"3D printers have a lot to learn from the sewing machine"

Opinion: a digitally-driven revival of interest in sewing proves that people want to create, but the 3D-printing movement is failing to cater to a market that wants something practical and beautiful, says Alexandra Lange.

In March, Slate Magazine's Seth Stevenson provided a public service when he borrowed a Solidoodle 4, pitched as the "accessible", "affordable" 3D printer, and attempted to print a bottle opener from Thingiverse. Results, as they say, vary, but he ended up, after a series of phone calls and false starts, with "a functionless, semi-decorative piece of plastic."

The bumbling encounter with technology is a popular stratagem for Slate, but here it pointed directly to the reason we're not seeing a 3D printer in every den. I've seen those rhino heads, those dinosaur skulls. They do not fill me with delight, but remind me instead of the cheap toys my kids bring home from birthday parties and I throw away in the night. Why bother? How is printing your Triceratops at home more creative, more making, than buying one from a store? In either case, step one is scrolling through pages of online options, pointing and clicking in 2D.

Stevenson concluded that 3D printing was no place for amateurs, but for tinkerers. Those able to work under the hood of the printer: to understand the terms in the manual, to customise or create their own products for Thingiverse. For such tinkerers, neighbourhood printing hubs like Techshop, where subscribers can go to use physical or digital tools, make more sense. Designers taking advantage of 3D printers' capabilities for rapid prototyping and small-batch production have already started farming out the actual printing to places like Shapeways. When we stopped having to fax even weekly, we all got rid of those machines.

But then Stevenson took a turn toward the larger question of craft. He wrote, "Once upon a time, people purchased sewing patterns (like a program from Thingiverse) and yards of fabric (like filament) and they made their own clothes. I wasn't alive back then, but I'm pretty sure the process sucked."

I must be older than Stevenson, because my mother and grandmother sewed clothes for me. My mother, aunt and I have all sewed clothes and quilts for my children. They are not amateurishly constructed. We managed to make them while also holding down full time jobs. And judging from the extremely active online sewing community, the active trade in old machines and patterns on Ebay, and the ease with which one can locate a scan of a thirty-year-old sewing machine manual, the digital age has not turned sewing into a novelty, but spawned a revival of interest. In fact, if 3D printers are truly going to become a consumer good, they have a lot to learn from the sewing machine.

Because Stevenson snidely generalised from his own limited experience, he missed the instructive dialogue between craft and the machine age. Post-industrial sewing is not a freak but a respite. In Evgeny Morozov's recent New Yorker essay on the new makers, he quotes historian Jackson Lears' critique of the Arts & Crafts movement as "a revivifying hobby for the affluent." I'd say middle-class: (mostly) women who aren't seeing what they want, at a price they can afford, in the marketplace.

There’s an appetite for the "refashion," recycling an old dress or an adult T-shirt, and turning it into something new. Once upon a time, the use of flour sacks as fabric prompted grain-sellers to start offering their wares in flowered cotton bags. If some boutique grain company began doing that again, there would be a run on their product. Under the technology radar, there's a community of people sharing free patterns, knowledge and results, without the interpolation of brands, constantly obsolescent machinery, or the self-serving and myth-making rhetoric Morozov finds in Chris Anderson's Makers. There are the answers to the questions "Why bother?" and "How creative?" Rather than sewing being a cautionary tale, 3D printing can't become a consumer good until it learns a few lessons from why we sew now.

Number one: what's not available on the market. If you have a girl child in America, it is often difficult to find reasonably-priced, 100 per cent cotton clothing for her without ruffles, pink or purple, butterflies and hearts. If you go to the boy section, you run into an equally limiting set of colors, navy and army green, and an abundance of sports insignia. A full-skirted dress, a petite skirt, prints for the plus-sized – there are plenty of styles that are not novelties but, when not in fashion, disappear from stores. Online you can find patterns to make any of the above for less than $10, and fabric at the same price per yard. Online you can find step-by-step explanations, with photos, of how to make that pattern. That world of patterns is vast, constantly updated, and historically rich. Yes, sewing your own garment will take some time, but then you will have exactly what you want. That's why women bother.

The consumer-facing side of 3D printing is Thingiverse, where you can download a digital file (like a pattern) to tell your 3D printer what to print. This is a little different than sewing because, while you can choose your filament (at $43 per roll), you don't have much input. You are not cutting, pinning. You are not customising. And a skim of the offerings suggests not so much items not on the market, or even items desperately needed, but items to show off that you 3D printed something. Vases, figurines, intricate and unwearable wearables. Why spend the time or money? Even at the Makerbot showroom in Boston, they showed nothing that was useful (a jet-pack bunny) and few things that were beautiful (honeycombed Easter eggs). All objects, no problem-solving.

The only 3D printed object I have ever desired is the Free Universal Construction Kit, designed to allow one to attach Lego to Bristle Blocks to Zoob. It definitely solves a problem not addressed by the market. It's not on the market because the rival toy manufacturers have no interest in getting everything to connect. I still wouldn't want to print it at home: I would rather send the job to the Makerbot showroom, and let someone else mind the machine, because my input would be minimal.

Second lesson: recycling. Say my mother did actually sew something amateurishly. That's not the end of the story. A mis-printed jet-pack bunny is so much trash (unless I buy a second machine like a Filabot to remelt my filament). A mis-sewn seam can be ripped out and redone. An old dress can be refashioned into a new one. A favorite vintage piece can be copied. Sewing does not create more waste but, potentially, less, and the process of sewing is filled with opportunities for increasing one's skills and doing it over as well as doing it yourself. What are quilts, after all, but a clever way to use every last scrap of precious fabric?

So far, 3D printing's DIY aspects seem more akin to the "magic" of an ant farm, watching growth behind glass. Sewing lets the maker find their own materials, and get involved with every aspect of the process. 3D printing could do this, and there are classes, but even at the Makerbot showroom the primary interaction seemed to be ordering from Thingiverse. My local sewing shop has to teach more women to sew to survive; I don't see the printer makers coming to the same conclusion.

In addition, the machines themselves are constantly becoming junk. It's not unusual for new technology to change quickly. That's the fourth Solidoodle since 2011. Makerbot is on its fifth generation. It is early days for 3D printing, and the machines may eventually stabilise. But the rapid obsolescence suggests a lifecycle closer to that of a mobile phone than of a washing machine, which might also turn consumers off. The sewing machine was considered a lifetime purchase.

Last but not least, sharing. This is the one consumer area where 3D printing approaches sewing's success. From the Free Universal Construction Kit to full-body scans, the idea of open-source, free, and social-media enabled printing has been built-in to the 3D process. Showing off what you made is better when you created it, rather than printed it out. On the sewing blogs, the process pictures are half the fun, and most of the interest. What does it really teach your children when you can get doll house furniture on demand, except a desire for ever-more-instant gratification? For me to believe in 3D printers as a home machine, I'd have to see the digital file equivalent of women in their off-hours, making up patterns as they go along, sharing mistakes, dreaming better dreams. 3D printing feels bottled up, professionalised, too expensive for the experimentation of cut and sew and rip and sew again.

Stevenson wrote, "most people would much rather just get their clothes from a store — already assembled by people employing industrial-level efficiency and a wide variety of materials," and that's true. What Solidoodle and Makerbot and the rest should be looking at is the people who have seen everything in the store and found it wanting.

Sewing machine image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Alexandra Lange is a New York-based architecture and design critic. She is a Loeb Fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Design for academic year 2013-2014 and is the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities as well as the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism.