Getting fashions to fit by computer

Getting fashions to fit by computer

Every dedicated shopaholic knows the problem. Once you’ve tracked down that elusive garment you actually suits you, it’s not available in your size. But help may be at hand from an unexpected quarter – the world of mechanical engineering.

“Designing clothes patterns is still a craft industry,” says Dr Jim McCartney, an engineer in the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at Queens’ University of Belfast. “We want to automate the process, basing it on real body data.”

Most clothes begin life as a designer’s sketch. This is converted into a flat pattern used to cut the cloth and assemble the garment. Unfortunately, the final product is not always what the designer intended, especially in terms of fit. It’s this process, from sketch to pattern to finished article, which McCartney wants to improve.

McCartney has designed a prototype computer system that produces patterns from 3D images of new designs. “We produced a 3D computer model of a kind of mannequin used by clothes designers. Then we designed bodices using computer tools. We chose bodices because most of the potential is in the female market.”

Once the engineers had got the right look on the computer model, they used specially written software to turn the computer sketch into a two-dimensional pattern. Clothes-makers can then turn this pattern into the real garment. If the software is effective, the final version should look like the original computer design.

And when the computer didn’t get it right, McCartney was able to learn from its mistakes. When it failed, he went back and tweaked the code used to produce the patterns. “We tested the finished clothes on a mannequin,” he explained. “We spent a lot of time looking at how well it worked with different fabrics.”

The software is now ready for commercial use. If Marks & Spencers – one of the original funders of the project – continues its interest, high-street shoppers could be in for a big change. McCartney envisages a system where customers could have their body shape scanned and the results held on a personal swipe card. When they found a design they liked, in-store computers would select the best fit from the range available or even order the garment in a fit tailor-made for the customer.

With a bit of luck, those difficult shopping trips could become a little more successful.