Three-dimensional (3D) printing, or additive manufacturing, is a one-step process during which filaments or materials are applied in layers according to a geometric configuration using a digital file. The process originated in the 1980s when Hideo Kodama developed a prototyping device whereby ultraviolet (UV) lights were used to harden polymers and produce a 3D structure. Chuck Hull, the founder of 3D Systems, took the methodology a step further when he patented his stereolithography process, resulting in the production of the first commercial 3D printer. In the 21st century, apparel designers and textile manufacturers are using increasingly affordable and advanced 3D-printing technology to minimize the environmental impact of fast fashion and promote sustainability by recycling existing materials and reducing production and resource waste.
The filaments (fibers) and materials used in the 3D-printing process in the textile industry depend on the printer and the project, be it fabric, footwear, or garment prototype. Key considerations include heat, impact, and stress resistance; additional considerations include ease of use, elongation, isotropy, and visual appeal, such as how well a filament resembles the texture of a leather or the weave of a fabric.
As noted on the World’s Advanced Saving Project (WASP) website, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) is one of the most commonly used filaments for apparel, industrial, and medical applications. Due to its durability and resistance to wear and tear, this elastic and flexible rubber-like filament is especially suitable for those products requiring both the ability to absorb shocks and a soft-touch surface. According to Tiziana Teghini from WASP, the company has collaborated on a variety of related projects in the textile industry and “consider TPU material strategic for this sector, due to its technical capabilities.”
Courtney Blum, the founder of Filament Stories, a podcast and website dedicated to providing 3D-designers with information about the print capabilities and visual appeal of fibers and materials, notes that TPU’s “flexibility lends itself well to creating components that move more naturally like traditional textiles.” And because today’s flexible filaments are easier to print than they have been in the past, they remain a key player in the 3D-printing and textile industries. For example, flexible filaments are now being applied in combination with a holographic refraction pattern on a printer’s build plate. In this process, the holographic pattern is transferred to the printed medium, thereby enhancing its style and visual appeal, as explained by Blum.
“We are also seeing other polymers being used in a mixed medium way,” Blum notes, “in which 3D-printed components are imprinted directly on a fabric or mesh, which is then integrated into a garment,” thereby opening the door to the use of a variety of polymers, including glitter and rainbow-colored filaments previously unavailable in TPU. Coextrusion (dual-color) polylactic acid (PLA) filaments, or biodegradable, recyclable polymers, where individual strands are composed of two or even three colors, are also being used to create dramatic 3D prints.
Most 3D garments and textiles are created using a Fused Deposit Modeling (FDM) printer, which involves depositing and melting thermoplastic filaments, and selective laser sintering (SLS), or powdering, with the former being the most common and economical technology used in the industry. For example, an adapted version of the Blackbelt 3D printer provides designers and textile technologists with a solution to one of the issues related to the production of three-dimensional fabrics—continuous printing in an infinite length format—and has furthered the textile industry’s ability to offer mass-produced clothes and fabrics in a variety of colors and textures.
The WASP 2040 Pro is a small FDM printer that gives fashion and textile designers the ability to experiment with small-scale projects before transitioning to a large-scale printer. It’s compatible with Linux, Mac, and Windows operating systems and can process acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), an economical hard plastic; PLA, polyamide (PA) carbon, and polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG). As noted by Tiziana Teghini from WASP, “TPU is a material that can be used with all WASP 3D printers in all sizes. We can, therefore, confirm that both the 2040 Pro and the 4070, as well as the 3MT, are usable machines for this material and the fashion, textile and clothing industry.”
SLS printers include Sinterit’s Lisa Pro System, which, in comparison to other desktop devices, has the ability to process a broader range of materials. The company also produces its own TPU powders that facilitate the production of flexible materials for the fashion industry.
For those 3D-printing projects where aesthetics, details, and surface finishes are paramount, PolyJet technology, where droplets of photopolymers are first applied and then cured with ultraviolet light, is another option. For instance, Stratasys’s J55 Prime 3D printer is an industry-grade PolyJet system with the ability to handle five different types of materials (flexible, opaque, rigid, tactile, and/or transparent) simultaneously and print directly on fabric in more than 640,000 color combinations using the cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black) color model (CMYK) and Pantone Matching System (PMS), thereby eliminating the need for hand painting.
Cutting-edge fashion designers and 3D-printing pioneers include Iris Van Herpen who creates 3D-printed apparel with an architectural and sculptural look, for example, the garments she developed with Niccolo Casas, and Ganit Goldstein’s customized, direct-to-textile printed kimono dress. In partnership with Superforma Fablab, Chiara Giusti developed TECHNE, a capsule clothing line produced using TPU filaments and tensioned jersey with an FDM printer operating at a high temperature.
While designing 3D-printed garments, such as her Arid dress, Julia Koerner, an architect and co-founder of JK3D, likes to work with SLS Julia Koerner’s Setae Jacket for the Chro-Morpho Collection by Stratasys 2019. Photo courtesy of Julia Koerner. Photography by Ger Ger
technology and has a preference for biodegradable PLA and plant-based filaments. According to Koerner, “When it comes to designing a 3D printed garment, my inspiration is nature. I like to give special attention to material performance and research innovative new processes and technologies.”
In response to a question about the challenges she’s experienced during the 3D-printing process, Koerner noted that, frequently, “there is not enough time in projects to do a lot of research, and people are often only interested in the aesthetics.” That said, she also highlighted the “benefits [of] rethinking traditional fabrication processes for sustainability reasons [as] additive manufacturing has so many potentials in this area, including local fabrication, reducing shipping times, mass personalization and customization…in addition to creating designs, which really only can be made with 3D printing.”
About the Author
Juliana Barnesis a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s textile design program. A senior content editor and freelance writer, her experience includes ten years fact-checking and fine-tuning academic lessons and professional development blogs for an educational media company and researching and writing articles for both the former and a newswire service.