This article was originally published in the first-ever DPC Report 2022. For more on digital product creation in fashion, and other perspectives on the sustainability impact of digital fashion, download the full DPC Report 2022 completely free of charge and ungated.
[All images within this article have been provided by Cotton Incorporated.]
The past few years have accelerated the use of technology across various industries, with fashion and textiles being no exception. 3D software and digital product creation (DPC) are increasingly becoming standard in the fashion industry, and as a result, digital materials matter more than ever. The fabrics that make up our garments have always been a critical component of the design, development, and sourcing cycle, but the disruption of COVID placed a sudden, sharp emphasis on fashion’s ability to create using digital fabrics and to source physical materials reliably in a changed market.
Extending from design to product development, sampling and all the way downstream to ecommerce, digital product creation methods are transforming the fashion industry. As technology advances and the pressure to design and source materials quickly and responsibly increases, the demand for flexible digital materials that correspond to manufacturable fabrics is likely to grow. Considering the rapid transition towards large-scale digital product creation, the fashion industry faces new challenges in leveraging the capabilities of digital methods and materials while maintaining the connection to what is physically achievable.
Cotton Incorporated, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the research and promotion of cotton, is making the journey towards digital transformation alongside the industry and on track to provide solutions.
Adapting to changing industry requirements
The case for digital product creation was strong even pre-pandemic– with the mounting pressures of sustainability commitments, keeping costs low, and rapid speed to market expectations that burden the industry. Digital processes and 3D design offer significant benefits to saving time and resources, reducing waste and increasing efficiency. But adapting to the new, digital normal and finding ways to thrive often presents companies with a host of new problems to solve. As many in the industry are finding, the challenges of digital transformation are difficult to solve and often require brands to hire new talent, upskill existing workers and purchase expensive equipment and software. Even once those steps have been taken, digitalizing materials remains a pain point for the industry. The need to scan physical fabrics, complete time-consuming physical testing and communicate with mills at every step makes transitioning to digital processes a tall order. Although material scanning and physical testing offer a key advantage in maintaining accountability to the physical fabric, these processes come with significant logistical barriers. From a fiber perspective, Cotton Incorporated is committed to finding solutions that enable creative agency afforded by DPC while maintaining the connection to physical, manufacturable fabrics.
In addition to the practical realities of digital processes, there are also important cultural and creative challenges to successfully implementing DPC. Designers are key decision makers in the fashion industry, driving material selection and development. But rapid industry transformation is changing the way designers make those decisions. Digital and 3D design tools require different skills and ways of thinking, which can be challenging to accommodate in a fast-paced product cycle. As fewer samples are ordered for material selection and fewer prototypes are made for new styles, designers may not have as many opportunities to touch and feel fabrics during the design process. Making the case for cotton, a fiber often prized for its softness, could become more of a challenge in a world becoming increasingly digital. The challenge and opportunity for Cotton Incorporated to solve then becomes how they can ensure cotton remains available, attractive to designers and differentiated from other fiber types in a digital environment.
At every stage of the value chain, Cotton Incorporated funds research, provides education and offers resources to the industry to help companies develop superior, innovative and profitable cotton products. As a fiber, cotton offers many benefits: it’s breathable, durable and has a soft, comfortable handfeel that consumers love. Cotton is also a natural fiber which makes it an excellent choice for products in circular economies. Cotton Incorporated strives to persuade and support brands in their choice to use cotton in a market dominated by synthetic fibers, even as industry needs and practices are shifting in the digital age.
How Cotton Incorporated is shaping the future of DPC
One of Cotton Incorporated’s longstanding efforts has been to develop innovative, inspirational fabrics to show brands how they could be using cotton. They provide brands with all the information needed to manufacture those fabrics, which can then be taken into production. Each year, dozens of new fabrics are developed and released to the industry through the FABRICAST™ library, Cotton Incorporated’s collection of cotton and cotton-rich fabrics. Today, Cotton Incorporated can offer hundreds of these inspirational fabrics through the FABRICAST™ library, which is available on CottonWorks™, the leading industry resource for developing outstanding cotton products.
In answer to the fashion industry’s growing need for manufacturable digital materials, Cotton Incorporated began offering digital twins of their FABRICAST™ developments in 2020, enabling brands to experiment digitally with fabrics in addition to continuing to offer fabric swatches and manufacturing guides. The reasons behind this strategy are twofold. First, offering digital fabric files helps make cotton fabrics accessible to designers in the 3D tools that are increasingly becoming standard practice in product development. Meeting industry professionals wherever they are with information and resources has always been central to Cotton Incorporated’s core mission. Secondly, material digitalization can be costly, putting it out of reach of many smaller brands, independent designers, and students. Cotton Incorporated offers free access to inspirational, flexible digital fabrics, supporting those industry members and emerging professionals who want to work digitally but may not be able to shoulder the burden of creating digital materials.
Currently, digital fabrics are available in two formats compatible with CLO3D and Browzwear and are available for download with a free CottonWorks™, account. Digital fabrics in the FABRICAST™ library are high quality, scan-based versions of their physical counterparts, which have been tested for physical properties using the proprietary testing kits f rom each 3D software, respectively. Cotton Incorporated is proud to offer the first fiber-specific library of digital fabrics in the industry. Today, over 300 fabrics are available digitally from the FABRICAST™ library on cottonworks.com.
Building on this effort, Cotton then began exploring collaborations to make cotton available in the 3D tools designers are increasingly using. In 2021, they launched a collection of minimally processed fabrics in collaboration with Browzwear. The collection of over 25 fabrics is available directly in VStitcher as a material library, with the aim of making fabric options processed in sustainable ways easily accessible to designers. More recently, Cotton Incorporated expanded their research efforts into alternative solutions to digital material creation. In collaboration with Adobe Substance, a leading toolset for 3D design and material authoring, the companies explored different ways of creating and working with digital materials. This pilot project, presented earlier this year in a workshop with The Interline, investigated the application of the cutting- edge Adobe Substance tools to fabrics that could be manufacturable. These tools were created for digital industries, such as gaming and animation, but could also benefit the fashion industry as it moves into greater maturity with digital product creation and increased use of digital assets.
Exploring digital-for-digital tools for digital-to-physical purposes
Industries that rely heavily on digital assets such as gaming, animation and visual effects have faced similar challenges of scalability with the creation of realistic digital materials and have produced digital tools and workflows to help meet that demand. Unlike the fashion industry, which uses digital processes to produce products that are ultimately physical, the gaming and animating industries create materials and models that will only ever be digital. Consequently, the tools and processes used in these industries are designed for maximum creativity and flexibility. Among these processes is procedural creation, which enable designers to create materials and models that are almost infinitely editable, in a completely digital way. A simple way to describe procedural creation is like building a visual algorithm, which generates the appearance of a material using a network of individual characteristics.
Scalability, flexibility and efficiency are some of the key benefits to working procedurally because materials generated in this way can go beyond just a digital twin; they become digital tools which can represent many different versions of a material and allow designers to experiment with materials at a level that scanning processes cannot match. Although procedural generation comes with challenges and concerns of its own, the requirements for extending the uses of digital assets more fully into both the supply chain and consumer-facing applications will likely involve the fashion industry learning to adapt these kinds of digital-for-digital tools for digital-to-physical purposes. Even though solutions may be years from realization, Cotton Incorporated is nonetheless continuing to investigate the possibilities alongside their existing efforts in DPC.
Finding success in the new digital and physical ecosystem
Currently, the two areas of digital and physical product creation mainly exist as separate areas of expertise. Professionals immersed in DPC and 3D design often aren’t as well versed in the realities of manufacturing and vice versa. In the new digital era, some merging of the two could become a requirement for success for many businesses. In the fashion industry, where digital methods are being used to facilitate the production of physical goods, solutions will inevitably require hybrid techniques merging the digital with the physical. From Cotton Incorporated’s perspective, the possible reconciliation between digital tools and physical creations is three-pronged: bringing together digital and physical expertise, gaining knowledge about how digital and physical samples and products intersect and embracing the cultural shift of open-mindedness and curiosity towards both perspectives.
As the industry changes, it is important that businesses not only keep up, but stay ahead of expectations. To this end, Cotton Incorporated continues to develop innovative and inspirational fabrics to help brands imagine how they could be using cotton and supports the industry in finding success in the hybrid model of physical and digital ways of working. To learn more about Cotton Incorporated’s efforts in DPC, visit us on CottonWorks™.