10 Things You Should Know About 3D Knitting

You’ve heard about 3D printing. Now here comes 3D knitting.

Soon after we started working on Elevate, we heard about a fantastic new method for creating fabric products. 3D knitting (sometimes called “whole-garment” or “seamless”) is to clothing what 3D print is to plastics. Today it is easier than ever to create fabric products quickly and inexpensively.

With the help of thousands of fashion designers and engineers around the world, 3D knit pushes the envelope of product development, combining science and engineering with the beauty of fashion design.

After several months of evaluation and research, we have decided to share our findings with you because we’re sure that doing so is going to foster an incredible amount of innovation in wearable technology.

Here’s a look at 5 things 3D knit is, and 5 things it is not.

5 Things 3D Knitting Is

1. It is one of the coolest expressions of 3D product development.

By building our own fabric product, Elevate, we learned just how hard it is to make textile goods that are manufactured here in the US. In the process we found that companies like Nike and UnderArmour have been experimenting with 3D knitting. Some of their products are already iconic, including the Nike FlyKnit and UnderArmour’s Speedform Gemini.

3D is not new technology. What is often called “whole garment” (as a marketing tool) has been around since the mid 90’s. Many companies at that time knit in pockets, knit on collars, made cardigans, apparel and knit medical products in 3 dimensions. The idea was to mimic hand knitting and create on the machines what people were doing by hand to increase commercialization. At that time it was called fully-fashioned. What is new is that the machines are now efficient and cost effective. That’s why many of us are just not hearing about it, and the fact that there are a lot of tennis shoes being sold.

So how does 3D knitting work?

Basically a lot of individual strands of yarn feed into a complex machine that manipulates tiny knitting needles. Each thread is controlled by a machine head capable of making just about any known knit pattern.

These computer-driven machines utilize a specialized programming language to create 3-dimensional products by knitting layer upon layer. A machine programmer can write an entire 3D program with no graphics at all – just code. The engineering is what is 3D – meaning the programmer techniques.

What’s really cool is that products can be knit together without any sewing or seams. And it all happens with a few clicks of a mouse.

3D knit products come in all forms: seamless shirts, seamless pants, seamless gloves, even seamless dolls for kids…and the list keeps on growing. Imagine how comfy you’d be not having any irritating sewing lines in your compression running gear.

The technology is suited to performance sportswear but is easily adapted for almost any type of clothing, even winter clothes like jackets that come with pockets and necklines knitted in one whole garment. That shooould impress you.

Right now the fashion industry is based almost exclusively on goods that are cut and sewn together. This method becomes obsolete with 3D knitting. Now clothes are printed in one-offs and can even be fully customized to the individual buying them.

Thanks to the creativity of talented designers and engineers around the world, the technology is beginning to spread. It’s even available here in the United States, and we’re going to tell you where to find it. Keep reading.

2. It is even newer than 3D printing.

3D printing (SLS and SLA) was created back in the 70s by inventor Chuck Hull and is just now coming online in a big way. Contrast printing with 3D knitting, which began more recently in the 90s in response to demand in Asian markets for unique hosiery products.

I recently spoke with the CEO of Karl Mayer North America. KM is an international machinery company headquartered in Germany and one of several companies leading the pack in the knitting industry. I asked where their technology came from and how long it has been around.

Starting in Japan in the 90s, KM’s subsidiary in Japan began developing machines to make women’s hosiery lines. The Japanese markets wanted intricate patterns in their clothing, and patterning is a key strength of any knitting.

It wasn’t long before companies in related industries realized there were applications outside of hosiery. Software developments wedded 3D programming to machined knitting, and the industry has taken off. Today the technology is developed by key international players, including Karl Mayer, Shima Seiki, Stoll, and Santoni.

3. It is more practical than 3D printing.

Can you think of one person that doesn’t need clothes? And not just everyday clothes, but performance-enhancing-moisture-wicking-electrically-conductive-make-you-look-incredible-tight-fitting clothes! You can do without a printed plastic desk ornament. But almost every human activity requires good clothes.

As mentioned earlier, most clothes today are made in a cut and sew operation. That means fabric gets cut into basic shapes and sewn together to form your cool new jacket, yoga bottoms, underwear…whatever. Most of this work takes place in far east sweatshops.

This model shifts with 3D knitting. No more sewing. The product comes out of the machine completely finished! One manufacturer we spoke with before writing this piece talked about making a new product and posting images online for sales in 30 minutes!

With cut and sew you had to make large capital investments to create a product…3D knitting lets anyone prototype, test, and sell their designs quickly because going from prototype to full scale production is trivial. (Keeping in mind that full scale might be something different for an individual than for a large corporation.)

4. It is evolving with room for individuals as well as big companies.

3D knitting started with just a few established textile machinery companies. From there it has expanded rapidly into several branches.

The main kinds of seamless 3D knitting are flat knitting, warp knitting, and circular knitting (which might be the oldest). Those categories have clear leaders. Stoll and Shima control flat knit. Karl Mayer is king of flat warp knitting and high-capacity production. And Santoni is the undisputed champion of circular knitting.

Here’s an excellent video describing the technologies and how they work:

Flat knitting is exactly that…a flat bed of knitting needles that looks like a giant ribbon printer. Circular knitting is similar; but instead of being knitted in a flat printed sequence, the knitting happens in a revolving cylinder. Hence the word circular.

Here are some resources to learn more about flat knitting and circular knitting.

And here’s an awesome video showing seamless knitting in action.

3D knitting might sound old fashioned. The word “knitting” isn’t the punchiest word, or the youngest. But don’t be fooled. These machines are ingenious and complex requiring expertise in several cutting edge technical disciplines.

Here’s how you create a 3D knitted product.

At a very basic level, you need two designers and one machine. One is a fashion designer that creates the look and aesthetic. The other is a technical designer who can translate aesthetics into a format the machine understands.

An important aspect of any design is functionality…this technology allows the designer to create products that are made for specific body types, genders, activities, etc. Think in terms of compression and shapewear. Technical considerations include what yarns have the best properties, where to have more or less stretch in the garment, where and how to include ventilation zones. Often these are called “functional garments”. A designer has to understand not just the look, but how to translate the functionality of the product into a machine design.

Some designers have both skills, but it’s unusual to find them together.

Because the technology is now established, machinery companies have been investing heavily in software that enables designers to create products more easily. But there is still a huge technical hurdle. While there are thousands of technical designers around the world who can program these machines, the skills are rare outside of an established business.

The technology recently went open source. Just last year http://openknit.org/ created an open flat knitting machine that you can put together in your garage. An open source circular knitting project also recently came online. If you’re handy with an Arduino and some code, you can learn to program your own fashion lines.

Some of the more exciting opportunities offered by 3D knitting include production automation, advanced materials, and intuitive software. Because the equipment is relatively new, these fields promise rich opportunities for product designers and engineers.

Fully automated production has obvious advantages over human labor. Plus the machines are capable of knitting with just about any fiber: kevlar, wire, plastics…you name it. I’ve seen cut resistant gloves and ballistic wear for military and police that was incredibly light weight.

Imagine being able to create a new line of lifesaving police vests for your local PD without the upfront capital of millions of dollars to invest in equipment and material! And instead of waiting months to get product made overseas, you just print it and sell it yourself. We’re coming into a golden age of fashion entrepreneurship.

5. It is available in the United States.

You might think something this cool would only be available in Asia where most fashion goods are made. A large portion of 3D knitting does take place in Taiwan, Japan, and China. But there are several places right here in North America where you can see and access the technology. More are starting up every day.

One of the best places to look is New York, the fashion capital of the US. Stoll has set up its very own mini factory on W 39th. You can walk by their storefront and see the machines printing products. And for around $5k their staff can start designing your next product. Several universities are also working with the technology (FIT, Parsons, etc) and even some startup incubators.

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5 Things 3D Knitting Is Not

1. It is not a fad.

At first you might think as I did…this is another hyped up marketing scheme. If you follow the fashion industry, you know that fashion stars are expected to change their minds about what’s “in” at least once a week. But 3D knitting is not just an opinion…it’s a technology that has been accelerating for at least 15 years.

3D integrated knit technology is not new but many people are just discovering it since the Stoll, Shima, and other flat knit companies that produced this type of fabrication have become hyper efficient and cost effective.

Real 3D knitting is recognized as a modern innovative textile manufacturing format that precisely engineers yarns and fabric variations solely where they are needed for creating load or performance mapped products with a virtually seamless fit.

The knits are specially engineered for performance to create light weight designs that minimize excess materials and feature only the essentials. Mapping added strength, stretch, compression, hardware inserts, and dimensionally stable regions are easily built into the fabric digitally with transitional stitches, produced efficiently and consistently with minimal sewing or finishing.

This technology is bringing some important changes to the textile industry.

First, it will make product development cheaper by eliminating the need for heavy up front capital and material investment. If you need a new product, go to a company that has the technology and borrow time on their machine. This business model is already used in 3D printing.

3D knitting will make product development faster by allowing designers to visualize and work on products in software. Making adjustments in virtual designs is quick and cheap and can be done by designers anywhere in the world with the technical knowhow. Through teamwork, product iterations are done without waiting for samples from overseas.

With speed on its side, talented designers can now outpace the copycatters who lack talent. 3D knit makes it possible to move from one innovative product to the next in rapid succession. It’s tough luck for intellectual property thieves; as soon as they’ve stolen an idea, the real talent is already on to their better product.

2. It is not your grandma’s hobby.

Most designers have college degrees, understand complex CAD software, and are tech savvy.

This is an industry that’s experiencing the power of intuitive software and computing. Up to now textiles were mechanical, dull and boring. The entire industry abandoned America in the 50s and 60s. But that’s changing!

Now textiles are cutting edge, requiring skills in several tech fields. Those who are competent are highly valuable and in demand. With a worldwide textile industry worth mega billions, those who are skilled can make a lot of money and travel just about anywhere they fancy.

3. It is not cheap (yet).

If 3D knit is so awesome, you might wonder why you’re just reading about it. There are probably a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest has got to be cost. The machinery and the software are expensive.

How expensive? For one of the flat knitting machines, you can spend upwards of $150,000! And don’t count on the software being included. Be ready to fork over another $30,000. At a total initial investment of almost $200k, it’s not exactly friendly on the wallet.

The machinery companies, who all make their own software, are racing to make the technology less expensive. But that’s a function of how quickly their technology is adopted. As more people buy products made on their machines, the demand for the machines themselves will rise. And so the technology can be improved and get cheaper.

There are a few ways to take advantage of 3D knitting now without investing a lot of money.

First, try syncing up with large manufacturers who are already using it. See if they’ll sell you some machine time and a designer to help you create your products. You can find most manufacturers in Italy, Spain, and Taiwan.

Second, you can go to one of the major machinery companies; most of them have innovation centers set up to demo their products.

Third, check out a university like FIT that works with these companies and take some courses. Most of them also have machines available to use.

4. It is not super easy to learn (yet).

3D knit machines and software are not plug and play. They still require a technical staff to maintain. And as mentioned earlier, the software is part creative design and part technical knowhow.

You might be a world-class fashion artist, but that doesn’t mean you understand the technicalities of knitting. That’s why, if you’re a designer interested in 3D knit, you’re going to need to find a technical design partner.

Don’t despair though.

Designers who want to learn more can. We’re working on a list of resources and design talent here at Comfe Designs. If you’re interested in having access to that list, or if you’re a designer and want to be on it, please let us know by emailing us.

5. It is not standardized.

Like any new technical field, there’s a lack of accessible learning resources which makes adoption difficult. Each machinery company has their own design package. Much of what’s in the software is duplicated by competitors, though formatted to perform slightly different ways. It is standardized – there are specific ways to get exactly what you want from the machine. One just has to know knitting. If a person knows knitting–what is and isn’t possible on machinery and yarn compatibility–then learning the individual softwares is easier.

One consequence is that designers sometimes cannot develop a product in one piece of software and expect to be able to send it to a competitor’s software to be produced on their machines. Artists might see this as a limitation. Machinery companies see it as protecting their investments.

In a cutthroat world where your IP can be stolen, it is absolutely critical for companies to differentiate this way. Competitive advantages though can create barriers to adoption. Software expenses and non-interoperable tools effectively throttle the level of innovation.

Compare the evolution of 3D knit software with graphic design software and you’ll see similar issues. Artists and designers today use Adobe almost exclusively. Many fashion designers still prefer Illustrator over packages designed specifically for fashion. But Adobe wasn’t always at the top of the heap. It took a lot of work and research to make that happen.

To speed adoption, the 3D knitting industry needs software innovation. And advances are coming. As long as there are designers who want to innovate and exercise their creativity, there will be a need for software improvements. Here at Comfe Designs we’re excited to be a part of this promising industry and look forward to bringing you new fantastic products ourselves.

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