This page was printed from

Just add heat: Researchers create style-changing dress

Swatches | June 1, 2024 | By:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Self-Asssembly Lab’s knitting machine used to make the base dress design.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Self-Assembly Lab have created prototypes of a 4D knit dress that can change style using heat.

The yarn that makes up most of the dress is a blend of viscose that comes from FSC-certified wood pulp and polyester. The “active” yarn is made of nylon that changes shape and properties when heated. These are embedded throughout the dress, allowing it to change style, such as adding pintucks, pleats or a cinched waist, based on where the heat is directed. 

Close-ups of the structure of the base dress. The darker areas are where the heat-activated yarns have contracted and shrunk, becoming denser. Images: MIT Self-Assembly Lab

The base dress design is programmed into a tubular knitting machine; then a six-axis robotic arm heats the dress in specific areas to create the desired style. 

The dress prototype and the heat gun used to change its style, such as by adding ruffles or pleats. After heat activation, the style is set, even after washing and drying.

“There was a lot of trial and error to figure out how to orient the robot and the heat gun,” says Danny Griffin, an MIT architectural-design graduate student who helped program the robotic arm. “The heat needs to be applied in precise locations to activate the fibers on each garment. Another challenge was setting the temperature and the timing for the heat to be applied.”

A woman wearing the dress at a debut event in December 2023 at Ministry of Supply in Boston.

The dress and technology debuted to the public in December 2023 at Ministry of Supply, a men’s and women’s business-attire store in Boston, Mass. Previously, the lab and the clothing company collaborated in 2020 and 2021, using this technology to rapidly produce face masks during the pandemic.

Shown is an example of how the dress can change styles, going from the original dress to an A-line design to a body-conforming style.

Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and president of Ministry of Supply, supports the technology and its potential to develop a more sustainable manufacturing process. “A lot of times, you’ll be guessing what a season’s style is,” he says. “Sometimes the style doesn’t do well, or some sizes don’t sell out. They may get discounted very heavily or eventually, they end up going to a landfill.”

The dress can be altered with heat to create a wide variety of styles, such as the designs shown here. It is machine washable and can be tumble dried because the yarns are set to activate at 230 F and standard dryers operate at 135 F.

With the technology already commercially available, the lab and Ministry of Supply are continuing to explore other applications and will move forward based on consumer feedback. “If the demand is there, this is something we can create quickly,” says Amarasiriwardena.

Share this Story