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This Knitting Machine Is Like a 3D Printer for Clothes

Goodbye high street, hello bespoke open-source woollen goods.

Image: Gerard Rubio/Flickr, used with permission

Barcelona-based designer Gerard Rubio is developing a knitting machine that will make you a jumper at the click of a button; it’s like a 3D printer for woolly clothes.

Called OpenKnit, the basic premise behind the tool is very similar to 3D printing with plastic. You put in your raw material (coloured yarn), design your item digitally, and let the machine do its thing. The main body consists of a bed of needles similar to what you’d use if you were knitting by hand but in a much larger quantity, with a “carriage” that passes the yarn over and has a sensor to count stitches. The whole thing is controlled by an Arduino Leonardo board.

An introduction to the OpenKnit project. Video: Gerard Rubio/Vimeo

Rubio explained over email that he started the project as part of his Media Design degree at ESDI in Sabadell, an area known for Spanish textile production in the past. He was inspired by the historical surroundings and the school’s textile machines. “After four years of going there almost everyday I started to love those machines, the old ones and the new ones, and I though I could do something with them using my knowledge about 3D printing and digital fabrication,” he said.

The machine puts together clothes in three tubular sections; a jumper is made up of the main body and two sleeves, which can all be different colours before they’re joined at the armpit and then tapered into shoulders and neck. It’s still early days and the process for a full jumper isn’t quite fully automated yet, but Rubio said that since he uploaded a video about OpenKnit to Vimeo a few days ago, he’s had constructive feedback on how to get there.

This animation shows more technical details of how it works. Video: Sergi Rubio/Vimeo

His first collection contains a blue jumper with red sleeves, a dress, a beanie, and a tricolour scarf. If they look a little jagged around the edges, Rubio explained that he’s tightening up the reliability of the process, and that there are “many many hours of testing to come.”

OpenKnit’s link to 3D printing isn’t limited to its machining technique; Rubio is clearly influenced by the sociopolitical potential of home manufacturing and the open design movement, and gives a special nod to the open design RepRap project. 

The technology is open source, and the idea is to build a community around OpenKnit that can upload and “print” their own clothing designs using software called Knitic, which was developed by artists Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet. They can then share their designs via an online repository developed with collaborator Takahiro Yamaguchi called Do Knit Yourself, “an open-source clothing platform, a virtual wardrobe that allows users to share clothes.” Each part is available on GitHub, with the disclaimer that it's all in beta for now.

The first collection. Image: Gerard Rubio/Flickr, used with permission

This all aims to fulfil OpenKnit’s mission statement, which is to challenge the current consumer model for fashion. “Presently, production outsourcing has become the norm: mass fabrication of goods at low costs improves corporate profit margins but pushes precarious labour conditions due to a race to the bottom in competing developing markets,” the OpenKnit site proclaims. “OpenKnit offers an alternative landscape to this production model.”

Rubio said that the community model is therefore not just for shared playtime with machines (though that’s surely a major draw); “it's also because it's the only way this open-source tool can evolve, collectively, to a real alternative to our production model so people can produce their own bespoke clothes, reducing our dependance with the actual production model, thus our complicity with it.”