To read stories of sweatshops or forced labour camps sewing famous brand clothes, is to draw a vision of the future where clothing is made in the saddest, most impoverished corner of the earth, and for items like T-shirts, I fear that vision is true. What I would like to write about here though, are items like suits, fitted dresses, business shirts and other garments that call for an accurate fit.
A future is coming, and coming quite quickly, when these will be tailored, as they were in the past. Individual garments will be tailor made for individual bodies, and as in the days when you went to your neighbourhood tailor or dressmaker, the work will done in your town. The difference is that, instead of human tailors and dress makers, custom clothes making will be undertaken by robots.
The various pieces of technology have already come into existence. All that remains is for some venture capitalist—or some likely suspect like Amazon—to drag all the pieces together.
Let's look at the technological pieces waiting to be coupled to do this.
Puzzle piece one: measuring. The shirt company, MTailor, have a phone app that measures customers' bodies. No measuring tape is involved. Customers just do a twirl in front of their phone cameras. Those measurements are sent to a shirt making factory in Bangladesh, but they could as easily be sent to whatever fabric cutting facility is nearest a particular buyer.
Puzzle piece two: grading. Having grown up in the age of ready-to-wear fashion, we assume pattern grading means taking a pattern that has been developed in one size—let's say an M—and making versions in sizes XS, S, L and XL. But grading software companies, like Lectra for instance, are already selling tailors and dressmakers programs that adapt digitised patterns to customers' individual measurements. A standard business shirt pattern can be adapted, in an instant, for a person with an elephant's neck and gibbon's long arms, or indeed a giraffe.
Puzzle piece three: fabric cutting. This has been done by CNC machines for so long already that the technology hardly warrants explaining. Suffice to say, the measurements taken by your phone and made into a pattern specific to your measurements, could be used to cut pieces of fabric the moment you placed an order online.
Puzzle piece four: robots to sew those pieces together. A company called Sewbo have produced a robotic arm that holds fabric (dipped in a solution to make it go stiff) and steers it through a sewing machine.
Puzzle piece five: styling advice. Alas, even the experienced sales assistant's, tailor's or dressmaker's expert guidance regarding the best styles and colours for any person's shape and complexion, could be usurped by machines. The company that fully automates shirt and dress making, will surely let you dress an avatar of yourself, with your own skin and hair applied to the surface from photos, and use artificial intelligence to guide you in your choice.
As well as knowing your complexion and shape, A.I. bots will know your proclivities and thus be able to match you to highly differentiated niches, set by trend pundits like WGSN. Before you cry: "I'll have no computer telling me to ape Gucci," understand that counter-fashion niches (concerned with ethics, sustainability and upcycling, for instance) are guided by the pundits as well. As a designer, I'm on the other side of their paywall, so trust me when I tell you, Miss Counter Culture, that the computer that will be saying you might a turmeric dyed yellow skirt, will know exactly which variety of organic hemp to use too, to make you feel wholesome and free.
I was a mature aged student studying fashion, when I realised what robotics is likely to do. In fairness, some experiences in my own recent past gave me some privileged insights compared to those of my classmates and instructors. Not all that much earlier, I had been on stage speaking in Amsterdam at an event to build hype around a temporary city I helped to curate there. It showed how the future might look if human settlements did not import or export any physical matter. The only things transferred would be bits—as in "bits" of information—that would be used to drive 3D printing machines making everything we might need.
Though I am skeptical of the Fab City movement I was a part of for the period of that "city's" existence—an office I had started had a pavilion there, where I spent many tedious days—I have been indelibly marked by their central idea about atoms and bits. Bits of information, for example clothing patterns and programs for cutting and sewing, will be shared across the globe freely. Atoms, by contrast, won't move between cities. Discarded objects will be recycled into new goods, robotically made in each town.
I would be the last person to say that all this will happen, as prophesied. None of us can see the future. What I can say with more confidence, is that investors will be attracted to sweet spots in the garment making industry, where the made-to-measure model trumps ready-to-wear.
For as far out as I can envision, oppressed populations will be cheaper than robots for sewing loose fitting stretch items, like T-shirts. The sweet spot for investors in robotics will be in the making of business shirts and fitted dresses. After that, robots will move into the making of shorts, trousers and jeans. Only after they have tackled all the close fitting garments made from woven fabric, will they tackle loose-fitting garments, made from stretch fabric, like T-shirts.
My realisation that venture capital was poised to take over a large chunk of the fashion world, using robotics, was what caused me to drop out of fashion school.
Fast forward to January 2019 when I was meant to be packing my bags to start a consultancy business in Norway. For reasons I will have to lay bare in another blog post, I did something rash. I began to make swimwear. Very quickly, I saw how robots would struggle.
During one step in the making of a swimsuit, the hemming, fabric is stretched two ways by the machinist while it is sewn. For a robot to do that, the fabric would need to be stretched and then frozen in a very strong solution that could resist the pull of the lycra. For another step, the sewing of side seams, fabric is stretched by degrees that constantly vary, depending on the amount by which thread in the seams sewn already have expanded in length. As for the effects of stretched rubber on seams, I can't even begin to explain the implications for machinists of the complex fluting and gathering that is caused.
No doubt all these complexities could be solved by smart chemists and engineers. The question is when, if ever, it would become economically viable for them to do so. It will not be before every other garment type has been tackled.
The challenge it poses to robots is one reason I believe swimwear will be the last frontier of automation. My other reason is fairly banal. It is that far fewer measurements impact the design of a swimsuit than a shirt or some trousers. As long as a swimsuit fits snuggly on the bottom, a little tightness or space in the chest or the waist is rarely a problem, given the fabric has stretch. As for arm and leg lengths, or the circumference of the neck, those measurements don't have any baring. The case for automating garments that need to be made to measure is just so much stronger than the case for automating a stretch clothing type, that only wraps a small part of the body.
There are many reasons why I chose to make swimwear, but one is I don't see competition from robots—robots that I can't afford. I had some savings behind me, enough to buy industrial sewing machines and build a small, conventional factory. I did not have the billions Jeff Bezos of Amazon will have at his disposal, if he ever turns his mind toward the automation of fashion. I wish him, or someone like him, every success. I look forward to the day when I do a twirl in front of my phone, let an A.I. bot advise me as I dress an avatar of myself on my phone screen, then wait twenty minutes from pressing "buy now" for a drone to fly down to my deck. It will deliver a business shirt made especially for me. It will be a long time before it is able to bring me the same kind of tailor made swimwear.