Walden Lam Of Unspun Is Using 3D Weaving To Create Sustainable Denim
The founder of Unspun is on a quest to create sustainably made jeans that fit like a dream
Normally, shopping for a new pair of jeans involves browsing racks of denim and often struggling to find the right fit. However, custom jeans start-up Unspun’s shops contain just a single item: a scanning capsule. Using this proprietary body scanner, the company creates a perfectly tailored pair of jeans for each customer’s body, in a process that’s both more sustainable and size-inclusive than traditional manufacturing.
Walden Lam, Unspun’s founder, explains that his company’s approach involves holding no inventory in its stores and ensuring no excess or unsold goods end up in landfills. Traditional garment manufacturing wastes about 15 percent of the fabric, so Lam’s team is also working to develop a 3D weaving machine that will create garments to shape without generating any cutting waste. In the meantime, the startup’s offcuts become housing insulation.
Fresh out of university, Lam had originally been on track for a career in finance when the recession of 2008 hit. After becoming a consultant instead, his attention turned to the environment and how climate change was an existential crisis that governments were failing to deal with.
He decided people couldn’t “wait for [their] government to take action” and that the greatest positive climate impact would come from creating change from the ground up using consumer behaviour. In September 2021, the company made further inroads, raising US$7.5 million in seed funding to develop its robotic manufacturing capabilities. Here, Lam explains how Unspun’s technology is at the forefront of fashion.
It starts with the scanning process, which can take place in our Hong Kong and San Francisco offices. Everywhere else, customers can access the scanning process through their iPhone. You scan yourself using the app by spinning for ten seconds, which generates an avatar. You then customise the jeans to your frame. We have four styles: a slim fit, a tapered fit, a regular straight fit and a wide fit. On top of those, you choose different fabrics, waist sizes and stitch colours. Unspun does the rest.
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We are developing our own 3D weaving technology—like a 3D printer for clothes. Instead of the normal [flat] fabric-cutting process, we three-dimensionally weave the final garment, creating less cutting waste. By the end of the year, we’ll have launched our first product using this machine. It has been a long time coming.
The fashion industry is talking about circularity: keeping materials within the fashion industry. A lot has to do with first recycling, and then designing for recycling. However, in many places in the world today, especially in markets where labour costs are really high, you can’t manufacture onshore. But with a 3D weaving machine, a big part of the process is automated, creating circularity within the local economy.
I have a daughter who is about two years old, and a few months ago she was sitting in my office when suddenly she jumped up, walked inside the body scanner and said, “Let me get a pair of jeans!” It made me realise that the next generation is adaptable and doesn’t care about abiding by the same technologies that [people my age] had growing up. A lot of my generation’s work is just laying the foundation for the next generation and creating a more assured future. Having my daughter in my life now has given that mission a bit more weight.