Brands see the future of fashion in customized 3D-knitted garments produced while you wait

One of the futuristic promises of 3D printing in fashion was that one day the technology would allow you to walk into a store, give the staff your measurements, and walk out with a garment made on the spot, just for you.

We’re not there yet, but the scenario is becoming a reality for 3D knitting, a cousin of 3D printing that uses yarn to produce a complete, three-dimensional item. Rather than the stiff plastic product created by a 3D printer—good for sneakers, less so for clothes—it produces sweaters, jackets, and anything else you could knit.

Some brands are already using it in their factories to produce garments. The fall collection of Uniqlo’s U line will include 3D knit items, and the brand is working on a new production system based on the technology. But a couple adventurous labels, including Adidas, are experimenting with 3D knitting on-demand in stores, hinting at a greater role it might play in fashion production and retail in the years ahead.

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Maybe the most significant effort thus far comes from the Boston-based label Ministry of Supply, which has permanently installed a 3D-knitting machine at its Newbury Street flagship in the city. Aman Advani, a cofounder of the quickly growing label, which makes performance clothes for the office, says it took a 60-foot crane to install the 3,000-pound machine. “This isn’t a niche product,” he explains. “This is step one of a longer route to a sustainable and strong production method that’s here to stay.”

The company is betting that in-store production will be the future of retail. In theory at least, the benefits are clear: 3D printing allows shoppers to personalize items to their specifications, meeting the growing demand for customized products. It lets stores carry less inventory, since a garment is only created when there’s a customer ready to purchase it, meaning less risk of stock that doesn’t sell and has to be discounted. And it turns retail into an experience, providing a reason for customers to visit a brand’s brick-and-mortar stores and build a personal connection with it, rather than simply shopping online.

Ministry of Supply is starting off with just one 3D-knit item, an office-ready jacket (though the knit and weight make it look more like a cardigan) with plans to expand the offering later. “The fit is spectacular,” Advani says. “It’s built to move around in, so it will tend to look a lot sharper than a traditional cut-and-sew garment.”

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Brands see the future of fashion in customized 3D-knitted garments produced while you wait

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