Object 49

The Seamstress’s New Tools

2035, Florida, US

"It's the simple things, like stitching, measuring, holding a pair of scissors. Even though I know exactly where I want to cut and what patterns I want to use, my hands and fingers won't do what I tell them to any more. I guess that's only fair enough, they've had a tough 60 years! But, you know, I haven't run out of ideas and I want to keep on working. So I've got to use the tools that let me do that, even if they are very different tools!"

— Martha Evans, 2035

Born in 1972, Martha Evans held plenty of different jobs in her life — a bartender, sales assistant, artist, graphic designer — but by her mid-thirties she'd settled into a career as a freelance artist and fashion designer. She did well, making dresses for shops around Florida with her own two hands and a sewing machine. I have one of her dresses in front of me, a simple bright red silk dress, with a neat knot at the neck and a turquoise belt.

Like a lot of other high-end bespoke work, Evans’ occupation was well-protected against automation. Clothing has never been purely about cost or convenience; if that were the case, we'd all be wearing cheap grey jumpsuits. No, it’s about appearance, and even the best augmented reality (AR) won’t satisfy those who want to impress in the basic physical reality.

What's true now was even truer in the 30s, when Evans was 60 years old. Though there was still plenty of demand for her dresses, she wasn't able to satisfy all of it herself, so she had a choice to make. Either she could hire assistants and step back from doing hands-on work herself, or she could create designs for mass-produced off-the-peg garments. Evans kept delaying her decision until she was introduced to Shakti Nagra, a young woman who wanted to change the way that clothes were made.

Broadly speaking, there were two ways of making clothes before the 30s. The first was bespoke tailoring that required carefully measuring the customer, then cutting and sewing fabrics, usually with some final adjustments after a fitting — Evans’ way. The second was mass production using a mixture of automation and human labour; but even mass production still required designers to create manufacturing samples, and there could be a lengthy process to ensure that the final products matched what the designer intended.

Nagra's process was completely novel. During the late teens and early 20s, Nagra made a series of breakthroughs in realistically simulating the behaviour of fabrics — how they hung, how they folded, how they looked when rumpled — using physical parameters derived from high resolution CT scans and an exhaustive battery of tests for stretchiness, thermal conductivity, breathability, and so on.

At first, all of this effort wasn't about physical fashion — it was about creating computer animations for games and films. The increased fidelity of glasses and lenses led to a revolution in entertainment, and users wanted the characters in their games to look as realistic as possible. Games and films enjoyed a lucrative sideline by including 'real' clothes as product placements, and Nagra's company, DEI-9, developed the software that made it all possible.

Shakti Nagra explains her next step:

"I realised that if we could perfectly simulate fabrics and garments like the dresses and suits you might see in any mall or on any high street, then we could go in the opposite direction: we could design garments virtually, simulate out how they'd look, and then specify every single step involved in manufacturing those garments. It would be a 100 percent digital process, end-to-end."

Armed with tens of millions in investment money, Nagra set out to accomplish her goal of making clothes entirely digitally. She immediately ran into two major problems.

The first was that the clothing industry — particularly manufacturing — was still very much human-powered. The complex and delicate manipulations required to cut and sew garments were extremely challenging for the robots at the time; it could be done, but only at a significant premium over human labour. Nagra was pragmatic. She delayed her ambitions of an entirely automated process to focus on creating better quality control systems for her human workers, until — in her characteristically unsentimental way — robotics costs fell to the point where she could replace them.

The second problem she faced involved the design process. Most fashion designers weren't experienced with the kind of 3D modelling tools that Nagra's designers used; their experience was in non-digital, fully physical environments.

That's where Evans came in: Nagra hired her as a consultant to help create the tools that designers would use. Throwing out Nagra's existing austerely technical interface, Evans opted for a highly skeuomorphic system that used physical gestures and commands that mimicked those she'd used her entire life. Designers would put their fingers into the shape of scissors to cut, and could virtually sew their clothes at high magnification, all using thimble and ring absolute positioning.

Their collaboration saw them become close friends. As Nagra said, "We had very different backgrounds. I thought Evans would just be a consultant for a few months and I'd never see her again, but she really opened my eyes to the artistry of the process."

To modern eyes, the interface Evans helped create looks hopelessly old-fashioned and clunky, but it was what designers of the time were familiar with, and that was all that mattered. They could design a 3D model on Monday, receive pre-orders on Tuesday, and have dresses manufactured by Wednesday. Within two years, DEI-9 had attracted tens of thousands of young and old fashion designers who were using Evans’ systems to design, manufacture, and sell garments across the world. Later versions of the software even allowed for clothes to be automatically redesigned according to customers' 3D body maps, massively reducing returns.

Naturally, fashion designs were quickly pirated. "I had predicted this would happen, just as it did with music and film and other media, so of course we had a strategy to deal with it," said Nagra.

This strategy involved creating simplified tools that allowed users to edit and customise existing fashions in a faster and more convenient way than through piracy — with a small tip going to the original designer and DEI-9, of course. Soon, clothing fads rose and fell faster than ever, and fashion fragmented into even smaller circles, freed from the constraints of mass production.

Ordering clothes from DEI-9 didn't have the same instant gratification that shopping at a mall did, but it gave you access to a much wider variety of styles and was much, much cheaper; for one thing, DEI-9 didn't have to pay for retail space. Even that advantage was narrowed in later years, when newer robotics and predictive retail systems allowed custom orders to be fulfilled in mere hours. Meanwhile, DEI-9 and its competitors kept expanding their design toolsets to include tents, furnishings, and even textile-based skyscrapers.

Nagra's vision gave unprecedented freedom to fashion designers. As for Martha, she was given favoured access to the company's programmers and resources, and she took full advantage. That brings me back to the simple bright red dress in front of me. It's very similar to a previous dress she'd made herself by hand, but this dress was made, as she said, "not in a better way, just a different way".

Martha kept on designing clothes until she died at the age of 96 — and her friend Nagra always made sure that the right tools were ready and waiting for her.