Q&A: Clothiers' Kickstarter for 3D Printer
Sustainability is an inherent practice in the clothing business — at least for co-founders of Appalatch Outdoor Apparel Co. Grace Gouin and Mariano deGuzman. In an effort to revolutionize the clothing industry, reduce textile waste, and promote a unique for-profit business model with non-profit ideals, Grace and Mariano recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for a knitting machine that works as a 3D printer and creates precise patterns and dimensions of a sweater without wasting a single iota of thread. We talked to the two clothiers about their Kickstarter campaign (they've currently received from donors about 60 percent of their goal of $50,000), cutting down on textile waste, a sheep-shearing Quaker named John, and creating long-enduring clothing for the "modern-day Indiana Jones."
So, can you talk a little about this futuristic 3D-sweater-making-machine?
GRACE: We're moving towards something called a Stoll knitting machine. In a way it's a 3D printer for sweaters, but it's not the traditional 3D printer that prints out the plastic kind of stuff. You can design any kind of sweater you want with this computer program and then the Stoll takes your yarn and knits it in the exact dimensions of what it is you're trying to make.
MARIANO: And we think that it's incredibly, incredibly sexy because it's totally not the way traditional manufacturing is done. So when we were looking into making sweaters in the United States, we were going through these factories that had these huge vaults of expensive, energy-intensive, resource-intensive wool. And they're just cutting little patterns out and then tossing the rest away — it's incredibly wasteful. We wished there was some way we could reduce this waste. We think the Stoll is on the forefront of clothing manufacturing. This is future. And we included our own touch of innovation and innovative spirit to make a custom knit sweater.
Has 3D printing of clothing even been used in the US?
G: All of the innovations that have been made over the past 10 years or so haven't really been seen in this country. They've primarily been really seen in countries like Germany, Europe and across Asia. It seems like a no-brainer for us when we first started learning about the machine and we were like, "Why isn't anybody doing this?" You know, it's just going to take more work and a lot of brands to know about.
M: That full-scale, really high quality manufacturing — that's what we're trying to bring back to the world nowadays by fad fashion. I think we're coming to a point where so many people now are really thinking about quality and wanting to have a greater connection to the things they purchase, like clothing, and they're more willing to buy higher quality.
What makes a high quality sweater?
G: Across America, it really depends on exactly what kind of micron count you're looking for and it really translates to how comfortable it feels against your skin. So if you really want the finest type of micron, [some of the finest] comes from Rambouillet Sheep, and they're primarily located in Montana although they're also found in different sides of the country. The wool is just so beautiful. There's also Merino [wool].
M: Our whole idea is when we started Appalatch was to figure out a way to reduce the carbon footprint in the way clothing is made today. One way is by making sure our products are local and super-high quality, and something that people want to purchase. I think there's this big renaissance in wool, especially in the outdoor industry, and many people in the United States are trying to purchase this Merino wool which usually comes from New Zealand or even China now. And Merino wool is just as fine as Rambouillet, but it's not being used as much here to make clothing. So for us, that was a really awesome revelation.
Like what kind of animals do you like to, um, do business with?
M: Lots of alpaca. Sheep.
G: A couple bison.
Do you actually get to shear the animals yourselves?
G: Well, I personally do not have the physical strength to shear an entire sheep.
M: It takes a lot of skill. You have to do it without cutting the animal's skin because it causes infection, so there are people specifically trained at the art of shearing.
G: Rambouillet sheep typically weigh about 200 lbs. Rams weigh up to 350 lbs. They're huge animals. I mean, I could saddle one and ride it.
So do you have someone else shear the sheep?
G: The man we got to, his name is John — he's this remarkable, amazing Quaker sheep shearer. He comes out to people's farms, sets up his equipment, and just gives the sheep a somersault and, in like under a minute, their bodies are sheared without any nicks or scratches.
And you and Mariano go to watch the shearing process?
G: We go just because we like to see the process. And farmers actually prefer to have more people around during that day because there's a lot of vegetable matter [stuck in the wool], and people go around and pick off all the vegetable matter stuck to the wool.
M: And it gives us a greater appreciation for where our clothes come from. We're helping pick off the vegetable matter from the wool, and then turning it into a sweater.
So what's the funnest part about making sustainable wool clothing?
G: All the fluffy animals. I'm definitely one of those people that goes to the party and hangs out with all the animals.
Your mission states, "making clothing for the Modern Day Indiana Jones." Do you picture Indiana Jones wearing one of your 3D-printed wool sweaters?
G: I think Indiana Jones would totally dig it [editor's emphasis on the archeology pun]. Before my passion for textiles, the thing that took up much of my time was archeology, and I've always had a [passion] for digging things up in the dirt, studying anthropology. I loved the life that Indiana Jones lived although now even though after studying anthropology we realize he was kind of a grave robber.
M: Yeah, total grave robber. But the things he wore were incredibly fashionable and made to last.
On your Kickstarter profile you explicitly say, "We don't believe in having a sustainability program." Could you explain this?
G: It has to just be inherent.
M: That's the most frustrating part about the "green movement" that's been happening in the past 15 years. You have pretty big established companies saying "Hey, we're in the green market, we going to call something 'green' and have 'green initiatives,'" but as soon as they find that the market for green products aren't as good or aren't as profitable as their regular line, they just dump it. And for us there should just not be a sustainability curve because it breaks the bank — it should just be inherent within the DNA of every company. I mean, it makes sense. When you think about sustainability in general, it's a great way to reduce the amount of waste and for profit driven companies to reduce waste. It's something that hasn't really been thought of.
This devotion to ethical textiles and a no-waste policy — does this hurt profits?
M: We're a for-profit company. But we have non-profit ideals. We didn't start Appalatch to start another clothing company, we started to revolutionize the way apparel is made better. And it's through that kind of lofty vision.
G: And in 80 years, when we've given every person in the world incredible knitwear that they never need to replace — that's the goal. And in terms of having — we've had to be very creative in the model we've made here, because we have a non-profit mission. At the end of the day we cannot put ourselves out of business. You can't create change in a vacuum, you need to have a voice out there. So, I think that beyond sweaters there's a lot of really interesting things we can do, and innovations we can create. And all we need to do is grow the company a little bit. We're not the first people to [have this business model].
What about established businesses, old clothiers that are just now "going green," so to say?
G: I think Mariano and I are starting this business in a time when we were really able to learn from other companies. Sustainability is a moving target and we're learning about it every day. We're able to take into consideration what other companies have attempted but have failed to do or weren't environmentally responsible. So we're able to be very conscious of the decisions we make, go forward, and not have to fight against a 50-60 year old company and its profit margins so firmly set. So we're very fortunate especially in a time when it's very, very difficult to start a company.
M: Grace and I grew up in a generation that really started thinking about the environment, and for us, because we're young and have those messages, we're able to take that into our business. Through leadership, being sort of in a younger generation [of] twenties and thirties — our age range — they're the ones that are going to help us create a more sustainable business model. And I also think that younger people are asking, "What are you doing differently? What are you doing ethically?"
G: Mariano and I are both the same personality types; we're kind of bleeding hearts.
Photo by Appalatch Outdoor Apparel Co.
J. Scott Donahue is an editorial intern at Sierra. He was a freshman in Mr. Hancock's English class when he first read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Now, he's currently working on a graduate thesis composed of travel essays. Topics include substitute teaching kindergartners in Nepal, drinking rice beer with a Tibetan porter, and running a marathon from Everest Base Camp.