Starting this month, not-for-profit industry body Cotton Incorporated will start offering cotton-based materials that are born digital – ready to use in leading 3D simulation platforms from the moment their recipes are made available to brands and their supply chain partners. As the first fiber to digitize at the source, cotton could now lead the way for a new model of digital material creation and use.
Join us as we consider what this means for future of digital materials and 3D product creation as a whole.
The drive for digital product creation
The fashion and textile industries are always pursuing efficiency. Every garment, every shoe, and every accessory is a chance for improvement. A new opportunity to shave cents off the unit cost. Another shot at optimizing full price sell-through rates. A fresh chance to build in better margins for the brand and to create leaner processes and automations for the manufacturer.
But as well as those iterative improvements, the last few years have seen several big step changes that have come about thanks to technology. And the one that’s captured the most attention is the use of 3D software – in design, technical development, fit, sampling, and in customer-facing product visualization.
The benefits of replacing physical product samples with 3D renders were clear even before COVID-19. A digital sample does not need shipping from one continent to another by air or by sea; it’s instantly available. A render doesn’t waste any real material or labor. And designers can produce more 3D prototypes, and experiment with more ideas, than they ever could when they were reliant on physical samples alone.
All of these sources of value have also assumed a new, heightened importance since the pandemic severed supply chains. The need to cut cost and waste, improve margins, and get to market quicker is more pronounced than ever before. This has made the work of brands like Deckers, Target, and other members of the 3D Retail Coalition, who work to help others realize the value of 3D, vital.
But just as physical samples require at least some yardage of real fabrics, 3D samples need to be put together from digital materials. And those digital materials need to accurately correspond – in form and function – to the real fabrics that will later be used to create the finished product.
Digital fabrics, from digital fibers
The key to a successful digital production creation workflow is having a virtual sample that can stand in for a physical sample in every way that counts. From fit to color accuracy, a 3D render of a garment should behave the same way as a physical one would if it’s to serve the same purpose. Achieving this hinges on three pillars: having a digital avatar that is size-appropriate for the target consumer; having an underlying 2D pattern that has been adjusted to fit that avatar; and having a digital material that behaves the same way as the material the designer intends to use to create the final article.
These are the three tools that designers and technical designers need at their disposal to successfully move from relying on physical samples to being able to make confident, accurate decisions based on digital alternatives.
“Using 3D technology, designers and developers can discover new, innovative products because they are able to iterate multiple versions in a single day – even from different locations. By using 3D technology, they can focus attention on exploring unknown design concepts in very little time, and using no physical materials, until they are ready to produce a physical sample, which will likely be right first time,” says Krista Schreiber, a leading digital supply chain consultant.
But where do these three essentials come from? Digital avatars can be bought off-the-shelf or custom designed. Accurate 2D patterns come from the patternmaker’s craft, with some level of automation in grading. But digital materials that are reliable, accurate representations of real materials can be a little harder to source.
The mills you work with already are probably not equipped with high-fidelity material scanners, which are necessary to capture the right characteristics to make sure the digital versions drape, move, and generally behave accurately.
In lieu of material trade shows – whose futures are uncertain – this is a problem that intermediary digital material platforms are working to overcome retroactively, by working with mills to digitize their catalogs. But this process is working backwards, making it time-consuming, and it is also supplier-specific, as well as requiring the brand to go through a third party. From a designer’s point of view, there is therefore no guarantee that a digital material platform will be host to what they want – whether it’s a core fabric construction for an essential garment, or something more complex.
The vision, though, is clear: digital materials are an essential component of any digital workflow, as Krista Schreiber explains: “The digital ecosystem will be complete when materials and factory production processes are in digital form to complement the great progress made on 3D design and fit. This will make the entire process digitally fluid, saving time, effort and waste for brands and suppliers while providing a gold mine of data.”
A more direct approach, then, is for fabrics to be born digital. For every new construction and composition, a digital file – compatible with the leading 3D and digital product creation tools – would be created at the same time, giving designers access to a guaranteed 1:1 replica in non-proprietary way, not tied to a single mill or platform.
This is the approach that the not-for-profit company Cotton Incorporated has taken, digitizing a range of strategically-chosen cotton and cotton-rich fabrics from their thousands-strong FABRICAST™ library at source. Created by Cotton Incorporated’s product development team, and constantly updated according to trend forecasts, the FABRICAST™ library has long been a source of inspiration for brands like Under Armour and Eddie Bauer, who leverage cotton for both its classic potential and its role in innovative and technical applications.
Beginning this month, key new and pre-existing fabrications from the FABRICAST™ library will be accompanied by digital files suitable for use in CLO and Browzwear 3D solutions. This means that designers will be able to discover new cotton-based materials, select them, and pull their digital representations down for use in their product lines – safe in the knowledge that the simulation will be absolutely accurate to the real fabric recipe, which can then be given to a chosen mill to produce.
This is unique because cotton is, The Interline believes, the first fiber to be digitized at the source. And as the material most synonymous with the history of the apparel and textile industry, the implications for the future of digital materials as a whole are significant.
Cotton: from long legacy to leading the way
If any material was to be born digital, cotton deserves the treatment. A natural, sustainable fiber (if carefully cultivated and harvested), cotton’s legacy is bound to the legacy of fashion itself. From easy-to-wear essentials to high-count luxurious textiles for the bed and the home, cotton fibers are part of every segment of the textile spectrum.
“Designers and product developers are always searching for ideas and inspiration, and Cotton Incorporated provides fabrics and trend research to assist in that search,” says Mark Messura, Senior Vice President of global supply chain marketing at Cotton Incorporated. “By offering free downloadable 3D digital cotton fabrics, the search, as well as the creative exploration of product ideas, becomes so much easier. This leading-edge innovative offering through cottonworks.com continues our company’s tradition of supporting the industry through innovation.”
Today, cotton fibers and finishes have a dizzying range of applications. Cotton can be stretchy, water-repellent, moisture-wicking, wrinkle-free, abrasion-resistant, infused with antimicrobial treatments, and reinforced to meet a host of different performance and safety standards. Across wovens and knits, and different finishes and dyes, cotton fabrics are omnipresent in every product category from jeans to demanding sports and outdoor garments.
As a result, designers find themselves searching for cotton-based materials whether they’re working on childrenswear or casual basics, athleisure or high fashion. And they are, therefore, going to have the same level of demand in their digital product creation workflows. The need for cotton is universal.
Attempting to digitize the sheer volume of cotton fabrics in circulation – and the quantity of new fabrics being introduced each season – retroactively would overwhelm the current digital material creation process. But by the same logic, having new cotton fabrics be born digital – as a scientific recipe and a 3D material file at the same time – stands to have an impact larger than any other material type.
If cotton is everywhere, then digital-native cotton being everywhere could herald a fundamental shift in the industry’s approach to digital materials in general.
And that’s before we consider the compounded benefits of both digital sampling and cotton itself on circularity and sustainability. It’s well established by this point that replacing physical samples with digital alternatives cuts carbon from shipping, eliminates water, energy, and chemical waste, and impacts other key sustainability metrics – assuming the digital sample is accurate enough to stand in for its physical counterpart in every way. But cotton itself has excellent sustainability credentials compared to synthetic materials – from biodegradability to low-impact processing and even the creation of bio-synthetic dyes from the byproducts of cotton harvesting.
One fabric, many futures
As the force driving the digitization of cotton, and therefore defining the model for creating digital materials at source, a great deal of responsibility now falls on Cotton Incorporated. Fortunately, a constant flow of new fabrics, designer collaborations, and further software and supplier collaborations are all on the horizon for the FABRICAST™ collections featured on cottonworks.com – all informed by brand and retail feedback as well as emerging market trends.
Where cotton leads, other natural and synthetic fibers could now follow, creating fabrics that are born digital, and that enable fashion and textile businesses to make creative decisions with confidence. Rather than an iteration, cotton’s rebirth as a digital-native material could be the next step change the industry needs.
About the sponsor: CottonWorks™ is your go-to textile tool for discovering what’s possible with cotton. From fiber and manufacturing education to sustainability facts to fabric inspiration and trend forecasting, cottonworks.com has the information you need to stay in motion. Questions? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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