Let's Say Every Textile is a Lattice.
Interview with Travis Fitch, Founder of Fitchwork
In this interview with my neighbor, and the founder of Fitchwork, Travis Fitch we explore the motivation behind establishing the company’s design practice and his diverse range of projects at all scales from jewelry to architecture.
Fitchwork originated from a graduate thesis project focused on 3D printing for molding and casting complex modular block systems, leading to a career in architecture. Frustration with architectural timeframes and a desire for faster-paced projects led to the formation of Fitchwork, with a focus on experimental projects using pattern exploration and digital fabrication methods.
Over the past eight years, Travis has explored various sectors, including fashion, product design, furniture, architecture, and textiles.
What motivated you to establish your design company, Fitchwork, and can you give us an overview of the design research, products and services it offers?
My practice grew out of a graduate thesis project in architecture school that explored 3D printing as a tool for molding and casting complex modular block systems. This project landed me a job in Architecture, but I was frustrated by the state of technological and material exploration in my day to day work.
Large building projects move very slowly, while the office pace is exhausting and demanding. 5 years in, I set off on my own to pursue smaller projects that directly used modern fabrication methods in experimental ways.
I had no specific clients or goals at this time, just a fixation with using modularity and pattern to work between different scales of design.
In the 8 or so years since then, I've worked on projects in fashion, product design, furniture, architecture and most recently textiles.
I try to stay open minded when it comes to both project needs and changing culture around design, but there are some common threads: discretization, part to whole relationships, symmetric operations, anticlastic surfaces, the exploration of digital design and fabrication tools.
I like to design structures that repeat in a dynamic way, so it's often more of a systems approach to each project, starting with a wide variety of options and narrowing down.
As far as services, it's a wide range: 3D design, rationalization for fabrication, commissions, architectural design, rendering, shop drawings. I do a lot of work designing direct-fabric 3D printed patterns for fashion collaborations, but have also been working on a series of modular, passive solar adobe houses in the desert. Like, mud and photopolymers! I think these things can coexist. It's often a matter of alignment with clients - is this an interesting project that can benefit from the skills and techniques that I bring to the table? Each project is a collaboration.
How does this work at Fitchwork, intersect with or inform the teaching and design research you conduct at Parsons School of Design in the Textiles Department?
At Parsons, a lot of what I teach is very basic - how to use different 3D modeling tools, develop files for digital fabrication, conceptually integrate these into a project, and think spatially through models and drawing.
3D design isn't commonly taught in textile programs, and the question for students is what possibilities do these tools open up in your work. We often start by modeling patterns that are derived from textiles, such as a loop stitch or plain weave. I’ve found a lot of overlap between the types of geometric structures I'm interested in and the world of textiles, as both involve aggregation and modulation of smaller operations, towards functional and aesthetic goals.
Textiles is an enormous field, encompassing craft, computation, geometry, labor and culture. These days, textiles inform my own research more than the other way around.
How do the design and fabrication processes for textiles using interwoven lattice structures differ from, or converge with, the approach of 3D printing onto existing fabrics in your design work?
Let's say every textile is a lattice.
A knit is composed of a single thread looping with itself, and a weave is composed of multiple crossing threads interacting together.
These differences are rooted in the tools of production. 3D printing is governed by different constraints, so these one or two directional lattices can have nodes, branches, they can thicken and thin in response to different forces, change scale and take 3D form.
Most textiles are orthogonal systems, and it's fascinating to adapt these two directional systems to triangular or hexagonal symmetries that wouldn't work on a loom.
There are so many geometric ideas to be gleaned from textiles, and I am interested in how these lessons mutate with different tools. This is work I’ve explored much more with laser sintering than direct fabric printing, as you can print complex, delicate, interconnected structures with ease.
With your work 3D printing onto existing fabrics with Stratasys and their PolyJet printers, how does this approach compare and contrast to traditional embroidery techniques both in terms of design theory and practical implementation?
Direct fabric printing is one of many different traditions of textile embellishment. Beadwork, sequining, block printing, embroidery and applique are all crafts which have been pushed to the limits over centuries.
To me it feels dishonest to mimic these techniques with a novel, futuristic machine like a polyjet printer.
Stratasys’ J850 Techstyle printer allows for full color, multi material and high resolution 3D embellishment. It's relatively easy to have thousands of heterogeneous shapes printed on a fabric sheet, with variations in scale, height, size, shape, color, transparency and density — which I can't imagine doing by hand or hand operated machine.
All of the rules are different, and I think we are far from having any kind of design theory or framework to contextualize the implications for textile design.
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The current materials available for 3D printing on fabric are limited to cosmetic and aesthetic purposes, however, they have the potential to be extended for functional applications that include interactive elements and sensors. How can your current computational approach to placement and pattern design inform the creation of functional applications in the future?
There are plenty of applications I could speculate on from a functional perspective, and some that folks have already begun exploring. A bathing suit with small printed scales that increase speed, for example; printing parts to control flexibility, stretch or absorption in performance wear. There is certainly a lot of overlap with e textiles, and the possibility to print housings, conduit, sensors, all that sort of thing, directly on the fabric.
I tend to believe that the majority of functional aspects of clothing have been solved for a long time—wool is fantastic insulation, even when wet—and I think we dress a lot of cosmetic things up as functional because of this. The most important functional conversations in fashion are about labor, waste and economics.
3D printing on fabrics could localize certain production, and it could disrupt vibrant craft communities. It could introduce new forms of low waste, tailored, on demand production, and it could introduce more unnecessary polymers into the ecosystem.
I am unashamedly interested in the aesthetic possibilities of the technology, but all aesthetics are also functional and political within a broader context. The anti-ornament perspective of modernism is a bit of a historical tragedy. There are many contemporary theorists that have taken a more nuanced understanding to how aesthetic systems — pattern, ornament, texture, color — are very much “functioning” in the ways that they affect us. With digital fabrication tools, in particular, it is so important to expand the conversation around functionality.
I have been doing a lot of work 3D printing lenticular designs on fabric that change color depending on the viewers orientation. Similarly, I’ve been engaged in a project with a colleague at Parsons, Anette Millington, where we've been mixing and screen printing UV and thermally reactive pigments, using computationally generated silk screens.
Printing carefully calibrated structures onto fabric can produce all sorts of environmental responses to humidity, light, temperature and movement. Is that function? Or performative aesthetics? How a design interacts with its environment is an essential and compelling design question, whether it's a house or a dress.
Moving on to the actual ‘printing’ of fabrics, what are your thoughts on the limitations of using 3D printing in fashion and textiles, specifically regarding the material properties and production speed, and how do you envision these limitations being overcome for the wider adoption of Additive Manufacturing in the fashion industry beyond the realms of experimental, conceptual, and haute couture?
Great question. With direct fabric printing on the J850, the technology is best suited for couture and luxury product design, small volume projects, and niche customization for of-a-kind prints. The process is constrained by the print bed, which is relatively small, and in textiles you're typically dealing with yardage. There are enormous digital embroidery machines out there, so perhaps it's a matter of scaling up the process.
A reel to reel method would be a different way to accomplish this, with its own technical challenges. It may also just be a matter of working within the limitations, as the process is already being used for small parts that can be nested on a single print—sneakers, bags, hats, and other designs where just a little bit of printed area goes a long way.
As far as 3D printing an actual “fabric”, this is a multifaceted problem of modeling information, material science, and printing process. Just designing a part with a million “fibers” is a challenge currently, much less communicating that design to a machine and printing it with the required detail and resolution.
CDFAM Computational Design Symposium brings together leading engineers, developers and academics for two days of presentations on computational design at all scales, May 7-8, 2024.
OK, moving on from the physical limitations of AM and the business side constraints of the adoption of AM in fashion at scale, can you discuss your design process and the software you use?
Design is a conversation using drawings, models and prototypes. I tend to work through many iterations, starting with a large range of options and whittling them down.
Versioning is an enormous benefit of working digitally. I spend a lot of time in Rhino 3D, and use Grasshopper to automate iterations or certain processes, but also sketch a lot.
It's taken years to feel like working in a 3D program is as intuitive as drawing — we are always trying to out-date tools, rather than see them as complimentary or just good.
Rhino is a fantastically versatile tool, as is a pencil, and I love both because they are good design tools for many different ways of constructing things. The way that something is going to be made is critical to any design process. Is it printed, cast, routed, welded, knitted, framed or sewn? Equally important is context — budget, goals, scope, timeframe, site, climate, market. Each project is different, but it is crucial to establish these driving forces early in any project.
When it comes to patterns, I have very specific workflows. I spend a lot of time creating modular, periodic tiles that use different types of planar symmetry to create continuity.
I rely heavily on the 2D wallpaper groups and 3D space groups as building blocks for any repetitive structure.
These fundamental geometries are incredibly useful organizational tools across different scales and applications, whether its fashion or architecture. Much of my research into patterning involves developing ”cells” that explore different topological structures to create controlled variation across a surface. A pattern in architecture might vary based on solar or structural parameters, while a pattern in fashion might vary to control stiffness or flexibility, but in either case you need control over a geometric system.
Finally, what are you working on next in your design practice, and what developments in software tools and 3D printing processes are you most eagerly anticipating? How do these hold the potential to bring about new and innovative opportunities for both research and real-world applications in AM Fabrics?
Currently, I am working on a variety of prototype applications for 3D printed polyjet textiles, mostly in automotive interiors and fashion, as well as a few small collections of DMLS and lost wax cast jewelry. Plus, pitching constantly to new potential clients and collaborators.
This year, more than most, I am committed to expanding my toolkit of digital fabrication techniques, specifically into digital knitting and embroidery.
Programming for digital knitting can be very painful, but there are some new tools out there — such as variant3D — that are working to change this.
In 3D printing, I am excited about methods that allow for more detail and intricacy while expanding scale in either size or production volume. OPT industries is a great example of this, as it requires developing software that can handle a lot of information and also communicate that to a 3D printing process.
I am looking forward to see what types of material innovations arrive in the coming years. The vast majority of 3D printers are still polymer based, and we desperately need biodegradable materials that are not petroleum based.
Easier said than done, of course! This vivobarefoot shoe just dropped that is compostable (at a facility), is something like 50% mycelium, and meets performance standards that biomaterials tend to fail. More of that please!!