Three-dimensional printed fabric has become something of a fashion industry fantasy in recent years, one that could — if realized — open the floodgates for mass customization of wearable garments.

While there remains no commercially available printer capable of turning out true textiles, 3-D Systems this week sidestepped closer to the dream of 3-D printed clothing when it unveiled Fabricate, a new technology application that allows the printing not of fabric, but designs placed on top of it.

Created to pair with the company’s desktop 3-D printer Cube, the application uses what 3-D Systems creative director Annie Shaw calls a “sandwich technique” to layer printed designs onto a 5.5-inch layer of polyester spandex that can then be sewn onto garments.

“This is technology that is not available to the industry yet, and we are launching this with consumers first with the easiest consumer printer that’s out there,” said Shaw, who expects the application’s earliest adopters to be fashion design students, independent fashion designers and those who already own the microwave-sized printer sold through 3-D Systems’ consumer site, Cubify.

At launch, the output possible with the application and a 3-D Cube printer is limited. Designers skilled in 3-D computer-aided design can use the application to deploy original work, but the readily available configurations packaged into the app are different combinations of three possible textures and seven shapes that, once printed, are best used as accents on other garments, much like appliqués. There is a circle texture reminiscent of scales or futuristic paillettes, a series of blunt spikes for adorning a neckline or a shoulder and a triangle mesh that can be worked into a hemline or a bikini top.

The system is currently set up to print PLA filament, a popular and relatively inexpensive material that’s rigid and smooth, in 5.5-inch swatches, but Shaw hinted that larger formats and more exotic materials such as metals are due out in the coming months.

This isn’t the Rock Hill, S.C.-based company’s first foray into experimental fashion. In March, Iris van Herpen featured garments with 3-D Systems-printed elements in her fall ready-to-wear presentation at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Against the alienlike silhouettes of van Herpen’s designs, the interlocking triangles and layered discs printed through Fabricate may appear modest, almost like something anyone could do. But Shaw says that’s actually part of the point.

“It’s not an intimidating technology, and it shouldn’t be difficult to adopt,” she said of 3-D printing.

If that were the case, Shaw added, “It would prevent this democratization of creativity that we believe in.”

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