The ‘Chro-Morpho’ collection features fish scale-sized photopolymer cells printed directly onto polyester fabric

The ‘Chro-Morpho’ collection features fish scale-sized photopolymer cells printed directly onto polyester fabric

A new technique for 3D printing directly onto fabric could mark the next step in unlocking 3D printing's commercial viability in the fashion industry – as well as a raft of new colour and texture combinations.

Designers have been using 3D printing in fashion for several years, but until now the printed elements have been created separately and affixed to garments.

A collection unveiled at New York Fashion Week, however, featured spherical, fish scale-sized cells made of photopolymers printed directly onto polyester fabric, so that the colour of the dress shifts with each small movement.

The 'Chro-Morpho' collection, inspired by the microscopic colours and light filtering of butterfly and insect wings, was created with help from 3D printing specialist Stratasys and unveiled at threeASFOUR's fall/winter runway show.

"Within the next two years, I believe consumers will be able to purchase an array of 3D-printed garments from high-fashion brands," explains Stratasys Art design and fashion director Naomi Kaempfer. "And the result will be access to an explosion of unique colour and texture combinations that are simply not possible through traditional methods."

One Greta-Oto dress from the collection, for example, features thousands of cells on the dress's 27 parts that consist of a clear lens with strips of colour contained inside. 3D-printing took around 17 hours.

Designers used the Stratasys J750 PolyJet printer to add the polymers to the material. It can produce more than 500,000 combinations of colours, textures, gradients and transparencies, and can handle the delicate geometries and microscopic layers applied to the garments. 

This gives designers unlimited design freedom and potentially enables end users to be involved in the design, the company says. 

It adds there are also tangible business benefits too: A single 3D printer can replace a wide variety of other manufacturing machines, from 2D-printing to embroidery, thermoforming, foiling and ultrasound. This saves apparel and textile-makers space, cost and time, including a simpler supply chain.

Kaempfer says the union of textiles and 3D printing is about working in harmony with materials rather than replacing them. "Soft, lithe fabric touches the skin, while 3D-printed designs adorn the outer garment. This approach, developed through months of collaboration and testing, was the only way to realise the designers' vision. It brings the intricacy, nuance and splendour of the dresses to life."

The project is a significant step in Stratasys' work to merge fashion and 3D printing, with recent moves also including a partnership with Pantone to integrate the Pantone colour matching system into Stratasys printers.

It is also providing its PolyJet technology to the European Union Re-FREAM programme, part of the broader Science, Technology & the Arts (STARTS) initiative, to encourage artists, designers, engineers and scientists to co-explore the use of technology and 3D printing for the future of fashion.