the US). Computerized fabric cutting tables combined with some simple programming to adjust the templates given the customers choices, could take a lot of the labor out of eShakti’s clothing production. Human labor could then assemble the clothing with the help of industrial sewing machines.
There are several other companies that are doing something similar for shirts, jeans or suits. None appear to have fully automated production like the Petal Dress above, and many have rumors of labor violations.
The only possible exception is Appalach.com.
From their website:
Appalatch is a purveyor of highly personalized, customizable knitwear.
Made in the USA, Appalatch creates exceptional, made-to-order knitwear by combining responsible manufacturing, superior craftsmanship, and our pioneering customization technology.
Programmable knitting machines have been available to the public since the 80’s. The modern version could easily knit tubes in a variety of patterns, including the cuffs, neck, and hems. It still looks like the sleeves of the Appalatch sweater are sewn on by hand, but that is a drastic improvement over traditional knitting.
My friend Andrea of Mad Knitting Lab makes amazing knitted bags and pillows with a machine from the 80’s she hacked her computer onto. Its pretty sweet, she can even base the patterns on photographs.
Why aren’t robots making my custom clothing now?!?!?
Down the youtube rabbit hole I went watching computerized industrial sewing machines to find the answer.
But one thing I do not see automated is insertion of the fabric into the machine, or moving it from machine to machine. Human beings still feed the cloth into it and take it out. Why?
As the video below of a robot folding a towel below painfully shows, there are still some tasks that humans are MUCH better at than robots. Handling fabric requires a surprisingly complex combination of dexterity and object recognition that even a 5 year old is better at than computers.
Sigh. Maybe in 20 or 30 years I can order clothing that fits perfectly right out of the box. Tailors, your jobs are still safe.