Future Fur: A collaboration in fashion, design, and technology


Steph Larsen

Steph Larsen

By Stephanie Strom

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab have come up with an innovation that will delight the fashion industry and people concerned about animal welfare: 3D-printed fur that feels remarkably like the real thing.

Called Cilllia, the fur is made from a biocompatible resin used in dentistry and feels like mink or chinchilla. Two coats made from it are currently on exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City and Cube, a design museum in Kerkrade, the Netherlands. 

The coats were designed by Erin Robertson, the Boston-based designer who won the grand prize on Project Runway in 2017. At the time, she said, the fashion world was excited about 3D printing and the potential for deploying it on runways around the world. 

But Roberston was skeptical. “3D printing is so hard—and what’s its relationship to fashion anyway?” she said. 

She had taken a class at the Media Lab when she was a student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and she attended a symposium at MIT shortly after she had finished filming for Project Runway. There, she met Jifei Ou, then a graduate student in the Lab’s Tangible Media group. 

He was showcasing a new research work, Cilllia, and Robertson immediately saw its potential for fashion. “I hate the word innovation so much because people throw it around when all they’re really doing is just gluing something onto something else or repurposing something already invented,” she said. “But this was so different, and I was like, we have to work on something together.” 

The timing was serendipitous, Ou said. The Media Lab had demonstrated a variety of uses for Cilllia, including mechanical adhesion, passive actuators, and touch sensors. “When Erin came by, we had been thinking about how to push this out into the real world and make it more than just a lab specimen, and her idea that it could be used for a coat or shawl or some other piece of clothing was exactly that,” Ou said.


Steph Larsen

Cilllia is the result of a new 3D printing process Ou developed as a student at the Media Lab. Using traditional computer-assisted design software would have meant drawing thousands of hair-like structures on a computer, then translating each hair’s contours into a mesh of miniscule triangles. Each cross-section of each mesh triangle would then need to be translated into layer-by-layer pixelated instructions for the 3D printer to follow. The whole process would take huge amounts of computer time and power before printing could even begin. 

Ou and his colleagues at the Media Lab decided to try a voxel-based printing software that allowed users to define the angle, thickness, and height of thousands of hairs in just a few minutes. They came up with a process that enables the design and production of hair structures at 50 micrometer resolution, or 1/24,500th of an inch, and with various functions, including for passive actuators, swipe sensors, and mechanical adhesion.

To make the material for the coats, the software was programmed to produce a soft fur with the hand and feel of fur used in fur coats. (The process is described in a paper that was presented at CHI 2016.)

“It’s just so amazing—you can’t even believe it’s 3D printed,” said Matilda McQuaid, deputy director of curatorial and head of textiles at Cooper Hewitt. “The texture is just extraordinary.”

McQuaid was part of a team from Cooper Hewitt who visited the Media Lab in 2018 searching for something new and interesting for the museum’s Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial exhibit, which would start the following year. The fur exemplified simulation, one of the themes of the exhibit, and the museum team was eager to have it. “Another example is a bioleather that was completely fabricated in the laboratory,” McQuaid said. 

But how to show it? Ou mentioned to McQuaid that Robertson also had an interest in the fur, which satisfied the museum’s desire to showcase projects that were a result of collaboration across disciplines. 

The challenge was to produce the fur in a way it could be used to make a coat—the output dimension of high-resolution 3D printers is typically very small. Ou and his team would have to reengineer the whole process to maintain a high resolution while printing much larger swathes of Cilllia. 


Steph Larsen

He also needed to work with Robertson as she designed the coats so that they both had a holistic idea of how the garments would come together before the fur was printed. Smocking, for instance, was part of one coat, and that involved several iterations before they found exactly what Robertson was looking for. 

A “fur” jacket required large, long sheets of Cilllia that Robertson could separate into smaller parts using scissors and then reassemble horizontally with a sewing machine.

Robertson said the challenges were no different from those posed by other textiles. “A textile can only do so much, and you have to design within the parameters of that textile,” she said. “There’s always a limitation of one sort or the other.” 

Ou said 3D printing holds great promise for simplifying the textile industry and making it more sustainable. “The way people make a garment, there are four or five different processes from producing the fiber and spinning the yarn to putting the pieces together,” he said. “3D printing can condense all these steps into one process, which definitely reduces the carbon footprint and efficiency of manufacturing.”

He said the use of materials harvested from waste streams is a growing area of research—although he hasn’t yet found a way for Cilllia to be laundered. “There’s so much potential to improve the raw materials we use to make clothing,” Ou said. “That makes 3D printing quite exciting.” 


Steph Larsen

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