Time. Time is a precious commodity. As we advance deeper into the digital world, we want things done faster and faster. And yet, we don’t seem to be properly taking stock of time in the fashion world.

This has become more apparent with the extreme disruption to our supply chains caused by Covid-19. This new crisis has revealed that the fashion industry has been doing things in the ‘old-fashioned’ way for too long, simply because that’s “just the way things have always been”.

At the same time, there are positive steps being taken with new, innovative technologies – solutions designed to help us save time and be more sustainable and creative, whilst at the same time improving quality. All of which is bringing a new sense of hope to the parts of the industry that embrace the idea of doing things differently.

The development and sampling process continues to see a much-needed introduction of advanced 3D design and visualization solutions, allowing brands to engineer and present their products almost instantly within their organizations and across the manufacturing value-chains.  And of course, their latest virtual-twins can then be shared with their customers online.

Developments in hardware and software are also enabling designers and brands to visualize their products with extreme photorealism. We only have to look at the advances made by companies like Nvidia and AMD, and platforms like Unreal and Unity, to know that soon we will not be able to tell whether the image on a screen is of a real or computer-generated fashion item.  For more rigid products, like bags and shoes, the CG is already indistinguishable from the real.

One of the major goals of 3D adoption is to reduce the number of sample iterations.  Without 3D, it is estimated that it takes on average six samples to every sealed garment, the ultimate goal should be to reduce this to just one! Already, several leading brands have achieved this target and others are striving to emulate the leaders.  Not everyone can take this big a step, though; be realistic when setting your objectives, at the early stage of your digital journey a 50% reduction in the number of physical samples could be considered as a good result.

3D software and digital material visualization platforms have, as a result of being more widely used than ever, substantially cut down the number of samples that need to be made, and will continue to do so as more businesses shift their processes to digital. 3D samples are, therefore, a must in any modern brand’s digital tool kit, with huge potential to usher in a new age of more sustainable design and development.

But I don’t believe 3D can, or should, go all the way to completely eliminating physical samples.  So, what’s missing?

Color and feel, for one thing. There is no substitute for the real product when it comes to hand-feel and judgment by eye, and as widely as 3D is being adopted, we will still need at least that one physical sample before we reach final decisions on materials, components, colors, production methods and final quality.

If we consider color alone, some of the deficiencies of a purely digital sampling workflow become clear.  It is extremely difficult to represent color correctly on a monitor, where even a well-calibrated one in a controlled environment will still have inaccuracies that actually looking at a physical sample in the same environment will not. A digital representation cannot truly match the real thing for a variety of reasons. All materials behave differently to touch, depth of pile, thickness, color absorbency, but especially to different light sources.

As samples will need to be as close to the final product as possible, the thread used to sew, knit and embroider the items will need to be accurate in color. Often today, poor color substitutes are used to avoid the extra time and cost with the result of lower quality goods coming to market.  

Judging color is also subjective. Think of all the time and stress spent on the issue of color accuracy of sample swatches, and how many corrections are needed to be made as a result. For brands to confidently issue final color and material approval, the right decision-maker is still going to need to hold the physical sample in their hands.

But this does not mean producing that sample the old-fashioned way.

Color = Time

The gap between the real and virtual worlds of sample and short-run production is being bridged by new digital manufacturing tools. Today, brands have a choice of digital manufacturing technologies such as flat and circular knitting machines, direct to garment and fabric digital printing, and digitally connected NC-Cutting machines – all of which can speed the process of creating and producing on-demand items.

But one of the most overlooked and basic components in fashion – and in sample production – is thread. The time consumed managing thread is greatly undervalued, because again that’s “just the way things are”. It has become accepted that thread dyeing is a slow, bulky analog process. We have come to accept that thread suppliers should have long delivery times and large minimum orders.

Time spent on designing has been cut down using new mediums like 2D & 3D.  Time spent physically cutting markers has been slashed by the introduction of digital NC-cutting machines that can reduce operations from hours to minutes. But we are still waiting for the dyed-to-matched thread to arrive from suppliers, which we hope has been accurately color matched.

With thread delivery timelines now approaching three weeks on average, supply-chain manufacturers are encountering serious bottlenecks.  And this same delay is making it difficult for brands to properly quantify the time and cost of thread in their bills of materials or critical path.

But how much of this can we actually change?  Using digital thread dyeing methods, the answer is essentially all of it.  In a future on-demand world the cost of thread, including the time taken to deliver, can be factored into the overall cost of the critical path workflow process. And at the same time, thread calculation software can provide an accurate usage against the total order size, along with the cost of thread wastage – which currently sits at around 70% of all sample thread being left unused, and then being disposed of.

Enter Twine Solutions’ digital thread dyeing technology. It dyes white thread in any color, on-demand, ready for immediate use, complimenting the other digital tools mentioned.  Digital, on-demand thread dyeing also substantially speeds up the sampling and development process, with the right amount of thread placed onto each cone for each operator, ensuring that lines can be balanced and wastage kept to the absolute bare minimum.

To understand the speed and efficiencies benefits this unlocks, consider a knitted sports shoe. The sample for this shoe can already be designed in record time using a 3D software solution. But the designer and product developers will want to produce several final, physical samples in different colors and shades to look at under real light conditions.

The impact the different approaches to thread production can have is stark:

Using digital thread dyeing, the brand can save a further week at least, depending on their sourcing capabilities. A shoe upper also only needs about 12 to 15 grams’ worth of thread, and while traditional thread sourcing would mean a bulk order, a Twine system can dye such small quantities in less than 30 minutes – accurately matched to the main product materials. All the brand would need is to stock white thread.

Because it is digital, designers can select any color and dye thread samples within minutes, enabling them to be more decisive about their color choices and the number of samples they need to produce. Once colors and designs have been finalized, color swatches using the correct thread type can be produced in-house and if bulk is required the DTM digital files can be sent to the dye houses for bulk dyeing. So, the brand is actually producing its own lab dips.

Replace the word shoe with socks, or dress, or jacket, or sports bra – the same principles apply, so the amount of time saved will be the same or very similar in relative terms.  And it’s worth keeping in mind that this process is not only for samples but also for small-run productions, which are likely to become the new normal for retailers and brands as the need for need product intensifies because of post-pandemic reopening.

Imagine now that a brand’s innovation center and its manufacturers all have Twine systems. Being digital, they can share files no matter where they are geographically, reducing the time spent to ensure color accuracy and sample quality also at the manufacturing sites. No more postal deliveries, with much less management needed.

Time = Money

Providers of digital technologies understand the hesitation and fear fashion brands and manufacturers have of investing in their solutions. The comfort of doing things in the way they know and understand, and have always been done, provides a sense of security. The direct costs of a new technology are visible and can be evaluated immediately.  The tension between the two is the reason that even the most revolutionary technologies don’t always take off.

What is less visible to most are the ongoing, recurring costs of not going digital. By not accounting for all the time spent waiting for materials (three weeks versus thirty minutes) the added wastage factor on product development and sample preparations, the fashion world is allowing itself to waste that most precious commodity – Time.

The COVID-19 crisis and the ongoing unrest are already changing the conversations around how we use our personal and professional time.  The fashion industry needs to be more agile by looking at all the digital technologies available, and combine them to bring about a more sustainable industry.

About the sponsor: Twine Solutions has developed a digital thread dyeing technology that dyes white polyester thread in any color and on-demand, ready for immediate use, for sewing, knitting and embroidery. The dyeing process is waterless and sustainable.