How Do You 3-D Print Fabrics Anyway?

In 2009 Akkersdijk started experimenting with circular knitting machines, the tools that allow designers to create socks featuring mustaches, mushrooms, and emus and realized that by hacking the software that powered these devices, dimensional fabrics could be produced. He rigged the machines to knit two layers of fine cotton thread so that they would envelope a coarser, synthetic fiber that puffs up when steamed. Over time, he worked out how to essentially print complete garments and by 2011 his designs, which look a bit like wearable quilts, were on the runway at Fashion Week in Paris under the ByBorre label.

The BB.Suit made its debut at SXSW and broadcast its location, encouraging musicians to upload their music to a special website via its Wifi connection. Photo: ByBorre

Not content with simply seeing his designs on the catwalk, Akkersdijk pushed the machines even further adding conductive thread to the mix. As a proof of concept, he printed a pillow with copper threads connecting pressure sensors, a battery pack, and vibrating motors which was intended to allow people suffering from dementia to communicate with loved ones. The pillow’s actual medical benefits weren’t clear, but the experiment emboldened Akkersdijk to pursue a fully wearable design.

“The funny thing is that I personally didn’t have the feeling that it was so innovative,” says Akkersdijk . “We have been working with the 3-D knitting for years now and the technical part was pretty basic.”

Time for a Manufacturing Make Over

Producing these clothes, even in small batches, is difficult due to the difference in traditional fibers and the conductive copper. Ensuring that the conductive yarns and delicate chips can hold up to vigorous use is another challenge to be overcome, as are circuit boards that can withstand a spin cycle.

Today, the ByBorre crew is housed in an old cookie factory in Amsterdam where Akkersdijk and his studio director work with a series of technicians to push these machines to their limits in an attempt to marry garments and Google. Their goal is continue to build out a platform related to the textiles, to become a kind of Maharam for microprocessors, and work with larger tech companies on apps to develop the app layer.

There’s a double challenge of convincing fashionistas and techies to buy in, but Akkersdijk is confident that clothing and connectivity are meant to be together. “In the future it could be as normal as your cell phone and we will talk about the iPhone like we do about the fax machine.”