The reality of 3D printing and its commercial application in the fashion industry is currently restricted to a relatively limited range of materials. These include mostly plastics and metals, although materials research is in constant evolution.

When Iris Van Herpen showed her first 3D-printed dress in 2010 at the Amsterdam International Fashion Week, it caused a flurry of excitement.

Since then, the avant-garde Dutch designer has created a series of 3D garments, often in collaboration with architects, such as a recent piece in her 2012/13 collection called 'Hybrid Holism' using a type of liquid resin in a 3D printer.

While Van Herpen continues to push the boundaries of technology and fashion, the reality of 3D printing and its commercial application in the fashion industry is currently restricted to a relatively limited range of materials. These include mostly plastics and metals, although materials research is in constant evolution.

Researchers Stephen Hoskins and Dave Huson of the University of West England's Centre for Fine Print Research, for example, have now developed a 3D-printable ceramic material called ViriClay that can create ceramic prototypes in a 3D printer.

Bags or simple soft forms can be relatively easily crafted by using highly flexible polymers in woven or interlacing structures.

Materialise is a Belgium-based company specialising in the creation of 3D prototype solutions across a range of industries. The company recently produced a 3D printed plastic fashion shopper for high-end bag company Kipling, using what the company claims is a fully flexible 3D printable material, called TPU 92A-1, made with a rapid prototyping technique called laser sintering.

Complex process
3D printing with polymers can be incredibly complex, but it is even possible to produce a plastic garment with a knit-like weave.

The online 3D print shop Shapeways, based in New York, is a window onto the current commercial applications of 3D printing for the apparel sector. Accessories, shoes and even a bikini produced by fashion company Continuum, also based in New York, are available for purchase on the site.

All examples of a fervent creativity that to date, however, has been limited by the constraints of flexible plastic and polymer compounds - the most flexible and 'wearable' material currently available.

Commercially available 3D printed fabric for large-scale manufacturing may not far away. Tamicare, a UK-based technology and engineering company and manufacturer of nonwoven materials, has released details of its innovative new 3D printed patented product called Cosyflex, devised for the manufacture of 3D printed disposable underwear with built-in menstrual pads.

The material is made of a combination of fibres and is extremely flexible, and apparently comfortable to wear. The fabric, which is sprayed on in layers by a printer, can be produced with various types of liquid polymers such as natural latex, silicon, polyurethane and Teflon, as well as textile fibres such as cotton, viscose and polyamide.

Simple garments
According to Avihay Feld, chief operating officer of 3D software specialist Browzwear, it is highly possible that eventually 3D printing will include simple garments.

"If you look at 2D printing history, 30 or 40 years ago in order to print anything was hard and expensive. Even the computers to produce a print were specific machines. Then it became a commodity, and eventually it was home based. 3D printers will eventually be the same. Even now it's becoming more available. If 3D printers become things that can go into everyone's home why couldn't we eventually print things like underwear or socks?"  

His company is already preparing for this future scenario. "It's hard to see 3D printers creating a mass produced garment right now that is comfortable to wear. The closest things to 3D printed garments that we have today are seamless garments, but when 3D printers can make more comfortable materials we are going to be the first to connect designers to those," he says.

That could be sooner than we think. A California-based start-up called Electroloom received a grant from US lifestyle brand Alternative Apparel to create a 3D printer capable of producing one-off customisable basics like T-shirts by the end of 2014.

Multiple materials
Kate Kennedy, lecturer at the School of Fashion and Textiles at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University in Australia, agrees that advances in materials research mean it will be only a matter of time before printable fabric becomes readily available.

"3D printing in multiple materials is where the future will be. We have quite a few projects looking at substrates to create stronger and flexible 3D printed structures. It's not dissimilar from shape knitting, with polymer extrusion replacing spun yarn to create flexible forms," she says.

It may also not be very long until this kind of technology moves from the factory or research lab to the home.

Cubify, a US-based 3D company, now produces a home-based 3D printer (called Cube 2) that retails for around US$1,300. Users can purchase or download design files free to print at home for objects that range from dinosaur heads to bracelets and even mobile phone covers. One option even allows a user to design and print plastic shoes.

The current options are admittedly limited to a small number of styles, mostly with a robust wedge heel or solid chunky shapes, but they illustrate what could be the next frontier in 3D printing, where consumers can produce objects, and, eventually, simple apparel they need at home.

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