Robots Will Soon Be Making You A Custom-Fitted Sweater

Kelly Puertas, Knitwear Director at Pratt Institute's Brooklyn Fashion Design Accelerator, uses a computerized knitting machine. Peter Tannenbaum

The deadline for the order of neck warmers is mere days away, and less than half of them are complete. The seconds continue ticking by, yet the staff is nonplussed. They don't feverishly knit while their fingers cramp. They aren't bent over sewing machines whirring away in a poorly lit room. And they won't ever cower before their supervisors, fearing that losing a moment's work means losing their livelihood.

That's because this isn't a sweatshop. It's the Apparel Lab of the Pratt Institute Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, an incubator launched by the school to support emerging designers. Housed in a newly renovated wing of an old Pfizer factory on the border of Brooklyn's South Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods, BF+DA aims to bring together enterprising minds in fashion, industry and technology.

The neck warmers being produced in the Apparel Lab today will be sold at a BF+DA pop-up shop, which is as much an introduction to the months-old accelerator as a market for its members' wares. And the staff producing the neck warmers? Knitwear Director Kelly Puertas has already set down the design; the rest is up to the SSR112 and the MACH2X.

The SSR112 is a computerized flat knitting machine and looks like a dining-table-sized ink-jet printer. Glass panels along its sides allow you to see how it operates: Following cues from Puertas's input to the SDS-ONE APEX3 design software, a carriage in the knitting machine zips back and forth unspooling a length of yarn to two beds of needles arranged in a V shape, which hook and tuck the fabric to create stitches. Repeat over and over again at a speed of up to 3.9 feet per second, and in just 10 minutes you've almost completed one of BF+DA's peak-patterned, 100 percent Merino wool neck warmers. All that remains is to connect the fabric at the ends to close the loop.

"Flat knitting machines knit shapes—back, front, sleeves, for example—that then get linked together to complete the garment," says Puertas. In other words, though the SSR112 can make stitches, it cannot create something with depth and shape, like a sweater.

That's where the MACH2X, a whole-garment knitting machine, comes in. Using four needle beds, it is able to produce complete garments that require no extra linking.

"The whole-garment, or seamless, process knits the whole garment at once, moving from the bottom up, so the back and front are attached together like a tube," Puertas explains. "The arms are two tubes on either side. When it gets to the shoulders and neck, the knitting machine attaches them together and then creates the neckline, so it comes off of the machine complete. It's a bit like a 3-D printer."

The SSR112 and the MACH2X are manufactured by the Japanese company Shima Seiki, which introduced its first computerized flat knitting machine in 1978 and WholeGarment knitting machine in 1995. Both milestones were also achieved shortly after by Stoll, a German manufacturer and Shima Seiki's largest competitor.

Today, computerized knitting machines are employed at all levels of garment production where the capital is available and applications appropriate. Though their prices may seem dear—BF+DA's SSR112 and MACH2X cost about $250,000 together—the machines are able to handle all kinds of work, sans that which requires heavier gauges of yarn. So while BF+DA's mission to serve emerging designers means its facilities are reserved for small-scale production runs, the technology it's using is quite often in the hands of mass manufacturers.

"When we were training in Japan, the other people had bought 50 to 100 machines," BF+DA founder and Executive Director Debera Johnson says, recalling her peers at Shima Seiki's orientation program. "They're using this type of technology only in a manufacturing environment where it's about knocking out units."

Yet despite the 20-year existence and industry use of computerized knitting technology, the pervasive image—and reality—of the sweatshop endures. That's partially because many aspects of garment production, such as cutting and sewing, haven't been fully automated, but also because the story of these machines hasn't been widely told. "Eileen Fisher is a great example of really trying to tell a complete story," Johnson points out, highlighting the clothing brand's efforts at transparency. Its "& Behind the Label" campaign, for example, explains to consumers where a garment's materials were sourced and how the final product was manufactured, but even it gives only a passing mention of computerized knitting machines.

"Patagonia is another company that tries to be incredibly transparent about their supply chain and who's making what and where it's coming from," Johnson continues. "But it's a small percent of the industry."

Nike has continued to aggressively hire professionals with experience in computerized knitting design software following the 2012 release of Flyknit, the company's first shoe made almost entirely on machines like the SSR112 and MACH2X. "Nike's got the Stoll machines, the Shimas, they have a whole innovation center around knit," Johnson explains. "It's a big part of their innovation technology."

And innovation, rather than any ethical concern, may be what pushes computerized knitting machines into the spotlight. Beyond their labor-saving advantages, the degree of precision and customization that the technology offers may transform the future of clothing retail. "If you start to combine this with technologies like body scanning," Johnson says, "we could take our pattern, put it onto your avatar, adjust the program so it's a perfect fit and print it out."

Puertas mentions that Shima Seiki's Japanese headquarters already houses a body scanner reserved for VIP guests. And just last summer, Body Labs, a company that commercializes body-scanning technology, released a beta version of its software that allows users to create 3-D models of themselves with the Microsoft Kinect motion-sensing device.

Johnson says that within 10 years we'll begin seeing retailers incorporate body scanners and avatars into the shopping experience. These technologies will be able to assist customers to find their exact sizes and also to order customized garments. "Wouldn't you just love the perfect fit? How many pairs of jeans do you try on before you find something you like?" Johnson asks, hinting that the SSR112 and MACH2X may soon become paragons for both the shopaholic and the fair labor advocate.