Long before your favorite, 100% cotton T-shirt hugs your body and instills confidence, it starts out as a puzzle of two-dimensional polygons.
These flat, polygon shapes or “pattern pieces” become a three-dimensional T-shirt through a multi-step process.
The pieces are drawn by hand or in a computer software program, then printed on giant rolls of paper and traced onto fabric. Next, the shapes are cut out of the fabric and stitched together by a sewing machine operator.
Your favorite cotton T-shirt literally takes shape. But this is just the first sample. The fit still needs to be tested and adjusted, and human models must try on various sizes and colors.
Today, all of this is changing. Catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, dramatic advances in digital technology are taking many of these steps out of the real world and into a digital one.
When workers around the globe were sent home for months, internet connections and computer screens became lifelines for people and industries. In fashion, they channeled a shock to the system.
3D digital clothing design is quickly becoming a new normal at apparel companies. That shift can already be seen in both the Stephens College and MU fashion programs.
“We've been doing things so slowly and inefficiently for so long, but now we have to catch up,” said Raquel Harmon, a technical designer for Nike and a fashion industry veteran.
Harmon graduated from Stephens College with a BFA degree in fashion design and product development in 2007. She started at Nike in 2015 and now sews, fits and reviews garments primarily in digital render on a computer screen.
Camille Palmer, another Stephens College fashion graduate and industry veteran, worked at PVH Corp when the pandemic began. At the time, the company, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, represented the exception, not the rule.
“The division I was in at PVH was actually incredibly established and set up for the pandemic because we had already scaled 3D-enabled design,” Palmer said.
Harmon said the pandemic was transformational for the industry. During COVID-19 lockdowns, she recalled overseas factories telling her, “You have to wait four or five weeks for your next sample because we only have two people working in the sample line because everyone else is home.”
When physical samples made it to the U.S., Harmon and other designers at Nike used couriers to transport them between their homes.
Now her team, and an increasing number of teams at Nike, rely on a powerful 3D fashion design software called CLO.
Designers use CLO to sew digital pattern pieces together virtually. They can choose from thousands of true-to-life representations of fabrics because material properties like texture, luster and hardness have been digitized.
Harmon creates accurate designs without touching fabric or seeing a live model. She drapes digital clothing over avatars, computer-generated representations of humans with true-to-life measurements. And she uses avatars — not humans — to test the fit of a garment.
College fashion programs, aware of these tectonic shifts, are updating curricula accordingly. Stephens College began teaching CLO in spring 2022 and MU began teaching it during fall 2022.
Cheyenne Smith is an assistant teaching professor in the MU Textile and Apparel Management Department.
She said there has been a long trend toward digitalization in fashion, but the use of 3D design software like CLO has been ramping up in recent years. Students are seeing more and more job descriptions looking for 3D design experience.
Smith taught both physical and digital techniques this fall: “My approach this semester for pattern-making has been teaching the students the different pattern manipulations via the hands-on, 2D pattern paper one day, and then doing that same thing in CLO the next day.”
Jess Kittle is a senior in the Stephens fashion design program and is designing her capstone collection using CLO.
Kittle, who started college planning to study chemical engineering, eventually switched to fashion design.
She was surprised to learn that 3D design software allows her to combine two loves — “one for fashion and clothes and dressing people and another for engineering and making things work in really tight ways.” After graduation, Kittle wants to specialize in technical design.
Kirsty Buchanan, a professor in the Stephens fashion program, said learning manual design and sewing techniques are still a fundamental part of clothing design.
“You can't just start using the software and not ever have made a pattern in your life,” she said.
Digital patterns need to be accurate and sewn together properly because ultimately, the goal with fashion design is to create actual clothes for real people.
Knowledge about sewing and construction is critical, Harmon said.
“We still need people to know how garments are made physically prior to them knowing how to review them digitally.”
She gave an example of designing an item with the wrong stitch type that breaks easily, causing thousands of people to return a now-useless item.
“I think you can make some grave mistakes if you don't know how to construct something,” she said.
Yet, when a company harnesses the power of digital design, the benefits can be immense.
“I can't even tell you how many millions of dollars we're saving from not utilizing physical garment samples,” Harmon said, “and that's just sampling.”
“3D design is super impactful,” Palmer said. Apparel companies that connect all of their processes digitally, from the initial design through selling to consumers, can transform the way products are manufactured and created.
Palmer offers this advice to fashion design students: “Use 3D as much as you can, as early as you can and as much as you can. And be open to technology, be open to trying things in a new way.
"Be ready to look at things differently. And by differently, I mean see them on a screen and then also see them in real life, but be able to trust what's on the screen is what you're going to get in real life.”