Designers Hacked an Industrial Knitting Machine to '3D Print' Unique Pieces

The London-based group has tweaked the machine's software so wearers can customise their own knitwear.

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Nov 16 2015, 10:35am

Kirsty Emery tends to Helga, the industrial knitwear machine. Image: Emiko Jozuka

A London-based knitwear startup is trying to turn the fashion industry's manufacturing process on its head. Instead of using industrial knitting machines to produce the same designs in bulk, they've created software that lets them "3D print" customizable, one-off productions.

"We use the same knitwear machines that are used in factories where garments are manufactured," Hal Watts, a co-founder of knitwear company UNMADE, told me at its new pop-up store in London, which runs till 24 December. "We're not changing the hardware, the only difference is that we can put a new file on it [each time] so we can make a blue and white scarf or a green and black jumper without changing the setup."

UNMADE, co-founded by Royal College of Art graduates Kirsty Emery, Hal Watts, and Ben Alun-Jones, launched its website on Monday. The startup allows knitwear aficionados to come to a pop-up store and use an app to select either a woolly jumper or a scarf from a designer, and customize its design. They can add or move around patterns, and select a colour scheme from a predefined palette. The finished design is "printed" off a local industrial knitwear machine and delivered within a few days.

Consumers can tinker with the designers' designs via an app. Image: Emiko Jozuka

But making the machinery customize then produce perfect designs hasn't been easy. The trio went through various iterations before they were able to come up with their finished version.

"Everytime you change [a design] on the app, it changes the dimensions of the product," said Watts. "So if you change the pattern and have a really detailed one, it will come out much larger than a simple pattern when it's manufactured."

To jump this hurdle, the group worked with theoretical physicists and built software that changed the tension of the machines, and worked out how tightly to knit things so the patterns and the size of the knitwear stayed perfect.

Usually, manufacturers will have to make a large batch of the same product, then spend a day or two changing their machine's setup to make a large batch of another design, before dispatching their clothes from one end of the world to another. The UNMADE team believes its model could make the fashion industry more sustainable.

Hal Watts stands in front of Helga. Image: Emiko Jozuka

"At the moment, in industry, about ten percent of all clothes go to waste—that's something we're trying to eliminate by trying to manufacture as locally to people as possible, and only on demand," Watts explained.

"The idea is that we give people something to play with to create a product personal to them, but which still remains the style of the designer. It's important for us that the designer remains involved with the level of customization involved. We don't want to make anything that comes out horrible," he added.

One of UNMADE's jumpers made of Italian merino wool will set you back a fairly hefty £200 ($300), and a scarf £60 ($90). The trio are also set to release a cashmere range, but said they wanted to introduce less costly materials in the future.

While getting the algorithms down to a tee is one thing, sometimes the machine's hardware plays up anyway. Emery, who affectionately dubbed their machine "Helga" explained the fragility of the needles, and equipment. She said she'd been engaging in some "open heart surgery" to make sure that it was working on track.