Developing a Fashion Commons

E.F. Schumacher said technology created by the capitalist system usually ends up benefiting the few at the expense of the many.1 It is too early to say if that will be true for the new manufacturing techniques for mass customisation of clothes, but the research suggests it may be.

The ethos of the commons could provide an alternative, but according to Amy Twigger Holroyd, author of Folk Fashion, the power of the fashion industry in the UK means “those who produce our clothes restrict our use of the fashion commons because they make many choices about what is available and, as dependent wearers without an independent means of production, most people can only choose from the options provided.”2 Consumers in the UK purchased 2 billion items of clothing in 20143 and at least 30% of sales in that year were from just 3 retailers: Primark, Asda and Marks and Spencer.4

The design theorist, John Wood, suggests a way to achieve a more sustainable future is to start imagining ‘micro-utopias’, which are scenarios far ahead in time that focus on one aspect of society rather than trying to get everything right. He says that by being visionaries we can build a future that would be considered impossible with a more limited, ‘realistic’ approach.5

A speculative design6 approach can be applied to imagining a commons based system for clothes making to see what an independent means of production would look like. By having a clear picture of a fully realised system of commons based clothes production, it may be possible to anticipate the impact of the technology.

And, if Schumacher is right, that “technologies by which small people can make themselves productive and relatively independent”, could be used to change the “system” that underlies consumerism7, it might give a glimpse as to how.

The Idea

This exercise imagines a complete system for automatic clothes production. It is based on the trend of personal fabrication, which is a form of distributed manufacturing, where citizens have “full agency and authority over both design and fabrication”.8

Using open source tech for DIY clothes making

It starts with a 3D body scan in a photo booth, where in a fraction of a second, dozens of tiny cameras take photos of the user from every angle, which are made into a 3D model.

In the next step the user puts on a virtual reality headset and sees their life-size 3D model and a display of possible clothes to select. The user decides whether to start with pattern ‘blanks’ to create their own designs from, or completed designs that they can alter.

Style suggestions can be offered using sophisticated algorithms to analyse current trends. This “provides reassurance that the item is desirable and appropriate” to counteract insecurity that the designs haven’t been ‘validated’ by professionals.9

When the user points at a garment or block pattern, the 3D model is instantly dressed in a perfectly fitting version of it and the user can walk around or spin the model.

Using visualisation techniques familiar to anyone who has used the Google Tilt Brush and the pattern adjusting capabilities of CLO3D software, the user makes all the changes they want. They can see exactly how they will look wearing the clothes before they are made. This includes adjustments such as rolling the sleeves up, and by instructing the model to sit or walk, the clothes will move with the degree of flexibility of the chosen material and can be viewed from all angles.

When the design is complete, it is sent to the clothes making machine. Un-dyed fabric, inks and threads combine to produce the colourful completed garments and 3D printing filament becomes buttons and zips.

Each stage of the automated process is optional, so as to not take away the opportunity for making by hand. For example the user may set the machine to cut and tack the garment, but then pause the process and do the sewing by hand, before returning the garment to the machine to add buttons and decorate with embroidery.

The Potential Impact

Relaxing whilst knitting

Automating DIY clothes production, replaces some of the handmade aspects with machines. Whilst many people may welcome a more time efficient way to make clothes, others value the physical nature of the hands-on approach and the relaxing quality of repetitive tasks. Although these machines could be developed with options for users to take back control of any parts of the process, some traditional skills could be lost.

Textiles Club at BuildBrighton

Having automatic clothes making machines in makerspaces could inspire a wider demographic to become members and encourage current members to take on textiles projects. A larger membership base paying regular subscriptions would make some makerspaces more economically secure and able to afford a wider choice of machines. Many makerspaces are well equipped with DIY tools for resistant materials and electronics, with machines that let beginners create professional quality objects. According to research data from Nesta, there is a lack of tools for clothes making beyond simple sewing machines10, but from my experience of co-founding a textiles club at BuildBrighton there is an interest in DIY clothes making.

To create the technology for this idea, it could involve many small initiatives, developing separate tools for each part of the process, such as the 3D Body Scanner developed at BuildBrighton and the Valentina Project for pattern creation. This is how early versions of open source 3D printers were developed. In the early days, the 3D models created in design software had to be opened and converted in two other software programs to prepare the code for the 3D printer, whereas now these processes are fully integrated.

  1. Shumacher, E.F., 1979. Good work. London: Cape
  2. Twigger Holroyd. H., 2017. Folk Fashion – Understanding Homemade Clothes. London: I.B.Tauris
  3. Euromonitor., 2015. Apparel and Footwear in the United Kingdom: Industry Overview. London: Euromonitor International.
  4. Felsted, A. 2014. Asda overtakes Marks and Spencer in clothing market. Financial Times. Available through: University of Brighton Library Site [Accessed 21 August 2017]
  5. Wood, J. 2007. Design for Micro-Utopias. Hampshire: Gower Publishing Limited
  6. Dunne, A. and Raby, F., 2013. Speculative Everything. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press and Auger, J., 2013. Speculative design: crafting the speculation. Digital Creativity. 24:1 pp.11-35
  7. Shumacher, E.F., 1979. Good work. London: Cape
  8. Kohtala, C., 2015. Addressing sustainability in research on distributed production: An integrated literature review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 106, pp.654-668
  9. Twigger Holroyd. H., 2017. Folk Fashion – Understanding Homemade Clothes. London: I.B.Tauris
  10. Sleigh, A., Stewart, H., and Stokes, K., 2015. Open dataset of UK makerspaces – identifiable data. Available at [Accessed 5 July 2017]