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3D Printed Clothes Are Hitting the Runway, and Then Your Closet

Designer Danit Peleg wants to make sure wearing 3D printed clothes isn’t just for celebrities

by Meredith Rutland Bauer
Aug 16 2016, 2:00pm

3D printed clothes. Image: Daria Ratiner

Fashion student Danit Peleg was always drawn to the latest gadgets. Laser cutting, screen printing—if it's cutting edge, she's cutting it and stitching it together. So she said it seemed natural that she'd be among the of the first wave of designers to use 3D printing to make fabric.

Using mostly elastic material, the Tel Aviv-based fashion designer created a full line of 3D printed clothing from her living room for a college project. Her TED talk on the project in 2015 turned her into a quasi-ambassador for practical 3D printing in the fashion world, she said.

No more shopping for bolts of fabric. No searching for quotes from production companies. Just click and print—plus lots of waiting. She said it took 300 hours to print one dress last year. "Now I can create a dress in just 100 hours," she told Motherboard, elated that her new Witbox 2 printer was faster. "Next year, we will probably be able to print a dress in 50 hours."

A 3D printed outfit designed by Peleg. Image: Daria Ratiner

Peleg is among a host of designers who have jumped into the world of 3D printing. Her designs use flexible printing material FilaFlex and a WitBox 2, which prints swaths of fabric that she glues together with a strong superglue. She said her designs are pre-measured so she doesn't have to cut any fabric.

FilaFlex is different from the traditional PLA filament used in popular home 3D printers like MakerBot. PLA and other similar materials essentially become hard plastic, which means the wearer can't bend down, sit or walk too quickly. If they do, they risk breaking the fabric and baring more skin than they'd planned.

But FilaFlex is elastic. It stretches and contracts—and is decently comfortable, Peleg said. "All the models, when they're looking at this on the hanger, they're thinking it's going to be stiff and strong, and when they put it on they really like it."

It's made by 3D printing material manufacturer Recreus, who features Peleg's designs on their homepage, and is comprised of a thermoplastic elastomer with a polyurethane base. The material is similar to rubber in structure, but adapted so 3D printer extruders can melt and place the plastic. One major downside: It doesn't wash well in washing machines, so Peleg washes all her 3D printed clothes in the dishwasher.

Some designers use different methods, she said, such as industrial printers that build up a dress into one printed piece—an expensive endeavor mostly used for art pieces and celebrity fashion.

The trend was recently on display at this year's Met Gala in May, including a Peter Pilotto piece with 3D printed flowers worn by actress Allison Williams of "Girls" and an Atelier Versace dress worn by actress Kate Hudson.

A more extreme example is designer Iris van Herpen's 3D printed dress and performance art piece where robotic arms printed a dress directly onto "Game of Thrones" actress Gwendoline Christie's body during a fashion show. Van Herpen's 3D printed dresses—such as one creation that looks like contorted rib bones—are among the pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology exhibit, which opened after the annual fundraising gala.

"It'll be pretty common for you to print your own T-shirt," Peleg said.

A 2014 fashion show—appropriately named the 3D PrintShow—included a catwalk of these designs. There were bridal-like lace dress, a sculptural skeleton headpiece, and porous bracelets. One dress called inBloom took 450 hours to print on a desktop 3D printer and cost $103 in filament, the designers said on their website.

Show organizers said the event has since been revised to focus more on engineering and manufacturing pursuits within the 3D printing industry. And while haute fashion has already caught on to the 3D printing trend, Peleg sees it as a tool that can be used by regular consumers one day. "It'll be pretty common for you to print your own T-shirt," she said.

Companies have mused over the idea of one day being able to download their products into your living room. Last year, Nike Chief Operating Officer Eric Sprunk mentioned at a GeekWire conference talk that printing a custom shoe at a Nike store or at home—with caveats about intellectual property restrictions—was "not that far away." But for the most part, 3D printing has so far remained confined to the world of industrial manufacturing.

A 3D printed dress made by Peleg. Image: Daria Ratiner

Right now, Peleg's production is limited to her own home machine, but she said she's working on a way to put her designs on an open source software so other people can print her creations. "I love the idea that I might be able to send my friends dresses using email," said Peleg, who graduated from Shenkar college in Israel.

It may be a while until 3D printers can pump out items like cotton or synthetic leather, but Peleg said she believes it's possible. Until then, she's hoping to help build the community of 3D printing within fashion to see where the technology takes them.

"The only limitation is your imagination, so for young designers and creative people there is a world of opportunities right now," she said.