The Death of Cut and Sew and the Birth of 3D

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the cut and sew garment production industry?

The majority of today’s fashion is produced using techniques that remain largely unchanged for the past 150 years. It is labor intensive; with many hands touching and working to produce the garments we wear everyday. The industry that manufactures our clothing is one of the least automated industries, and has by and large failed to ever fully embrace mass production techniques.

Mass manufacturing processes such as rotational molding revolutionized the production of furniture and other objects for industrial design, while robotics have transformed vehicle production. Automated processes and technologies are routinely used in almost all other industries, but human hands largely still make the bulk of what we wear.

The processes that come together to produce a fashion garment are broken into tiny actions, each operated by a different highly efficient and well-practiced individual. For example there will be one person who rivets your jeans, another who top stitches the pockets and yet another who only trims threads. One of the few aspects of garment production that has been automated is cutting. CNC blades or laser cutters rapidly cut multiple layers of cloth at the same time. However, this only occurs in large-scale production, as most small and medium scale manufacturers still cut by hand. By the time your garment reaches you it has passed through many hands, each person paid a fraction of the cost to produce the whole.

There are many contradictions apparent in this high labor industry.

The Good: it keeps a lot of people employed, in fact more people are employed by the textile and apparel industry than any other.

The Bad: they are generally paid a low wage and often work in poor working conditions in a repetitive (trimming threads for the rest of your life anyone?) and sometimes dangerous job. Transitioning into a more automated industry had profound impacts on the motor vehicle manufacturing industry, reducing the cost of cars and increasing production, while leaving thousands unemployed and the communities who relied on the industry decimated. If garment production were to follow the automated route the impacts are difficult to gauge, though unemployment would likely be one of them. The question of whether the payoffs are worth it is part of an ongoing debate, but what would an automated fashion production industry even look like? What might it mean for consumers and designers?

Many of the advances in industrial design technology focus around the transition from subtractive production processes, where you start with a sheet or block of material and remove what you don’t need to make the finished object, to additive processes, where you start with nothing and you only add what you need. Additive technologies are faster and less labor intensive when automated and produce substantially less waste to produce the same or better end result. It enables form and structures never before possible with reductive processes.

Julian Roberts, Subtraction Cutting

Some of the most interesting developments in regards to garment design and production are occurring at the threshold between industrial design, science and fashion. Revolutionary thinkers at these intersections have produced spray on fabric, 3D printed swimwear and couture, Liquid Molded garments, and DPOL. These emerging (and still developing) technologies add to more mainstream techniques such as whole garment knitting, digital printing, embroidery and laser cutting, to present us with a future for the fashion industry which is vastly different to the one we have now.

Conflating the textile production and garment production processes through technological advances such as 3D printing, as well as producing garment forms otherwise impossible, also significantly reduces waste and carbon emissions. The highly globalized nature of the fashion industry leads to the raw materials of textiles grown in one country, processed in another and cut and sewn in yet another, all while being sold all over the world.

Imagining in contrast, a future where we have a 3D printer on our desktop at home is not that far off, so picture this: You are about to go out on a Friday evening and realize you “have nothing to wear!” You pay $50 to download from the internet that latest Fall 2018 dress design you love, software modifies it to fit exactly and then sends it to your desktop 3D printer, 30 minutes later you’re out the door.

This will happen.

Image: Kheel Center, Cornell, The Denim Wiki