Want an Outfit That's 100 Percent Sweatshop-Free? Just Press 'Print'

Plug in your measurements, and this incredible machine creates your own custom clothing.
Mar 13, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Conversations about 3-D printing have ranged from the terrifying (DIY guns) to the esoteric (3-D-printed Egyptian hairstyles, anyone?). As a result, the average person doesn't quite get what all the fuss is over a technology that seems totally unrelated to real life.

But the average person certainly knows the struggle to find a perfect sweater at the mall: If you find it, and if it's your size, you start wondering if it was made under hellish sweatshop conditions. Those days are over if the potential of 3-D-printed clothing is realized.

Indeed, instead of the sweatshop-driven, mass-produced reality of the garment industry, with a 3-D printer the average person could sustainably create the equivalent of haute couture from the privacy of one's home or in a community-operated maker space, where like-minded individuals gather to create and collaborate.

One of the freshest examples of the potential for 3-D printed clothing is OpenKnit, a project that's the brainchild of Barcelona, Spain–based artist and designer Gerard Rubio. Rubio spent eight months building and programming a 3-D clothing fabricator in partnership with Knitic founders and artists Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet, who've worked at the intersection of technology and art since 2009 and developed the open-source technology OpenKnit uses.

While automated knitting machines have been around for decades, enabling the mass-production of clothing, the beauty of OpenKnit is that it lets anyone "knit" an item of clothing in an affordable and customizable way.

Purchasing the fabricator is the biggest investment—right now OpenKnit's pricing the machine at $550 euros (about $770). OpenKnit also provides a step-by-step assembly manual and the open-source software. Total setup of the machine takes less than a day.

Once it's assembled, all you have to do is input your measurements, input the measurements of the clothing item you want to create, or select a design that's already in the system. Then, make sure a spool of yarn is ready to go, and press the start button. In about an hour, whatever you want is ready to wear. No tailoring is needed because what you made was created to your exact measurements, and it's completely sweatshop-free.

Of course, the ease with which someone could counterfeit designs from top designers has some in the fashion industry worried. After all, if you want a hot, on-trend garment that you see in a store, but you want it for less, you could create your own knockoff.

That reality's probably several years away, however. Given the newness of the technology, plenty of design limitations still exist. For one, Rubio says, the OpenKnit fabricator can only handle three colors of yarn at a time, and it can't knit complex patterns. That said, as 3-D-clothing technology advances it'll be possible to tweak and refine the software so that more colors, styles, and types of textiles can be used. Given the pace at which the technology's developing, a world where your clothing is sustainably made, on demand, by you really could be just around the corner.