My mom was the genius behind my Halloween costumes, but I was also doing my own soft goods prototyping when I was young.
One of my favorite go-to activities was needlepoint with plastic canvas.
My mom would take out books from the library with different patterns like frogs and panda bears, and my sister and I would dutifully count the squares, trace the patterns with a marker, and cut out the shape. Then, my mom would thread yarn through a blunt-tipped needle and it was off to the races. Hours and hours would pass as we pulled yarn through every square hole until we had our animal or light switch cover. My mom, ever the showoff, would even combine panels of needle point to make tissue box covers and other nick nackery.
It was silly fun, but was a great lesson in how much effort goes into making a soft good prototype.
In Part One I gave an introduction to soft goods and talked about how they are characterized. In the second and final installment I am going to review some techniques on how to make prototypes with fabric and textiles.
While knowing how to use a sewing machine is a great skill, it is not necessary in early stage prototypes. Most proof of concept prototypes can be made with common office supplies. Fabric can be cut with scissors and a stapler can be used to hold different panels of material together. A hot glue gun is a helpful tool during the mock up stages or it can be used to simulate the gripping features that you see on the bottom of no-slip socks or on some athletic wear.
In proof of concept prototypes it is not critical to spec out the perfect material for the final product. Fabric can be harvested from old garments you have around the house, and the thrift store is a great way to get inexpensive materials. Craft foam comes in inexpensive sheets which are flexible and can be used for cushioning or to add structure. Some soft goods require buckles or other hardware. In many cases these can be harvested from old backpacks or other gear.
Since soft goods are thin, they are processed as sheets and cut based on two-dimensional patterns. Fortunately, any 3D shape can be broken down into two-dimensional panels. A beach ball is a perfect example as the spherical shape is built with six identical narrow elliptical panels.
Patterns for a prototype can be made in a few different ways. If you have a 3D CAD file of the part, the CAD program will let you unfold a 3D surface into a 2D shape. The other way to do it is to build up the shape on a mannequin or other rigid form. Sheet material can be laid over the form and strategically cut to form patterns over the shape. Tools like a cloth ruler and pins are helpful to get dimensions and hold the panels in place. If you get stuck as to how to break up the shape looking at commercially made garments is great inspiration. Once the prototype is made, it can be disassembled and laid out flat and traced on paper or scanned to extract the panel shapes.
As the prototype gets more refined, you may need better materials and your local fabric store is your best friend. Good fabric stores will have bolts of all sorts of different materials with different weight, stretch, breathability and wear resistance. This is a great way to physically feel the it and get samples to test. Most fabrics are only a few dollars a yard, so it is inexpensive to make iterations. Fabric stores are also loaded with accessories that you may need like Velcro, piping, webbing and buttons to finish the piece.
Most soft goods products are going to require sewing for them to work properly. It’s at this point that you have to make a decision about how to move forward.
If you are handy with a sewing machine it is no big deal to make advanced prototypes yourself. However, if you are not and not inclined to learn, then you need to bring in some help. Usually, a local alterations shop can be a valuable resource. Depending on their levels of skill and willingness, quality prototypes can be made inexpensively. However, it is always best to get a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in place before showing them any sketches or prototypes. Then, it is up to you to provide as much detail as possible for them to execute. It is not unheard of to get a custom sewn prototype for less than $100.
If you have a knit soft good, there are computer programmable knitting machines that can help. Industrial versions are used for manufacturing goods like socks and sweaters. These are expensive pieces of equipment, but you may be able to rent time on a machine in your area. You can also reach out to a group like the Manufacturing Solutions Center (MSC) in Hickory, N.C., that has some of this type of equipment available for startups with soft goods products. There are consumer versions of these machines, such as the Kniterate, that are just a few thousand dollars and can help you make your own knit goods.
Prototyping Wearable Electronics
The Internet of Things (IoT) is driving a lot of innovation in wearable connected devices.
Adding circuitry to clothing can be tricky, but there are some special prototyping techniques you can use to make it easier. There are many micro controllers that are laid out specifically to be integrated into clothing. The Adafruit Flora line of micro controllers is made specifically for creating wearable prototypes. Combined with conductive thread, the micro controller can be sewn and electrically connected to satellite modules like BTLE or LEDs. This makes the electronics layout simple to execute. Just make sure that you do not put them through the wash.
There are also different types of electronic accessories that are helpful for wearable applications. Pressure sensitive material, like Velostat can be helpful for making buttons, and there are sew on pouches available for holding batteries.
Once the prototype is complete there are a number of great options to add decorative touches that will give it a polished look.
Art or logos can be applied to the part via silk screen, heat transfers, embroidery or pad printing. Most of these options should be available from local sources. If you need custom printed fabrics there are services like Spoon Flower that will print custom designs from your art, and you can add piping or other accent materials to make the product pop.
Prototyping a soft goods product does not have to be difficult. Early prototypes can be made with common office supplies to vet your concept without breaking the bank. Once you have a proof of concept you can get deeper into making good patterns and custom sewn prototypes with killer finishing touches to wow potential investors or customers.