In the 2017 film “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Peter Parker springs into action by pulling on his signature red suit. At first it pools awkwardly around him, like a cheap Halloween costume that’s a couple of sizes too big. He taps the spider insignia on his chest and fwssh, it constricts around his body, becoming a form-fitting second skin.
Movie magic? You bet. But the wizards at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working on making it a reality.
MIT’s Self Assembly Lab and the MIT-launched apparel company Ministry of Supply, have developed Active Textile Tailoring, a system of “smart” textiles made up of fibers that change their shape and structure in response to heat and moisture, thereby “unlocking a new wave of customization of fit and aesthetic,” a website describes.
Real-world testing of the concept will begin in 2019 in the form of a sweater, according to Fast Company, which wrote last month about the common frustration of a shopper who wants to buy a sweater but finds herself haplessly between sizes.
If that shopper has her eye on a number at the Ministry of Supply sometime this year, it won’t matter if it hangs just a little too loosely around her person. After providing her measurements, she’ll be able have it “auto-fitted” to its ideal proportions by a heat-gun-wielding robot right before her eyes.
The technology, as the magazine points out, presents an easy solution to a problem that has flummoxed brands and retailers for years now: how to customize clothing in a way that is both efficient and affordable.
One solution to the dilemma, MIT’s system allows Ministry of Supply to to mass-manufacture its sweater in standard sizes and adjust to its wearer on the spot. Active Textile Tailoring is all about practical effects after all, its inventors note. No hidden batteries or shape-memory alloys are involved, only readily available materials that interact together when exposed to heat. (They’ve declined to specify which ones, however.)
Ministry of Supply has toyed around with bespoke features before. In 2017, it flaunted a 10-foot-long 3-D knitting machine at a store on Boston’s Newbury Street. Armed with 4,000 needles, it could spit out a custom blazer—a shopper could specify the colors, cuffs and buttons—in roughly 90 minutes. More recently, in a location in Santa Monica, the company took thermal maps of its customers’ bodies and then added ventilation to the areas that were prone to overheating, such as the underarms.
Gihan Amarasiriwardena, Ministry of Supply’s co-founder and president, wants to scale these experiments up so custom clothing becomes more norm than niche.
“The vision is one-hour photo,” he told Fast Company. “That’s something we’d love to bring to clothing.”