In Fashion, everything starts with the fabrics – the materials that fashion is made out of.  Therefore, if one was to discuss the role 3D printing can play in fashion, it is important to look at what type of materials this technology uses.   To do so, one has to look back at some 3D printing basics, the processes and approaches making this technology possible.

Full disclosure – I use a number of ‘promotional’ videos in this post.  I’m not supporting, representing or promoting any companies – I was looking for videos to best illustrate the concepts, and most of those just happen to be produced by companies looking to sell products.  Please look past the promotion to learn more about the tech.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing aka additive manufacturing aka desktop fabrication is a process of making a three dimensional item from a digital model.  The basic idea is that 3D printing uses an additive process – adding successive layers of material to form the shape.  The traditional technologies have typically been used to remove extra material to form the shape.  One of the benefits of 3D printing is that it does not create as much waste or by-products as traditional techniques.

There are a number of different approaches to 3D printing.  Currently, the most popular are SLS (selective laser sintering), SLA (Stereo Lithography) and FDM (fused deposition modeling).

SLS – Selective Laser Sintering

SLS uses a laser to melt fine powders into 3D shapes.  Slight variations on this idea include Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), Electron Beam Melting (EBM), Selective Heat Sintering (SHS) and Power Bed and Inkjet Head 3D printing.

Compared to other AM methods, SLS can use a wide range of different material powders to produce items.  Anything from polymers such as nylon, to plasters an ceramics as well as metals including steel, titanium and different alloy mixtures.  Even flexible items can be created with SLS, using a rubber like elastomer polymer.  As you can see from the video, the unused powdered can be reused again and again.

SLS has been widely used to create prototypes for development of new products, as well as the end-products for customer’s use.  The advantages of SLS is the wide range of materials.  Another is the ability to create more complex shapes: the powder can act as a support during the printing of the item,  leading to creation of shapes that are not possible with traditional manufacturing methods. Yet another great advantage is that with this process flexible snaps and hinges can be made, leading to a more complex end product.  In addition, this process is fast and relatively economical.


The disadvantages with SLS is that the finish tends to be rough and porous (although it can be coated and polished post-production), with a limited choice of white or white for the nylon powders (although the finished product takes well to paints and finishes).  Another disadvantage is that the detail is not as crisp and sharp when compared with other processes, such as SLA.  Perhaps the greatest disadvantage is that the SLS printers tend to be large, cumbersome expensive and not as readily adaptable to home use.

Dario Scapitta Butterfly Hat, detail

Dario Scapitta Butterfly Hat, detail

Coupe de Coeur Bombetta by Dario Scapitta

Coupe de Coeur Bombetta by Dario Scapitta

“Daisy Hat” by Mark Bloomfield

“Daisy Hat” by Mark Bloomfield

The recent Iris Van Herpen Paris Haute Couture collection Voltage featured a beautiful, intricate and flexible dress created by Materialize using SLS 3D printing technology with TPU – a strong and flexible material.


Iris van Herpen, Voltage

Iris van Herpen, Voltage

SLA – Stereo Lithography

SLA uses a similar idea to SLS, but with liquids instead of powders.

The end result can even have a translucent or clear finish.  SLA allows for more detail and precision than SLS.  SLA has been especially embraced by the jewelry manufacturers for making wax casts for delicate, finely detailed jewelry.  Iris Van Herpen Paris Haute Couture in the summer of 2012 “Hybrid Holism” featured a beautiful honey-colored dress created with the use of SLA.


FDM – Fused Deposition Modeling or FFF  – Fused Filament Fabrication.

Perhaps the most widely used 3D printing at the moment, FDM uses a plastic filament or a metal wire that is unfound from a coil.  The filament is fed through an extrusion nozzle, which heats, melts and deposits the material into the right shape.

The ‘hot glue gun’ analogy seems to describe the process best.  FDM was invented and trademarked by Statasys Inc.  FFF is an equivalent term coined by other 3D development companies to avoid infringing upon the FDM trademark.

The are a number of materials that can be used with this process including different type of plastics, thermoplasticsbiodegradable polyester and even chocolate.

One of the greatest advantages of this process is the ability to use more than one material in making the final product.  Multimaterial 3D printing is very impressive: it allows for printing of items that have both soft and hard materials and a greater range of products.  Another advantage are all the colors that the filament comes in – items can be printed in full color without the need to be finished.  The filament can even be dyed at home prior to printing for a unique and fun look.  Yet another advantage is the low price, size and variety of FFF printers – this has been widely adopted to in-home printing (sometimes called desktop manufacturing), and a FFF printer can be created rather inexpensively.


The disadvantage is that often the layering lines are still visible, although there have been some simple solutions to finish the products.  The resolution/detail of the printers can range from rather low to impressive, yet at the same time the detail is better with other processes.  Yet another disadvantage is that there are no build-in supports – more complicated shapes are harder to print using this method and require building supports as the item is printed.

FFF printer in action

Iris Van Herpen Paris Haute Couture collection Voltage had an unforgettable cape/skirt outfit which was created using a FDM multimaterial 3D printer.

Iris van Herpen, Voltage

IVH paris 2013 skirt cape detail

New exciting materials for 3D printing seem to be added almost daily, as there is growing development in this field with the increased interest and knowledge of 3D Printing.  Hopefully some more flexible materials will be added soon to allow for greater range of Additive Fashion designs in clothing as well as shoes and accessories.

There are a number of great guides if you would like to learn more about the materials used in 3D printing, as well as other 3D printing basics (including the software, companies and various types of printers available). Perepelkin3D Printing BasicsAll ArticlesThoughts & IdeasMaterials,Technology
In Fashion, everything starts with the fabrics - the materials that fashion is made out of.  Therefore, if one was to discuss the role 3D printing can play in fashion, it is important to look at what type of materials this technology uses.   To do so, one has to look...