Bridging the Gap Between Fashion and Product Design

The design world is comprised of so many varying disciplines, techniques and knowledge. Each player has their own value and expertise to bring to the table to look at and solve problems in a different light. Coming from the fashion design industry, I have noticed areas of opportunity for fashion and product design to learn and benefit from one another.

It’s time to set aside design assumptions. With the fast growth of wearable technology, the product and fashion worlds are quickly colliding. It’s an opportunity to start learning from each other’s strengths, and push emerging textile machinery, fibers, and design techniques for developing everyday products in a new media.

"The wearables space is leading the way to bridge this design gap and meld the knowledge of functional apparel designers with product designers."

Old Techniques & Emerging Technologies

Textile processes, such as knitting, weaving and bonding have been around for decades, and have been the vehicle to create many of our everyday commodities. The garment industry has been one of the leaders in pushing innovation in textile development to meet society’s growing desire for new trends and new avenues for individuality and uniqueness. Our team has visited a few textile trade shows over the years, such as Premiere Vision, Tech Textil, and the Outdoor Retailer Show. With each show, vendors come to the public with new ways to take textile craftsmanship and showcase it in a new unconventional way.

Each year, the fashion industry puts millions of dollars into innovations for textile and garment construction, fiber chemistry, and machinery. Some recent advancements include improved absorbency in fibers’ mechanical structures, automated sewing robotic arms to construct 3-Dimensional parts, and seamless bonding machines to improve water resistance on the seams of outerwear garments. It would only benefit other industries to utilize this knowledge and advancement to help create more compliant and wearable products. These advancements are being utilized for designs beyond traditional garments such as, chemical bio protection wearables, waterproof backpacks, and safety wear. The types of sewing, knitting and welding techniques that are used in the apparel industry can easily transfer to create a product.

One example is the use of digital knitting machines. Knitting is not a new way to create textiles or products. Knitting has been around for centuries and has primarily been used for creating garments. Some of the first knitting and weaving machines were created in the 1500’s for creating military garments and accessories, such as socks. With advancements in machine capabilities and growing awareness, only recently has this tool been utilized for creating commodity products outside of the fashion industry.

With the ability to automate textile creation from raw fiber to a finished product, this technology is appealing for different design industries such as furniture design, footwear, and medical garments. With digital knitting, a textile product can be designed in a more “precise” and strategic fashion. A jacquard knit, or weave can be programmed to accurately position a section of connective yarn on a shirt, which then connects to a medical device. Product designers can use the same construction techniques used in knitting sweaters, such as a clingy ribbed hem of sweater, and use that same stitch construction for the top ankle of a shoe, or the rounded base of a home speaker system.

Other automated technologies that have influenced garment and product design would be machines such as digital embroidery machines. These machines are able to accept different types of fibers and are programmable to create unique designs for untraditional applications. For instance, an automated robotic embroidery machine can use carbon fiber and inlay designated zones of conductive yarns to create an industrial heating element that will eventually be molded into a ridged part. A mainly garment focused embroidery machine was manipulated in a way to allow manufacturing industrial parts to be made in a more efficient manner. Normally working with carbon fiber is a bit more of a laborious task. This new automated machine allows for only the necessary amount of carbon to be used and prevents wasting materials and time. The blending of techniques and industry disciplines allowed for a product like this to exist.

These product applications may seem unconventional, but the sewing, laminating, or knitting machine textile construction techniques are still the same. As other industries take advantage of the machines and skills developed in the fashion industry, we’re likely to see more product innovations designed with textiles in mind.

Winning At Wearables

Wearables and “smart” garments are growing at a rapid pace. Wearables are no longer hard molded parts that attach to a person’s body, but instead wearables are mixing materials and disciplines to be artfully fitted to the human form. The wearables space is leading the way to bridge this design gap and meld the knowledge of functional apparel designers with product designers.

New industries, such as medical device companies, are seizing this opportunity. The desire to improve patient health through the use of commodity products, such as garments, has led to industrial and fashion designers learning to work together and combining design strengths. Product designers bring an essential background in designing for consumer products that need to follow functional design requirements and mixing molded materials in unconventional ways.

However, this type of design does not always involve understanding how to design to fit the human form. This is where bringing in an expert in apparel design can help bring the design context back to the end user. This combination of expertise will help enhance the product to focus on critical, but sometimes overlooked, features like overall fit, comfort and material functionality of the product.

Fit

Fit, fit, fit. This may sound overzealous, but the fit of a product is one of the most important design features in creating a wearable good. Whether the product is a watch, or a sweater, taking the anthropometric body measurements and fit into account can be the difference between a very successful product, or failed design. To size a wearable does not mean you can just use the scale button in Illustrator or Photoshop. To size appropriately, it will be graded using fashion industry sizing strategies to fit the end user comfortably and appropriately.

When designing a wearable, it’s important to consider the user population, body shape and gender of the people actually using this design. Understanding body anthropometrics, such as height, circumference, and movement is really important when creating a wearable garment, as it will determine the overall functionality of the product. To design or pattern draft a garment, the designer has to think about body movement, curvature and overall sizing strategies. A garment that fits a person between the age 20-30 will fit very differently than a garment designed for a user in their 60s. Detailed shaping of each pattern piece will influence the fit and how someone ultimately feels when they put the wearable on. For example, if the armhole-drop in a vest too small or is not shaped to match the end users body type and size, the garment can become uncomfortable or create unflattering drag lines on the material.

Utilizing a fashion designer’s skills in garment design and patterning will help the design come to life and maybe even make something like a wearable medical device exciting to wear for a patient. For instance, considered details like flattering styled seam lines or researched garment length and widths will allow the wearable to fit the patient in a more appealing way.

Creating gender specific sizing will also influence a better product and will warrant better compliance when compared to a one size fits all design approach. When on the body, the garment will drape naturally and will allow the user to have room to move and breath. We want the consumer to feel good and like what they are wearing. Even if the wearable is necessary to keep them alive. Putting these extra considerations will not be overlooked by the end user as they will want to keep wearing the garment and thus, increase compliance.

If a product is made to fit the majority of the population or is a one-sized fits all approach, the wearable runs the risk of not fitting well and ultimately not working. A good example of a one size fits all approach would be a safety vest. This garment serves its end function but does not fit the user well and may become uncomfortable due to the lack of fit. We all want our clothes or wearables to feel like they are custom made to fit each of our shapes and it becomes very obvious to a consumer when a brand maybe didn’t consider these details.

Being knowledgeable about garment grading helps improve the fit of all sized wearables in a collection and doesn’t leave anyone feeling misrepresented. This is why fitting samples on real humans is essential. People are not hard, motionless beings. We bend, expand, and flex throughout the day. Wearable designs should be fitted and tested in these circumstances. It will help the designer capture pain points or sizing issues from the start to end of the design process. If the wearers are happy, the brand is happy.

Comfort

Even if a design is engineered to perform perfectly, but is itchy, tight and chaffs, the end user will never want to continue to use the product. The idea of compliance goes out the window. Loss of compliance even happens for products that will save a patient’s life! If it’s not designed to be worn by a human, then a human isn’t going want to wear it.

Factors that influence the comfort of a wearable include, the materials selection, hand-feel and garment fit. Think of that favorite cozy sweater you beeline to put on once you get home from a hard day working. That “feeling” is what a lot of people subconsciously search for in the garments they put on their bodies. Feeling comfortable in a wearable means that the wearer becomes unaware or altogether forgets about the product being on their body.

The mechanical features of a textile can influence how comfortable a design feels. Designing around the textile drape, stretch and breathability gives a product the chance to fit the body comfortably and encourages long periods of wear. This is because wearables conform around the body. If the body is moving but the textile does not, the wearable will create areas of pinching and compression. Nobody likes the feeling of sitting down in pants too tight. Considering zones of stretch and fabric grainlines can help with the overall design comfort and performance.

The breathability of a wearable also contributes to a designs comfort. Breathability is reliant on the actual textile chemical and mechanical composition. This feature sometimes gets overlooked in the design process. Knowing what type of fiber or construction to pick for a design is critical if the design is going to be worn for extended timeframes, as not all fiber types and stitch structures act the same. For example, a medical vest made out of a tightly woven polyester fiber will not move moisture as quickly as a mesh cotton blend structure. Moisture build up can influence how comfortable a person feels in the wearable, as sweat creates odor and skin chaffing. This can influence the length of time the garment is worn and user compliance.

Material Functionality

Material selection is everything when designing a wearable or soft-goods based product. By leveraging the expertise and knowledge fostered in the fashion industry, a design will get scrutinized on a textile and construction-based level. The material is the end product, and the fiber selection must perform just as well as the engineered parts on the design. This includes stretching in multiple directions, withstanding 20 wash cycles, or not pilling after a one-time use. The fashion industry has thousands of materials, finishes and fibers to pick from and can turn a mediocre product into something outstanding simply through selecting the “appropriate” material. For example, think of the Yeti cooler. This product is just that, a cooler. But the product differentiates itself on the market because of its waterproof coated textile choices, seamless welded seams, engineered zippers and laminations borrowed from the garment industry. There are other textile coolers on the market, but Yeti’s material selections take it to a whole new level. A textile developer will review the same fiber chemical and functional properties that are used for an outdoor cooler, or a seamlessly bonded undergarment.

Another reason why it’s so important to make sure that the right material is selected is for a design to pass any functional requirements. For example, a medical device has to eventually run through the FDA to meet specific requirements. What if the fabric selected months ago for a product has color dyes with a high PH level that lead to a skin rash? It means that the product might get rejected and will have to be redesigned. Ouch. Careful and intentional material selection early on in development can prevent these issues down the line.

When developing wearables, it’s critical for the product’s success for the fashion design and product design worlds to learn and speak to each other. Each discipline has so much knowledge to bring, and it allows for any problems to be identified early and solved before it gets to the end user.

Conclusion

With a deeper expertise from both product and fashion designers, projects will gain insight into how to better meet and design to the consumer’s needs and products will have a higher quality. It’s an exciting time to push the wearables industry, and utilizing each other’s resources and marrying knowledge will only help create successful products that are designed with people in mind.

Advancements in machinery and textiles from the fashion industry can be applied to manufacturing in new ways for product design. Input from apparel designers can help wearable projects achieve proper material selection for functional requirements, regulations and elevate the performance of a product. Appropriately graded sizing and attention to product comfort can increase the compliance of any type of product.

The door is wide open, and wearables aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. We’re looking forward to a bright future of collaboration with fashion and product design, from medical devices to coolers and everything in between.

About The Author

Stephannie Kia, Soft Goods Specialist

Stephannie has a true passion for textiles in and out of the office. She specializes in knitting and cut-and-sew development as well as building tech packages and pattern making as part of our soft goods team. Outside the office, if she’s not sewing or going to yoga, she’s enjoying decorating her home and organizing any space that she can.

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