Software for Industrial Knitting Machines Turns Out Made-to-Order Designer Sweaters and Scarves

Unmade Studio aims to revolutionize the knitted fabrics industry

1 July 2016

Imagine you, the customer, being able to design a cashmere sweater in your favorite colors and patterns at a price comparable to a mass-produced item, and it’s at your door in a few days. That’s the idea behind Unmade Studio’s suite of software for industrial knitting machines.

Unmade’s software treats garments as digital files to be modified, letting customers change colors and patterns. But each piece is manufactured only after the shopper places the order.

The London company recently partnered with several large fashion brands and retailers to let their customers create custom-made pieces. The software is expected to help the brands speed their time to market, offer a greater variety of garments, and enable them to sell items specific to their customers—all without the need to warehouse any clothes. T-shirts, dresses, and socks would be included, as well as sweaters, scarves, hats, and gloves.

“Not only do we want to improve the efficiency of the process, but we want to create high-quality products as well,” says cofounder Ben Alun-Jones, who has a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Imperial College of London and another in industrial design from the city’s Royal College of Art.

“We’re enabling a new approach to design and production, where everything is made to order and the customer is involved in the process,” he continues. “This should be the norm, but it became clear when we were first developing our software that everyone thought it was crazy.”

Alun-Jones launched Unmade Studio in 2013 with Kirsty Emery and Hal Watts. The three met at the Royal College of Art, where they studied design. Alun-Jones discussed the firm’s digital manufacturing process at the Web Summit in November, which IEEE representatives attended.

A TAILOR-MADE APPROACH

The software that runs today’s digital industrial knitting machines is incredibly complex, Alun-Jones points out, including files for computer-aided design (CAD), graphic images, and multicolor processing. A sweater with different colors, such as one with, say, an image of a flower, can take hours to program. Clothing companies usually order at least 50 pieces of the same style to make economic sense—which limits their offerings.

 “When we saw one of these knitting machines for the first time, we realized we could use software to knit a custom garment from the raw material with almost no waste,” Alun-Jones says. And if everything were made to order, there would no overstock. Typically, he explains, about 10 percent of clothing made today is never sold and winds up in a landfill.

“There’s no reason why the machines couldn’t produce clothing in a style to fit every individual customer,” Alun-Jones says, “except the software to do that didn’t exist.”

Unmade has written the first stitch-by-stitch mathematical model, and has built software tools to work with existing CAD systems. The files contain the full instructions for knitting an item of clothing on a customized knitting machine. The software generates a code to knit the specific garment. Knitting can be done with any yarn, including acrylic, cotton, or viscose, wool, or blend. Only the stitching is limited because industrial knitting machines stick to the basics: knit, tuck, split, miss, drop, and stack.

“We combined seemingly impossible and contradictory ideas about producing made-to-order pieces of knitwear for about the same cost of an industrially manufactured piece,” Alun-Jones says. “The machine files can be generated automatically without expert programmer time or human intervention.”

CUSTOM CLOTHING

To demonstrate its made-to-order approach, the Unmade team built a website that lets a shopper select a color or combinations of colors, geometric patterns, and materials like Merino wool, Pima cotton, or cashmere. Then the consumer can customize, say, a sweater or scarf designed by a number of fashion designers from Canada, Europe, and the United Kingdom. The clothing label carries the Unmade name and the designer’s name. In May, Unmade launched a line of customizable cotton T-shirts and is working on offering additional garments.

“What we’re doing is fundamentally different because we don’t hold any garments in stock,” Alun-Jones says. “We just stock the raw material for making the items ordered and sold directly to the customer.”

Customers can rearrange a pattern on an item by dragging the cursor over its image. They can view their design on a human-like model, made possible by realistic visualization technology developed by Unmade. Shoppers can see what the garment will look like from the front and back as well as from each side, thanks to the company’s patented graphics software. They get a “complete and accurate view of what will come out of the knitting machine,” Alun-Jones says, adding that, “every pixel on a garment is directly translated, one to one, to the stitches.”

Sweaters now sell for between £90 and £120 (US $117 and $156); and scarves and T-shirts are priced at £60 ($76). Alun-Jones acknowledges this is a bit pricey, but he expects prices will drop now that Unmade has partnered with factories in the United Kingdom and Italy to handle production. The factories will receive orders directly from the company’s cloud platform, he says. Unmade also recently signed agreements with several large brands and retailers, whose names Alun-Jones can’t disclose yet.

“We have higher costs than if we were making garments in China or Bangladesh, but we are using the same machines as those factories do, so there’s no reason why, with scale, we can’t reduce our prices,” he says.

An Unmade Studio piece arrives in 5 to 10 days, depending on the item and material used. This fast turnaround is the result of a queuing system the company developed for mixing types of garments coming off a machine. The company can produce, for example, a blue-and-white scarf, a white-and-yellow sweater, and a yellow-and-black T-shirt all in the same run. Currently Unmade offers up to three colors per item, but the maximum for knitting machines is 64 colors.

Unmade’s approach eliminates upfront design and sample costs to make sure the machine is set up properly; the software gets each garment right the first time. And there’s no need for clothing prototypes.

 “We’re probably going to stick with knitwear for a while,” Alun-Jones says, “but the approaches we’re developing are generic and can be applied to any fashion manufacturing process.

 “We believe putting customers back into the process of manufacturing means they will also feel greater attachment to the products they buy and, hopefully, will want to keep them longer and not throw them away.”

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