And Now, Open Source… Underwear

Some techno-activists have banded together and tried to create some vaguely Socialist declaration of principles surrounding “open source hardware”, couching the whole thing in incredibly meaningless and obfuscatory terminology burdened by a vaguely starry-eyed idealism that is palpably out of touch with the real world.

It’s not that I think this is a completely terribly and pointless idea, because it isn’t. But when you start talking about electronics – as most people involved with OSHW are – I can’t help but feel that ideological fervor has completely overtaken reason and practicality.

What people seem to want to do is create a (mildly draconian) framework under which the world would benefit (somehow…) from complete and open transparency regarding the design of, say, an open source computer, or cellphone, or electronic fuel-injection system. On paper that looks good, at first.

How “open source” is something that includes extremely specialized components available from a single commercial source, though? Sure, with the CAD files and so on, anyone with access to the right equipment can produce PCBs and whatnot; producing a transistor or a microprocessor or an FPGA is another matter entirely.

People seem to ignore questions like this, and perhaps for good reason, in that nobody has a good answer. The closest I’ve ever seen was the suggestion that commercial entities would support OSHW designs containing their own products because of the obvious vested self-interest involved. There is precedence for this, not surprisingly, but it seems kind of a silly handwave in the context of all the politically- and legally-questionable ideological dogma that otherwise comprises the definitions and discussions of open source hardware. My feeling is that “open source” stuff isn’t really open source unless it can be readily created or reproduced from raw materials… and that a surface-mount comparator isn’t a “raw material” the way wood or fabric and so on are.

Anyway, since we’ve got open-source software, and now open-source hardware, and even open-source firmware, I think people who aren’t aspiring members of the Revolutionary Communist Party should perhaps turn their attention to the next ‘ware in desperate need of open-sourcing: underwear.

Specifically, at least to begin with, brassieres.

For pretty much every other piece of clothing, an array of semi-standard sizes fits most people correctly, where “correctly” means “without discomfort”. And for pretty much every other piece of clothing, you can get items custom-made to your requirements just by providing a reasonably competent tailor with the appropriate, standardized, measurements.

That’s a very good thing – it means that, for instance, armed only with a small amount of money and a lengthy list of measurements, you can commission custom-made clothes online and wind up with something handmade to your requirements, half the world away. (It’s almost like the human body is the original open standard – well studied and understood, reasonably universal, and capable of being produced with very unskilled labor.)

The same is not at all true of bras. As far as I, my roommates, and a couple of coworkers can tell, there is a huge demand for custom or semi-custom bras, because everybody is built a bit differently up there, yet the only way to get such a thing made is via an in-person fitting – one in which the measurements and techniques involved vary widely from tailor to tailor.

If some people sat down and designed some standard bra patterns, the world at large could benefit immensely from the opportunities for customization and modification inherent in such an open-source underwear design. The technology required is minimalistic, and the raw materials are widely available and can be varied easily, two things that would seem to make the whole thing ideally suited for adoption and embrace by open-source advocates.

I mean, just think – through trial and error you eventually determine that that the front-opening non-underwire Mk. IIIb bra, size 32A, fits perfectly. That being the case, you should then never have to deal with your “perfect” bra being discontinued, or no longer sold at a store (or in a country!) anywhere near you. If WalMart is making and selling them, by the mildly onerous nature of most Open Source licenses, they’re going to be forced to disclose that fact, so knowing what products on the market are actually Mk. IIIb bras shouldn’t be particularly hard.

And, if you happen to be like my coworker, who’s a bit… asymmetrical… up top, you’d be able to save an enormous amount of time and money and grief by being able to go onto eBay, or whatever, and having some nice seamstress in India or Pakistan or China make you a half-dozen Mk. Vc’s with a 33B left cup, a 38B right cup, with Part 12 only 1.5CM overall length, 2mm padding, in white, cheap.

I realize the whole idea is probably doomed from failure just from the get-go, because guys – who seem to dominate the open-source movement – mostly fail to understand the importance of a bra that fits “just right”, and because the movement as a whole is terribly unlikely to get excited about anything as boring and low-tech as underwear. But, still, people can dream, right?

Published in: Geekiness, General | on October 11th, 2010| 3 Comments »

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  1. On 10/11/2010 at 1:23 pm Nemo Said:

    I suspect that one of the more viable ways to make open-source clothing gain traction would be to involve some of the more obsessive special interest groups that would stand to benefit from such a thing. People who are into vintage fashion, for example, would probably jump all over the chance to design a standard public pattern – or series of standard patterns – for 1940s-style suit jackets and sportcoats with “correct”, high armholes…

  2. On 10/12/2010 at 9:27 am Sandy Said:

    Love the way your mind works 🙂

    However, I don’t think open-source approach will solve the bra problem; we will benefit more from a wider availability of custom pattern services, when the tailor gives you the actual pattern which you can then take to a seamstress. Uniformity in labels will help too: I went to three shops and ended up with three different sizes!

    You mention “opportunities for customization and modification”, but, as with software, customising a sewing pattern requires knowledge: to be able to say “Part 12 only 1.5CM overall length” I still need a tailor to tell me that. So it’s not like any lady can download a pattern and turn it into a perfect-fitting thing all by herself.

    Fabrics alter the fit too as they stretch, etc. I’m a standard-sized lady, and still need to go up or down a size depending on what the bra is made of.

    Your idea of a centralised repository is useful for pattern exchange (e.g. download anywhere, the same unit system, no confusion as to what each party means by what) and for continuity (something is no longer produced).

    As for vintage clothing, a much bigger issue is the fabric: it must feel and look just right which is not always possible with modern materials. I make for medieval and 1940s reenactors, and most of my time is spent hunting for materials – patterns are the easy bit as they are freely available. So I’d rather maintain a list of where to buy what, than a library of patterns.

    And the open-source idea is doomed not because there are not enough girls in the movement but because the bra size chaos is good for retaining customers: if I find a brand that fits, no way I’m buying from someone else unless I have to. Maybe one day, with enough buyer pressure…

  3. On 10/12/2010 at 12:26 pm Nemo Said:

    Well, the fundamental problem that I see is that there is nothing even resembling uniformity in nomenclature or design right now, making communicating desired changes in design a severe challenge, even if there *were* more custom tailors to communicate them to. The idea isn’t that people need basic (or specialist) sewing experience, so much as a common way of expressing their wishes.

    Most of the women of my acquaintance have no skill as seamstresses, but can still figure out what would make a given bra more comfortable. Sadly, requesting “a Barely There 4388, size 36B, only with the side band an inch higher up on the cups” might be totally meaningless to someone without access to such a bra, and raises certain unavoidable intellectual property issues. Saying “a pattern XV, size 36B, with part 12 attached to parts 3 and 5 one inch higher than normal” would solve the whole nomenclature problem handily. (Ditto for someone who wants an old white 1950s style bra made, one with the thingy and the doohickey, like Eartha Kitt et al might have worn in pinup photos back in the day. Knowing what the hell the doohickey part is called would be immensely useful.)

    Likewise, with vintage-styled apparrel, a community might decide that the 1962 edition Simplicity #1234 pattern is the bee’s knees when it comes to vintage sport coat patterns – only with the lapels and collar reduced in width, the waist darted slightly, and the hem left three inches longer than what the pattern specifies. Trying to communicate these requirements over and over and over again to tailors, who may or may not have a copy of the original pattern, and who may or may not speak perfect English, is probably a recipe for disaster. Come up with some uniform vector graphics of the “perfected” pattern that can be printed out without charge anywhere in the world, and you’ve suddenly got a common point of reference for the design half of the equation, meaning you can spend most of your effort trying to explain what “seersucker” is. 🙂

    I think it could work. Yes, shoppers are immensely reluctant to switch once they’ve found the perfect fit – but how many have? Give people a standardized framework to work from, so as to skip the requirements for custom and non-standard measurements, and suddenly you can get stuff that *does* fit perfectly – and you can leverage the global marketplace to get it for less than $20 or $30, which is – as I see it – a big win for the consumer.