Why you should care
Because fashion can be fast, stylish and sustainable.
If I fall in love with a sweater, and it doesn’t have Prime shipping, there’s a high likelihood I’ll never own it. That might sound insane, but in today’s fast-fashion world, who has the patience to wait longer than 48 hours for a delivery? But speed can be the enemy of quality — thanks, Forever 21. Veronika Harbick, co-founder of Brooklyn-based Thursday Finest, however, thinks you can have style and speed, and she’s pioneering 3-D knitting as a way to provide both. “What if we could make custom clothing in the same amount of time it takes to receive a product from Amazon?” she asks OZY.
Harbick isn’t being rhetorical: Her 3-D knitting machine can create socks, merino wool neckties, hats and scarves in 450,000-plus permutations in less than an hour. And each item is tailored to an individual’s color, style and size preferences, all conveyed via an easy-to-use app. “Our goal is to make the difference between buying something co-created versus something prefabricated so slim as to be indistinguishable,” Harbick says.
Seamless [3-D] knitting massively simplifies the supply chain. Yarn goes in the machine, a whole garment comes out. Boom. Done.
Caroline Cockerham, co-founder, Appalatch
With the global knitwear market valued at $173 billion in 2010 and production stalled due to high labor costs, the industry is ripe for renovation. And knitwear fans with tech know-how are happy to step up and swing the demolition sledgehammer. Unmade, a London-based knit-on-demand company established in 2013, has raised more than $3 million to create cashmere sweaters to order decorated with prints by emerging British designers, including Kitty Joseph and Studio Moross. North Carolina–based Appalatch customizes 3-D-knitted wool sweaters; in Los Angeles, JS Shoe, which raised $89,000 on Kickstarter this year, manufactures stylish, lightweight 3-D-knitted footwear. The startup has already started shipping; prices start at $89 for a pair and $45 for a single loafer — in case your feet are different sizes and you need to order two individual shoes instead of a pair.
Harbick is proud to be part of the new-gen knitting wave and says 3-D knitting will revolutionize the customer experience, providing a luxury product that’s personalized and sustainable. Plus, she says, the knitwear segment is far larger than people imagine: “Everything from yoga pants to T-shirts to hats, socks, sweaters and everything in between is knit.”
Bespoke clothing is hardly new. As long as there have been tailors, there have been clothes made to exact specifications. But the Industrial Revolution’s mass production replaced the personal, and the price of clothing adjusted downward accordingly. High costs keep the bespoke out of reach for most consumers, barring a jaunt to China. Some brands have invested in personalization programs: You can customize sneakers with Nike iD, launched in 1999, while Australian-based Shoes of Prey, which has raised nearly $26 million so far, offers thousands of shoe styles. But 3-D knitting is different. It’s custom, yes, but it bypasses the need for human intervention. Designs are knitted seamlessly from a digital file, which makes this manufacturing process ideal for sportswear and high-intensity clothing — a seamless garment means less chafing and rubbing. And it can be fashion-forward: At the Munich Fabric Start textile trade fair last August, 3-D knitting machine maker Santoni displayed its groundbreaking seamless denim skinny jeans — a surefire millennial hit.
For Caroline Cockerham, the 28-year-old co-founder of Appalatch, the possibilities are endless. “We believe on-demand manufacturing is a huge, game-changing shift,” she says, noting the waste currently in clothing manufacturing. “Seamless knitting massively simplifies the supply chain. Yarn goes in the machine, a whole garment comes out. Boom. Done.”
The biggest challenge facing 3-D knitting seems to be a shortage of expertise. “There’s a dearth of people who know how to design, write and run the programs that generate product,” Harbick says. She had to go to Japan for training when she couldn’t find anyone qualified in the U.S. to show her the 3-D ropes. Such costs can hobble new businesses: 3-D knit startup Electroloom, for example, closed its doors in August. And as this type of clothing becomes a staple, older brands may struggle to stay relevant. “Companies will need to update their retail models to match customers’ new expectations,” says Adriana Krasniansky, brand strategist at market research firm PSFK. She explains that 3-D knitting’s convenience and bespoke solutions are very attractive to consumers whose needs aren’t being met by mass-market offerings.
Custom garments, though, mean custom returns. All the stores mentioned here offer full refunds, but reselling an item designed for Jimmy’s left foot is a trickier proposition. Here too, though, custom companies have an advantage. The average return rate for apparel bought online hovers at 40 percent; for custom items, it’s estimated to be less than 10 percent.
At Thursday Finest, where returns are used for media samples and demos, Harbick is excited about a future when a custom knit is considered standard rather than an oddity — and it arrives at speed. “That is our holy grail,” she says.