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Clothing on a rack

Why engineers are a vital part of the clothing industry

When you think about the fashion industry, what comes to mind? The Met Gala? Alexander McQueen? A parade of blank-faced models? You probably don’t think about engineers.

While the roles for engineers in the fashion world aren’t in the spotlight, they are creative, diverse and essential: in many ways, engineers are the backbone of the clothing industry.

Associate Professor Paul Collins, a leader in design and product development in the School of Engineering at Deakin, says that when it comes to designing and producing clothing, there are very few elements that engineers don’t get involved with. ‘It’s kind of like a hidden profession,’ he explains. ‘We hear about the designers and all the new fabrics, but we don’t actually hear about the engineers in the background developing new fibres, creating 3D CAD [computer-aided design] models, recycling materials or working on how to make a 3D knitting machines for Nike Flyknits etc.’

Innovative clothing relies on engineers

Whether it’s cotton, lycra, denim or polyester, it’s engineers that help create these materials. It’s also engineers that work out how to weave or knit these materials. ‘Engineers are really good with spatial awareness and figuring out how to connect things,’ Assoc. Prof. Collins explains. ‘If you think about how a sewing machine is made, it’s still a machine and engineers need to be involved.’

Assoc. Prof. Collins works with athletic wear companies like Lululemon Athletica to figure out how to make clothes look and feel the way people want them to. ‘I’m often asking questions like, ‘What combination of materials do we need to put together?’ or ‘How do we support an individual to feel better in their clothing?’ he explains. ‘There is a huge amount of creativity involved.’

These questions often turn into technical challenges. ‘One of the companies I work with wanted to use a surface treatment to enhance the feel of a fabric and make a cotton feel like a silk,’ Assoc. Prof. Collins says. ‘A lot of that is about looking at how we assess those qualities and properties and then creating new materials to coexist with existing base materials.’

The diverse influences in the clothing industry

Assoc. Prof. Collins has a background in mechanical engineering and says there are non-traditional engineering jobs for those trained in any engineering discipline. ‘Mechanical engineers, materials engineers, chemical engineers are all involved in the clothing industry,’ he explains. ‘And more electrical and electronics engineers are becoming involved as we start to see more smart textiles, especially with the balance of wearables.’

'Mechanical engineers, materials engineers, chemical engineers are all involved in the clothing industry.'

Assoc. Prof. Paul Collins,
School of Engineering, Deakin University

You may be surprised to learn how many people are involved in the production of a seemingly simple pair of leggings. ‘Lululemon have a research and development group which with engineers, bio-mechanists, perception scientists and behavioural scientists all working together to understand how you engage with their clothing,’ Assoc. Prof. Collins says.

Diversity is an important factor in the clothing industry. ‘Not only in the professions involved from engineers and designers to textile manufacturers, but also nationalities and skill sets,’ Assoc. Prof. Collins explains. ‘There are so many voices that go into creating garments.’

An in-depth understanding of materials

Assoc. Prof. Collins has found that the most important skill is a solid understanding of materials. ‘It’s about understanding the performance and mechanical properties of materials – how materials work – but also the context in which people find themselves,’ he explains.

You also need 3D spatial skills because clothing is not flat, it actually conforms to bodies. ‘We need to be able to design for different body morphology types, we need to design for different sexes, we need to design for different situations because what you wear in Australia in summer is going to be very different to what you wear in a North American winter,’ he explains.

The challenges and the rewards of engineering products

Assoc. Prof. Collins says the main challenge of working in this creative field of engineering is getting the product right. ‘If you get it wrong, no one’s going to buy the product and you’ll never see it,’ he says. ‘You can’t make someone wear something: the trick is to design a product that is so good that someone actively chooses it. At the end of the day it is only a binary equation, someone will actually choose your product or they won’t.’

The main reward is the thrill of seeing your product out in the wild. ‘It doesn’t matter where or how, but if you see someone wearing, interacting with or using something you’ve designed as an engineer it’s a pretty cool feeling,’ he says.

Assoc. Prof. Collins worked with General Motors and Ford in the first part of his career and has found that the feeling is the same regardless of the product. ‘The first time I saw a Holden Commodore that I had helped design on the road was pretty awesome,’ he says. ‘It’s the same thing with the people wearing garments that I’ve influenced. The reward is seeing someone actively making the decision to interact with something that you’ve designed.’

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Assoc. Prof. Paul Collins
Assoc. Prof. Paul Collins

Associate Professor in Engineering Design and Product Development, School of Engineering, Deakin University

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