My Sleeves Are Too Long: Why Home Fabs Will Replace Fashion Factories

My Sleeves Are Too Long: Why Home Fabs Will Replace Fashion Factories

I struggle with clothes. Apart from having a limited sense of style, I also have a slightly odd body shape. My neck is thicker and my chest broader than my height would imply. Even with my newly svelte figure (I’ve shed over a stone and a half in the last few weeks — a different story), I have trouble finding clothes that fit. Most noticeably, the arms are too long in any shirt or jacket that I buy to fit around my rather chunky neck*.

I am not alone in this. By definition, most people have a body shape that is not average. Finding something as basic as a pair of jeans that fit all of our various contours is a challenge for most people.

As a solution we could all have our clothes made to measure. This is a very pleasurable experience — I have a couple of bespoke suits — but it is a rather expensive way to fill a wardrobe. And I can’t see my tailors (the estimable Long, Berry and Wild on Manchester’s Lever Street), making me a hoodie or a snowboarding jacket, so my fashion options may be a little limited.

In the future I can see that there will be a better alternative. And it starts with 3D printers — or at least their descendants.

3D printers have been one of the big tech stories of 2012, as their price has tumbled from the tens of thousands to the single thousands. It won’t be long before your local PC World, Maplin or even B&Q starts selling them for under a grand. And from there the price is likely to tumble further.

But what about fashion? It’s unlikely that the first few generations of 3D printers will be capable of dealing with the variety of materials and manufacturing methods involved in something as complex as a technical jacket. But down the line larger, more sophisticated fabricators or ‘fabs’ will almost certainly be capable of assembling clothing matched to our exact measurements.

Even these devices may have their limits: larger or more complex designs may require a trip to the shops still. In fact this is almost certainly where these devices will first appear.

It’s important to note that these will not be robot cutting and sewing machines: the process is not one of cutting out a pattern and stitching. It is a process of laying down consecutive layers of liquid material that then sets and is bonded together to form a complete whole. While energy intensive this should be much less wasteful.

And the results should be fine and intricate constructions with much less stitching between segments and layers — a process little different to how clothes were made in the middle ages — as whole garments can be constructed as single pieces.

There are, as usual, many questions to answer for this little dream to be made reality: for a start how will we deal with the various materials the machines will need to use? Will it all be synthetics or will they be able to handle cottons and other natural materials? Will the economics stack up vs mass production of clothes that roughly fit? How will the licensing of designs work?

All to be discussed and dealt with, but not insurmountable challenges. And when they can be nailed, I might finally have sleeves that don’t drape over my hands.

*Crueller friends might suggest my overdeveloped neck is required to support my rather large head.


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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Future of Business series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Business page.

Tom Cheesewright

Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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