3-D Printing and Handcrafts

The first time I heard about 3-D printing was on an episode of The Big Bang Theory, where two of the guys bought a 3D printer for $10,000 or something, and used it to create — a plastic whistle.  So I thought, “Obviously it will be years in the future before this is something I need to think about.”

But then I saw this practical and stylish cast made with 3-D printing, and then I saw a huge “tentacle” sweater on the cover of a ScienceNews magazine, and I started to get interested in the possibilities.

photo by Edyka Zwirecka

Not on the one on the ScienceNews cover, but close.  Photo by Edyta Zwirecka from Wikimedia Commons. *

photo by Edyta Zwirecka from Wikimedia Commons

3-D printers are being used for all kinds of amazing things, like prosthetic legs and arms, prosthetic beaks for injured eagles, models of Cro-Magnon man for museums, replacement parts for old equipment, whole houses, and guitars that look like they’re made out of lace.  Of course, they are also being used for all kinds of unnecessary or even evil purposes.  For this post, I am going to leave all of those fascinating alternatives to their insightful creators and your imagination, and just talk about the effect 3-D printers might have on my craft habit, and yours.

ScienceNews says personal 3-D printers cost about $1000 right now, for printers that can create objects out of plastic. Now, normally if you told me that a mere $1000 would get me a device to make my own weaving bobbins and shuttles, I would say, “That’s ridiculous!  I can get those ready-made.”

Shuttles aren't cheap, but I don't think I need a big expensive machine to make my own...

Shuttles aren’t cheap, but I don’t think I need a big expensive machine to make my own…

But after seeing some of the possibilities out there, I am already thinking, “But I could have a neon purple shuttle!  I could make what I want, instead of accepting a mass-produced solution!”

...But wait, I could have a shuttle like no one else's!

…But wait, I could have a shuttle like no one else’s!

This is why I weave my own towels and make my own quilts, right?  To get things the way I like them.

Wait a minute – will I even need bobbins and threads?  Can I just create textiles with 3-D printers?

Right now some sorts of textiles can be made, but the printers are still having problems with cotton and silk.  Everything that I have seen looks very plastic-y, and not very comfortable.  They’re either made of interlinking material, like plastic pot scrubbers, or of molded forms, that look a little like dish draining boards. One top I saw on YouTube took 170 hours to print, so it’s not even more time-efficient than making something by hand.

So let’s look 15 years in the future, and guess that by then the printers can easily handle either natural fibers or synthetics that are so good, you can’t tell the difference.  Let’s say I can afford a printer, I have learned how to work it, and I am convinced that the environmental impact of creating by printer is minimal.  Will I still make crafts by hand?  Or will I spend my time designing things to turn out on the printer?

Will I still take my loom to craft fairs to show how it was done in the old days?  Will there still be craft fairs?  When you can take an object home and have a computer replicate it for you, will there be a reason to buy anything from an experienced craftsperson?  Or will people’s individuality be so evident in their creations, that we continue to buy their work to capture the sparks that speak to us?

This new capability reminds me of the era when machine quilting was not accepted as “real” quilting.  But artists saw possibilities for expression and pushed machine techniques to astounding levels.  I imagine works of “additive manufacturing” will do the same – take quilting traditions in directions we can’t foresee, but will appreciate.

For myself, I am guessing this new trend will compare to my adjustment to digital photography.  I had a very nice film camera, and took a class to learn to use it, but switching to a digital camera made photography a much bigger part of my life.  Now I take hundreds of pictures in a week, and I edit them all.  I don’t print them out and put them in albums; I enjoy them when they come up on my screen saver.  And sometimes I put away the camera and just draw – it depends what result I’m after.

What I enjoy most about textile crafts is making things that capture my ideas.  So if a 3-D printer would capture an idea best, I could see using it.  But I think I would add that to my repertoire of crafts, but not give up the others.  I like the crisp look of the 3-D printed creations, but I wouldn’t want to be surrounded by only  those objects – it would feel too barren to me.  I would have to have some natural and handmade objects in the mix.  For example, I could see myself designing and printing a bedside table that is sturdy and fits perfectly in the tiny space beside my bed – but I would top it with a handwoven runner, an old book, a vintage vase, and an overblown rose.

What about you?  Will you welcome this technical marvel, or ignore it?  Or do you think it will turn out to be a short-lived curiosity?  Do you think more people will share the joys of creating unique items?  Or will they lose all appreciation for the effort that goes into creation?

More links:

3D printed cast – Wired magazine

3D printing in fashion –  NY Times

More 3D printing in fashion – The Guardian

Interesting exhibit – Science Museum, London – this exhibit is open until 2015 – I think I have to make a trip!

But is it green? – Michigan Tech News

“3D-printer-clothing-6531” by EdytaZwirecka – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:3D-printer-clothing-6531.jpg#mediaviewer/File:3D-printer-clothing-6531.jpg

It does not say on the Wikimedia page, but the EcoBrides website used this image too, and they credit the design to Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, who is well known for her 3-D printed garments.  If you would like to see more of her work, I would suggest just going to your favorite search engine and pulling up images – her website is very hard to navigate, with pictures that move around as you are trying to scroll.