A typical cotton T-shirt has a long and complicated history, starting in a pesticide-doused cotton field, traveling thousands of miles between processing plants and the garment factory where low-wage workers stitch it together, and making another long journey to a retail store.
But we’re not necessarily far from a future where anyone can print a T-shirt from scratch by themselves from their home.
A new 3-D printer for apparel can create a simple prototype of a tank top, with no sewing skills or cotton field required. The process looks a little like a sci-fi cotton candy machine, spinning fibers from electrically charged liquid that adheres into fabric within the space of a few minutes.
“A lot of the potential sustainability benefits that may come from this technology come from the elimination of a lot of intermediate steps,” says Aaron Rowley, co-founder of Electroloom, the startup that created the 3-D printer. “We take raw materials and then convert them into a non-woven fabric in a single step.”
The startup began with a conversation between the founders: How cool would it be to make clothes on demand? They realized that they could adapt lab technology that engineers artificial tissues. After months of experiments, they turned the tiny fibers into a larger, wearable version.
By January, they were able to print simple sheets and tubes of their new material, with an end result that feels like a cross between cotton and suede. Now they’ve created a few basic items of clothing, spun to life from digital files.
“Something we think is really cool is that with this technology you are able to draft something very precise in a digital format, and then the end product will reflect those dimensions exactly,” Rowley says. “The garments we prototyped ourselves, including the beanie, skirt, and tank top, went from concept, to digital draft, to finished good in a way that we could never do before.”
The process eliminates waste. At a typical garment factory, as much as 15% of fabric ends up as scraps on the cutting room floor. Ultimately, the new material could also be fully recycled when someone’s done wearing it.
“We have also run experiments that show we can successfully take a finished material and then redissolve it and reuse it to make something entirely new,” says Rowley. “That’s quite exciting when you consider the future–we might one day be able to recycle worn garments or fabrics in this type of technology rather than tossing them in a landfill.”
The fabric will need to change before it’s really ready for people to wear. “While our fabrics are extraordinarily soft and lightweight, we want to improve on other important metrics, like durability and elasticity, so that what is made can withstand wear-and-tear of every day activities,” Rowley says. “We are probably a few iterations or years out from being able to treat the fabrics the same way as you would most fabrics.”
But rather than keep the new technology locked up in their own lab while they improve it, the team decided to open it up to others for experimentation. In a Kickstarter campaign, they’re offering their prototype to anyone who wants to try to print their own clothes.
“We’re giving backers a chance to actually use our technology while being involved in our development cycle,” Rowley says. “We thought this was a good way to get early feedback, rather than designing in a vacuum.”