3D-Printed Clothing and Woven Designs Bring Zero-Waste Future

  • The fashion industry has a major problem when it comes to sustainability.
  • Overproduced garments and accessories often end up in landfills, exacerbating the climate crisis.
  • But 3D manufacturing, including printing and weaving, is helping create a zero-waste future.
  • This article is part of “Build IT,” a series about digital tech and innovation trends that are disrupting industries.

In the late 1990s, the designer Issey Miyake unleashed his game-changing A-POC project, an early attempt at zero-waste fashion.

The process involved feeding a single piece of thread into an industrial weaving machine, programmed to spin an enormous, continuous tube of fabric. Wielding fabric scissors, buyers could then slice the hemline however they wanted. The innovative project used tech to reduce textile waste, an approach that nodded to sustainability before it was even within fashion’s vocabulary.

Decades later, a lot has changed. The climate crisis continues to worsen, yet the fashion industry at large still struggles to harness tech’s potential to build a more sustainable future.

But there are glimmers of hope. Existing innovations are being fine-tuned daily, and creators are dreaming up ways to turn zero-waste fashion from a utopian dream into a reality.

Leading the pack is Unspun, a California startup whose business model centers on 3D-weaving technology, on-demand manufacturing, and at-home body scanning. The company’s business model is multipronged, but its core mission is to “find the intersection between profitability and sustainability,” Kevin Martin, the company’s cofounder and chief technology officer, told Insider.

Kevin Martin headshot

Kevin Martin, a cofounder and the chief technology officer of Unspun.

Ashley Batz/Unspun



The company is developing its Vega 3D-weaving tech, which weaves yarn quickly and directly into clothing, streamlining complex and carbon-heavy manufacturing processes. Perfecting this tech would allow for quick, cheap, and, perhaps, zero-waste manufacturing. In the meantime, Unspun is offering on-demand, custom jeans for customers, all made in the company’s Oakland microfactory.

The denim options are genderless — “we make jeans for humans,” Martin said — and can be created for any size, a key selling point given the fashion industry’s lack of size inclusivity. Just place an order, and you’ll be offered the chance to scan your body. It’s this component that majorly cuts down on waste — the company is so confident that it offers a 100% fit guarantee.

unspun cofounders look at denim material used in 3D weaving machine

Esponnette, Lam, and Martin aim to address fashion’s waste problem, which is compounded by overproduction and disposability.

Ashley Batz/Unspun



Fashion has a huge problem with inventory destruction, and many returned garments end up in landfills. By contrast, Martin said Unspun had a return rate of about 10% and that returned items could be swatched for future buyers or used to create pattern samples. The jeans are expensive, at $200 a pop, but Martin is optimistic that 3D weaving will allow for production automation, which would make products much cheaper.

To body-scan, customers need to have an iPhone with FaceID. They then use Unspun’s app and their phone’s camera to capture themselves doing a 360-degree spin. As this happens, according to the company’s website, the phone projects over 30,000 dots of infrared light onto a user’s body using the FaceID feature.

“Our tech then stitches all these depth maps together to create a hyper-accurate 3D body model — completely unique to you,” the site says.

Once Unspun receives this data from customers, Martin said, “we can see their model, their order details, and the material they’ve chosen.” He added: “We take that information and create a pattern set, which is then modified through virtual tailoring.” 

Even with sophisticated tech, there are barriers to the perfect fit, and body scanning comes with hiccups: Anything from poor lighting that might cause inaccuracies to a simple change of heart could lead to a return. To reach zero waste, “we need to think about recyclability and other ways of getting the perfect fit,” Martin added, such as analyzing the fit of past orders to create measurement profiles.

3D weaving machine

According to Unspun’s website, the company’s Vega 3D-weaving tech cuts production lead times from nine months to two days.

Ashley Batz/Unspun



Another option is to strive for zero-waste production. About eight years ago, Anupama Pasricha — St. Catherine University’s interim dean for its business school and the former department chair of apparel, merchandising, and design — spent a summer alongside one of her students learning 3D-printing software, modifying designs until they could be created with zero waste.

There’s plenty of software on offer; in Pasricha’s joint study, she and other researchers used Tinkercad to generate the designs, Rhino 5 to layer them, and MakerBot Replicator 2 to print. It’s worth noting there’s even more software out there now, allowing for extensive customization. 

They achieved their goal of 3D-printing designs but only through strict limitations.

“You have to make sure the bottom of the design is a flat surface,” Pasricha said.

Designs are often built through multiple components: If there’s a flat base to the design’s foundation, it eradicates any need to build supports, which would later be discarded.

Pasricha added: “Then you have to consider the size of the printer, and you have to learn the software — if you want sophisticated designs, you need a high level of engineering knowledge.”

Despite these restrictions, Pasricha’s designs were proof that zero-waste 3D printing was possible, especially with small designs such as buttons and jewelry. In fact, one of her students later bought a 3D printer and managed to create “bold, chunky statement pieces” as part of an internship for a local jewelry designer, Pasricha said.

With fashion design more broadly, working within these boundaries can be tough. While a handful of people, most notably Iris van Herpen, have built signature aesthetics around 3D printing, this requires immense creativity and engineering proficiency, plus a willingness to work with unconventional textiles such as plant-based polymers. 

But Pasricha is adamant that investors can’t treat sustainability as optional, especially if carbon taxes require businesses to account for their carbon footprints.

“The bottom line is the profit margin for these corporations, but if companies explored sustainability in its entirety, companies would realize it actually saves them money.”

These savings might be in the form of consumer and employee retention, less money spent on returns and destroying unsold inventory, or partial automation. Unspun’s 3D-weaving software is in the process of being perfected, but Martin lauds its potential for efficiency. 

Unspun's 3D weaving machine weaving threads together

Unspun’s Vega tech reduces the number of steps in the supply-chain process.

Ashley Batz/Unspun



“You’re working with thousands of yarns at the same time,” he said, “which means you can really streamline these complex production processes.”

Fine-tuning this tech creates the potential for flawless, automated pattern cutting, Martin said — the kind that eradicates waste at every step.

It’ll take a lot of experimentation — and wasted prototypes — to get there, but Martin remains optimistic, especially as on-demand manufacturing may also mean that no excess clothes are produced.

“The industry burns so much inventory — it’s crazy,” Martin said. “That’s because sizing is hard, and brands place orders months ahead of time.”

On-demand manufacturing would slash this waste by creating only what’s being bought.

The tech isn’t there yet to ensure a zero-waste fashion industry, for various reasons. The 3D-printing method can be zero waste, especially as the commonly used, plant-based polylactic-acid filament is recyclable, but finding somewhere to recycle it requires a specialized hunt. And 3D-weaving tech is still being tweaked and streamlined for mass production. In the meantime, on-demand manufacturing is costly for producers and consumers.

But in the eyes of experts like Martin and Pasricha, these aren’t just problems to be solved. They’re necessary for the future-proofing of businesses, especially if policies such as carbon taxes are introduced widely. 

There are kinks to be worked out, but Martin is adamant that sustainability yields better results.

“If our goal is to make an impact, we can’t just make” a worse version of something that already exists, he said, adding: “It needs to be the better thing that just so happens to be sustainable.”

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