Unraveling fast fashion at the seams
In the 200 or so years since its invention, the sewing machine has not changed much in either function or form. The assembly stage of clothing production still typically takes place on human-operated sewing machines, often in factories located in lower-wage countries. The practice is widely known to be open to labor exploitation, as fashion brands may outsource this tough work to sub-contractors, who in turn outsource again.
In such a fragmented and dispersed production environment, supply chain transparency can be difficult to achieve. Producing clothes in lower-wage countries also means that transport costs – and associated carbon emissions – are part of the picture too for the fast-fashion industry.
Simply put, the current clothing production paradigm is not always ethical, and it is rarely sustainable.
Bringing assembly home
Finnish clothing designer and Aalto University alumnus and doctoral student, Matti Liimatainen, is addressing this issue by putting clothing assembly in the hands of the garment wearer. His Self-Assembly clothing label makes garments with special seams that can be assembled by hand, without the need for a sewing machine. The garments are delivered in kits with instructions that walk the wearer through the assembly process.
'Ready-to-assemble clothes are quite a radical take on bringing transparency to the garment manufacturing industry,' says Liimatainen. 'The assembly literally takes place in front of your own eyes, not hidden in a factory somewhere on the other side of the world.'
Liimatainen says that involving people in the assembly of their own clothes encourages more conscious consumption. The idea being that when people have experienced the effort of assembling their clothes, they are more likely to wear them for longer. This helps to address the throwaway culture perpetuated by the fast-fashion industry.
'A huge amount of clothing is thrown away after just a single use, or even after not having been worn at all,' he says. 'And on average a piece of clothing is used only seven or eight times before it is discarded.'
'People tend to place a higher value on products they have partially created – it's the so-called IKEA effect. In garment production, traditionally only people who can sew or knit have been able to make their own clothes. But my construction kits open garment assembly to anyone, and no equipment is needed.'
Transparency through automation
Liimatainen believes that many of the ethical and environmental problems caused by the global apparel industry can be addressed by automating the process of designing and producing clothes.
He started developing his ideas while working as a clothing designer in London, including a stint as design development manager at experimental brand Aitor Throup.
'I began working with automation because I wanted to make my own clothing samples,' says Liimatainen. 'In the garment industry, it's very slow to get samples made, so I started doing lots of prototyping with computer technology to find faster ways to make them.'
'I then came up with the Self-Assembly system of connecting fabric together without any sewing,' he says. 'The patterns for these garments are quite complex because of the looping structure, so automation is needed to calculate how many of these loops and holes to add on every seam, and their exact position. It needs to be very precise.'
Liimatainen – who has exhibited his work in The Netherlands, France, Germany and Australia – says he is trying to automate every single step of the fashion process as a way of bringing production as close as possible to the garment wearer.
He has built and programmed his own pattern-cutting machine, and is now writing algorithms for a design generator that will help people create their own clothes from scratch. In the future, Liimatainen envisions this work being used in automated clothing kiosks that people will visit to design and produce their own clothes.
'My main interest right now is in how to explain everything about a garment to a computer, so that my design generator can understand different tastes and help people create their own clothes.'
'It's so easy to hide ethical issues in the supply chain, so I want to move all production back in front of the wearer,' says Liimatainen.
'I don't expect that my work will completely replace clothing factories, but it will help to increase transparency and show people that there is another way of doing things in this industry.'
Finland will present its exhibition Everyday Experiments at the XXII Triennale di Milano, featuring twelve experimental projects people are already doing to make their lives more sustainable and equitable. La Triennale di Milano will take place from 1 March to 1 September 2019 and is curated by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research & Development at The Museum of Modern Art. Broken Nature will reflect on the relationship between humans and environments at all scales—from the microbiome to the cosmos—including social, cultural, and natural ecosystems.
Learn more about all 12 Everyday Experiments: everdayexperiments.aalto.fi
The XXII Triennale, Broken Nature: http://www.brokennature.org/