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The aim of this design research is to explore modular shapes and interlocking systems for apparel design using research through practice approach. As a transformable design approach, modular design features small standardized units that can be independently combined in various configurations to create different forms and provide multiple functions. However, there has been little hands-on integration of methods for developing more fitted garment designs and incorporating visually appealing surfaces, such as prints, within a modular system. By adopting Bye’s description of a research through practice approach, the researchers for this study aimed to explore modular textile systems that would result in more fitted garments and aesthetically appealing surfaces. Through documenting and analyzing a range of data from the design process and outcome of four experimental designs, this study resulted in the development of advanced research through a Focused Knowledge Design Practice framework.
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The Exploration of the
Modular System in Textile
and Apparel Design
Chanjuan Chen
and Kendra Lapolla
The aim of this design research is to explore modular shapes and interlocking systems for apparel
design using research through practice approach. As a transformable design approach, modular
design features small standardized units that can be independently combined in various configura-
tions to create different forms and provide multiple functions. However, there has been little hands-
on integration of methods for developing more fitted garment designs and incorporating visually
appealing surfaces, such as prints, within a modular system. By adopting Bye’s description of a
research through practice approach, the researchers for this study aimed to explore modular textile
systems that would result in more fitted garments and aesthetically appealing surfaces. Through
documenting and analyzing a range of data from the design process and outcome of four experi-
mental designs, this study resulted in the development of advanced research through a Focused
Knowledge Design Practice framework.
modular design, research through practice, design process, design research, transformable design,
fashion technology
The overarching aim of this design research is to explore modular shapes and interlocking systems
for apparel design using a research through practice approach. Modular systems incorporate the
concept of achieving a wide range of effects from a small variety of parts; they are closely connected
with architecture, engineering, and the sciences (Hur & Thomas, 2011). As a transformable design
approach, modular design features small standardized units that can be independently combined in
various configurations to create different forms and provide multiple functions (Koo et al., 2014).
Most designers who have explored modular textile and apparel designs have focused on two-
dimensional products or boxy silhouettes that do not contour closely to the body due to the single
size of modular shapes. This creates a flat textile with no darts or shaping to contour to the body.
Furthermore, designers have adopted different techniques to experiment with modular surfaces, such
Department of Design, University of North Texas, Denton, TX, USA
School of Fashion, Kent State University, Kent, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Chanjuan Chen, Department of Design, University of North Texas, 1155 Union Circle #305100, Denton, TX 76203, USA.
Clothing and Textiles
Research Journal
2021, Vol. 39(1) 39-54
ª2020 ITAA
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887302X20937061
as changing fabric colors within the same unit as seen in felt work by Aurelie Tu for the brand
Craftedsystems (Derringer, 2013). However, there has been little hands-on integration of methods
for developing fitted garment designs and incorporating visually appealing surfaces, such as prints,
within a modular system.
Modularity allows for uncertainty because the particular elements of a modular design may be
changed after the fact and in unforeseen ways. In this way, modular designs create new possibilities
for designers to pursue incremental innovations. Modularity makes it possible to change the pieces
of a system without redoing the whole. Designs become flexible and capable of evolving at the
modular level (Baldwin & Clark, 2006). This impromptu nature of modular design lends itself to a
creative exploration that is ideal for a research through practice approach. This mindset is compa-
tible with Bye’s (2010) description of research through practice, as it demonstrates practice as a
main method of discovery. By adopting such an approach, the design researchers for this study
explored modular textile systems that resulted in fitted garment designs and visually appealing
surfaces. The documentation and analysis of data generated through the design practice for four
experimental designs exemplify data types used by design scholars to inform decision making. The
progressive sharpening of the focus of the design practice is represented in our Focused Knowledge
Design Practice framework.
Research Through Practice
The practice of design may not be considered research unless undertaken with the intent to system-
atically explore and contribute new knowledge. However, when research through practice is
approached as a methodical investigation and uses analysis to inform the design practice in an
accessible way, this knowledge is beneficial and essential to advancing the design discipline (Bye,
2010). Practice can be explained as the application of a design process where creative work is
developed and implemented through an explicit method based on a research aim to generate data
and evaluate, analyze, present, or communicate research findings (Gray & Malins, 2004). As further
supported by Douglas et al. (2000), this includes the range of research demonstrated through practice
itself while also incorporating the more conventional acts of exhibition and publication. The practice
of design often involves elements of exploratory play resulting from the investigation of specific
research questions. In this sense, the research questions are often iterative in nature and constantly
evolving through the analysis of data. Research questions often originate from practice, setting the
context for the study and guiding methods that involve the application of creative visualization and
dissemination (Gray & Malins, 2004).
Descriptions of a research through practice approach can sometimes be unclear due to continual
evolution and a variety of interpretations. Gray and Malins (2004, p. 104) describe examples of
research through practice using phrases such as “practice as individual creative activity,” “practice
as facilitation and dissemination,” and “practice as collaborative activity.” An extensive debate
surrounds other proposed terms used to articulate a research methodology that brings together most
artists, designers, and creative practitioners. Examples of these terms include “practice as research,”
“practice-based research,” “practice-integrated research,” and “studio research” (Haseman, 2007, p.
147). Haseman (2007) notes that the term “practice-led research” has emerged as a prominent
approach to effectively explain how creative practitioners pursue research through practice. Candy
and Edmonds (2018, p. 63) also discuss the ambiguity surrounding the similar concept of “practice-
based” research, stating that it “has yet to reach a settled status in terms of its definition and
discourse, despite its presence in academic contexts for over 35 years.” The term practice-based
research is widely used across creative arts research in a variety of disciplines with little consistency
(Candy & Edmonds, 2018). Further, Schroeder (2015) advocates the use of “practice research,”
removing unnecessary “as,” “based,” or “led” to boldly connect the two concepts while giving
40 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 39(1)
precedence to practice. Therefore, to improve clarity, this study uses Bye’s (2010) Framework for
Clothing and Textile Design Scholarship to define research through practice:
Research through practice is focused on problems derived from practice, initiated from an inquiry
directed by an aim or goal. It uses documented practice and other appropriate methods, including
reflection, in the development of an artifact. A variety of primary data forms can capture the experience
and a critical analysis is completed to respond to the purpose of the research. The artifact is not made to
be tested or measured but is evidence of the knowledge discovered during practice. Forms of data could
include, uncompleted artifacts, prototypes, and evidence of process including sketches. (p. 211)
Contextual Review
In order to understand this study in relation to other studies in modularity, we conducted a contextual
review to determine the environment and background. Somewhat different than a literature review, a
contextual review includes both initial surveys and critical review. Written resources first provide
important background to the research problem, then this expands to include other sources such as
exhibits and artifacts (Gray & Malins, 2004).
Developed as a design principle in the computer industry between 1944 and 1960 (Baldwin &
Clark, 2000), modularity is based on versatility and independence. When a product is
“modularized,” its design elements are subdivided and assigned to scalable and reusable modules
according to a formal system (Campagnolo & Camuffo, 2009). The subsystems not only allow for
numerous configurations but also repairs that do not interfere with the whole system. Modularity has
been applied across a number of fields, most notably in architecture because it can provide “the basis
for customization, yield economies of scale and scope, and can help structure products to facilitate
outsourcing” (Chew & Gottschalk, 2013, p. 127).
Modular design has been explored by textile and apparel designers since the 20th century. Many
designers adopted geometric shapes for their modules. An early example from Spanish designer
Paco Rabanne’s couture collection created in the late 1960s used simple geometric modular shapes
formed with special linking techniques (Steele, 2009). Designer Kosuke Tsumura created cocoon-
shaped garments using individual sonic-cut units created from circles of Felibendy, a material he
invented. These interlocking units were flat, but he utilized the stretchiness of the material to give it
garment potential (Mini, 2009). Modular textiles created by Swedish interior architect Mia Cullin
(n.d.), whose work was inspired by origami techniques, involve interesting flat modular units created
from different geometric shapes.
Modularity has also been used by textile designers to create exclusive materials for visually
appealing surfaces. Designers Soepboer and Van Balgooi developed two small wool modular forms,
squares and stars, which they assembled to create a fabric called Fragment Textiles. The textile was
composed of various solid-colored fabrics that, when combined, create a multicolored surface (Stam
& Eggink, 2014). Founded by industrial designer Aurelie Tu, the brand Craftedsystems combines
innovative weaving techniques and modular designs to create pieces for today’s lifestyle. Her
collection includes colorful felt vessels, table pieces, lighting, and floor and wall systems that use
different colored materials (Derringer, 2013).
Modular design has the potential for a wide spectrum of applications through its ability to
transform and create personalized designs for consumers. In 2015, Dutch designer Martijn van
Strien launched his label, The Post-Couture Collective, in Rotterdam. The label allowed consumers
to download modular pieces and self-assemble clothing designs without the need for sewing
machines (Tucker, 2015). Researcher Eunsuk Hur also explored this design method. As the textile
and garment are created simultaneously, the modular structure allows infinite design possibilities
Chen and Lapolla 41
based on variations in the underlying architecture. Each set of textile pieces can be rearranged to
create designs including hats, dresses, bags, scarves, and interior accessories (Hur et al., 2013). Such
potential advantages of modular design are exploited in this study to better support designers
creating modular garments and conducting research through practice studies.
According to Bye (2010), creative production can be an appropriate way to explore research through
practice, despite being less common than a product development approach. The playful experimen-
tation of making modular designs prompts additional questions related to new techniques that
address aspects of function, surface design, and transformability. Through documented practice
with data analysis, we create experimental designs to better understand modular shapes and inter-
locking systems for apparel design. The process focused on developing and evaluating modules and
the resulting modular units for functionality. We then explored different sizes and shapes for each
module and create two experimental designs with fitted silhouettes. Modularity also offered an
opportunity to investigate digital printing and laser cutting to create visually appealing surface
designs on the third experimental design. Finally, we explored a design focusing on transformable
options so that wearers can create different garment configurations that require no sewing while
contouring to the body.
Data Collection
Beyond the designed object, outcomes can include prototypes, models, sketches, and other physical
documentation at the core of the design process to identify connections and knowledge (Bye, 2010).
We collected data over a 6-month span, totaling 48 sketches, 55 digital drawings, 35 samples, 36
photographs, two prototypes, and four experimental designs. Gray and Malins (2004) support this
idea of practice, observation, photography, visualization, and sketchbooks as acceptable data for
research through practice. We recorded data across the initial exploration of modular shapes,
fabrications, and cutting tools as well as the four experimental designs. In this process of creating
modular garments, the experimental designs became the data for generating new project aims or
questions. Pedgley (2007) states that both the act of designing and the actual designed object are
credible sources of data to reflect on, interpret, and develop knowledge for empirical inquiry.
Ongoing reflection during practice materializes into data that can be analyzed and understood
(Douglas et al., 2000). Table 1 summarizes the data collected.
Functional considerations for a garment such as protection, conformity, and fit connect to its
utility (Lamb & Kallal, 1992). Here, functionality refers to module interlocking ability, garment
potential, material durability, and flexibility (ability to resize and adapt to body contours); surface
design refers to the visual appeal of the module surface; while transformability describes the module
unit’s versatility and numerous configurations. To better understand how concepts of functionality,
surface design, and transformability have evolved in modular apparel designs, we used the research
through practice framework to collect data (sketches, digital drawings, notes, samples, and photo-
graphs of the process), along with experimental designs. The analysis included comparing, testing,
and evaluating data to make selections based on functionality, surface design, and/or transform-
ability. After the initial exploration of modules and completion of the four experimental designs,
common themes were teased out through an analysis of all data collected. We made note of the
repetition of question content and how we approached questions. The analysis process included
discovering common themes and examining how each piece of data was used to inform the design
process, which aligns with Gray and Malins’s (2004) and Parsons and Campbells’ (2004) support for
the analysis of design research via pattern comparison and discovery.
42 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 39(1)
Investigation of Modular Shapes, Fabrication, and Cutting
In order to explore modular shapes and interlocking systems for apparel design, initial modular
exploration began with the question: What shapes could be used as a module? Geometric modular
design, as classified by Li et al. (2018), includes triangles, quadrangles, and other geometric shapes.
Clothing formed from one kind of module can be made from various other geometric modules; the
joining of these modules can be flat or three-dimensional. The geometric modular design has more
flexibility than other modular design classifications (Li et al., 2018). Many textile and apparel
designers have used modular geometric shapes, such as those created by Paco Rabanne (Steele,
2009), Kosuke Tsumura (Mini, 2009), and Mia Cullin (n.d.). Two-dimensional surfaces require at
least three sides to make a polygon. Therefore, we explored the first modular shapes using sketches
and notes to capture and compare ideas starting with slots formed into an equilateral triangle, then
progressing to a square, pentagon, and hexagon. To display the concept of the basic modular system,
we chose a circle shape and created digital drawings of the selected module sketches in Adobe
Table 1. Summary Table of Data.
Types of Data
for Developing
Design 1
for Developing
Design 2
for Developing
Design 3
for Developing
Design 4
Analysis of
Sketches Modular shape
designs and
garment design
Modular shape
designs and
garment design
Garment design
Modular shape
designs and
design ideas
Capture quick
Digital drawings Modular shapes,
methods, and
designs in
Modular shapes,
methods, and
designs in
Illustrator and
Surface design on
modular and
designs in
Modular shapes
and garment
designs in
Accurate and
Notes Techniques,
fabric choices,
and written
fabric choices,
and written
Fabric choices,
surface design
ideas, and
Fabric choices,
design ideas,
and written
of thoughts and
Samples Modular samples
made from
paper and
fashion fabric
Modular samples
made from
paper and
fashion fabric
Modular samples
made from
fashion fabric
made from
fashion fabric
Quickly test
Photographs Photos taken
from paper
samples on
dress forms
and making the
design process
Photos taken from
paper samples
of modular
shapes and
making the
design process
Photos taken
from making
design process
Photos taken
from making
Visual reminders
Prototypes Mock-up made
from similar
fashion fabric
Mock-up made
from similar
fashion fabric
N/A N/A Low cost/risk
Design 1 Design 2 Design 3 Design 4 Inform future
Chen and Lapolla 43
Illustrator to display the shapes accurately. This method references the system developed by Hur and
Thomas (2011), in which “placing an equilateral triangle inscribed within a circle, the triangular
region forms the underlying structural tessellation while the three regions created by the circum-
scribed circle form the tabs” (p. 218). Slots were placed on the digital drawings of the square,
pentagon, and hexagon modules to create the first group of modular shapes to show the exact
interlocking units for evaluation.
Once digital drawings of the basic module shapes were created, an additional question emerged:
Which modular shapes form interlocking units with no gaps, and therefore have the potential to
create garments? To answer this question, we compared digital drawings of the basic module shapes.
Using Adobe Illustrator, all four modules were displayed in two units that interlocked with two rings
of the same modules around the original module. Based on observations, clear gaps emerged
between every other module on the outer layer of the pentagon modular unit, while all the other
units could be extended into different shapes without forming gaps. Moreover, both the triangle
modular unit and the hexagon modular unit presented more adaptable shapes that could be utilized in
garment construction, such as using one side of the hexagon modular unit to create the pattern of a
sleeve cap. Paper samples of the triangle and hexagon modules were then created to test the
observation. Given these results, we decided to use the triangle and the hexagon module in our
modular design experiments (Figure 1).
Once we determined the modular shapes and their interlocking units, the next step was to
determine which fabrications and cutting tools were most appropriate. Materials such as wool felt,
leather, paper, and neoprene have been used for modular design due to their clean edges after cutting
and stability after interlocking. Laser cutting has been the most widely used method for cutting
modular shapes as it can provide designers with complex shapes at a high level of precision that is
repeatable and fast (Hsu, 1992). Selecting the materials for this step required meeting these criteria:
The edges had to be clean and nonfraying, and the modular connections had to be durable in terms of
attachment and detachment through each tab. Several materials were gathered for this process,
including a few similar to those listed in the contextual review. To keep costs low, leather was
replaced with faux leather. Paper was omitted because it did not meet the criteria of being durable for
wearable garments. Few or no examples from previous modular design work used natural fabric
contents such as cotton and silk, both of which offer excellent fabrications for surface design
experiments with digital printing techniques or dyeing. For the initial laser cutter testing, we
included wool felt, faux leather, neoprene, cotton sateen, and silk charmeuse. The hexagon module
was the test shape for laser cutting the selected fabrics. After analyzing sample results, the wool felt,
faux leather, and neoprene samples met the two identified criteria, but the cotton sateen and silk
charmeuse samples did not meet the first criteria of clean and nonfraying edges. In order to provide
more possibilities for garment experimentation, both fabrics were still included to determine
whether it was possible to suggest creative solutions in later phases. The initial phase of investiga-
tion explored the functional aspects of module interlocking ability, garment potential, and material
durability. It also answered questions about which modular shapes, fabrications, and cutting tools
would move forward to the experimental design stage.
Experimental Designs
During the experimental design phase, the selected modules, fabrics, and cutting methods were
further explored for their appropriateness to garment design. Throughout the process, questions and
problems were revealed that influenced the intent and focus of each experimental design. In the end,
four experimental garments were created. Designs 1 and 2 focused on the functional aspects of the
modules, materials, and cutting methods. With functionality addressed, Design 3 shifted to surface
design, while Design 4 considered transformability. For each design, we refer to the subquestions
44 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 39(1)
that emerged during the process using letters (a) through (e) in the text, which correspond to the
subquestions in the figures below.
Design 1: Advance module functionality with the hexagon module. The hexagon module was selected for
garment design experimentation as its connected shape best represented our hydrangea flower
Figure 1. Modular shapes developed using a triangle, square, pentagon, and hexagon and their interlocked units.
Chen and Lapolla 45
inspiration. Therefore, the first question for this experiment was (a) How could the hexagon modules
form modular units to create a garment inspired by the hydrangea? To this end, sketches were made
on paper and analyzed to determine whether the finished shape resembled hydrangeas. One
sketch was then selected and used as the reference to create a flower module in Adobe Illustrator.
Slots on each petal were carefully positioned. The modules were then printed on paper and cut out
by hand as samples to test their functionality as modular units. After testing samples of the
modular shapes and interlocking units on a half scale body form, photos were taken, and notes
were used to identify and record additional questions. Due to using only one size of the flower
modular shape, the interlocking units were flat and therefore limited in shaping and contouring to
the body form. We then asked the questions: How can the modules be modified to create (b) a
fitted garment, and (c) sleeve construction? To create a fitted silhouette, we digitally created five
sizes for the module as samples based on the measurements for a traditional women’s jacket on a
U.S. size 8 dress form. A jacket prototype with sleeves was created using muslin fabric to further
test the new modules without wasting fashion fabric.
White faux leather was used to create the design due to its durability demonstrated in the modular
fabrication phase. The laser cutter used to cut out the flower modules left brown burn marks along
the edges of the fabric. A new question prompted us to seek an alternative approach: (d) What new
cutting tool can be used? After experimenting with two cutting tools, hand-cutting and a flatbed
plotter, the flatbed plotter machine was chosen to cut out the flower modules as this method did not
leave any burn marks on the fabric and was less time-consuming than hand-cutting. When we
constructed the jacket based on a traditional women’s jacket design, the joined module unit was
heavy, hence the question: (e) How can the weight of the units be reduced? By comparing varying
jacket lengths, module sizes, and garment shapes, a shorter bolero jacket emerged as the solution to
reduce overall weight. The different-sized modular sections allowed us to create a jacket fitted
across the shoulders that transitioned to flared sleeves and hemline.
In analyzing the design process for Design 1 based on the data collected, we found that more time
was spent solving the first question due to our limited experience working with hexagon modules.
Various data (sketches, digital drawings, samples, photographs, and notes) were collected and
evaluated, which assisted in testing the module’s potential with a bolero jacket. When new
questions emerged, sketches were the first form of data collected, allowing us to compare the
potential module forms. Digital drawings were essential for evaluating module shapes and sizes
accurately, while samples were valuable for real-life testing of the modules. To complete the
design for exhibition purposes, we collaborated with a printmaker, Taryn McMahon, to integrate a
digitally printed fabric to create a dress for the base of the outfit. The execution of the hexagon
modules not only further tested module interlocking ability and garment potential but also
advanced the functionality of the modules in terms of the ability to resize. Figure 2 shows the
design research for Experimental Design 1.
Design 2: Advance module functionality with the triangle module. With the elements of functionality
learned from Design 1, we decided to test the triangular modular shape developed from the modular
shape phase. Collaboration was again used in this process, but with a different fashion designer from
South Korea, Kyung Hee Choi, after discovering she practiced similar creative research on the topic
of modular textile and apparel designs. A new material idea, previously used by this designer, was
brought to this collaboration: lenticular fabric, typically made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and
having a reflective and light-distorting appearance on its surface (“Lenticular Fabric,” n.d.). With
the incorporation of different-sized triangle modules, we decided to advance the knowledge gleaned
from Design 1 by asking: (a) How could the triangular module units create a garment inspired by
Siamese fighting fish?
46 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 39(1)
To create the modular shapes, sketches were explored and developed in Adobe Illustrator as
digital drawings to determine whether the finished shape resembled fishtails. Paper samples and
design sketches were then made and sent to the collaborator via email for comments. A fitted tank
top and a skirt were selected for the final sketch due to the visual connection to the inspiration
pictures. With the design decided, a new question emerged: (b) How could the fishtail module be
sized to create a fitted dress? Based on Design 1 results, five different sizes of the fishtail module
were created and tested with paper samples. We used the smallest modules on the waist and
gradually changed to bigger shapes along the neckline and the hem of the bodice. During this
experimental process, a bust fitting challenge emerged, prompting a new question: (c) How can a
dart or dart equivalent be created? The lenticular fabric was thick and could not be folded to form
traditional darts, and the folding action would also disrupt the modular units, so the fit of the bust
required a new solution. Therefore, to form the bust, two isosceles triangles were designed from the
original fishtail modules and used to take out the ease, like a dart on each side of the bust, to adapt to
body contours. Digital drawings and paper samples were used to test our solution.
We then moved to the next step: translating the concept to the fabric. Because the fabric contains
PVC, a laser cutter could not be used to cut the lenticular modules. PVC produces hydrochloric acid
and toxic fumes, which could lead to the corrosion of the laser system. We then tested the flatbed
plotter machine used for Design 1 on the fabric for samples, but this was also unsuccessful due to the
fabric thickness. After consulting with the collaborator, we chose hand-cutting to solve the last
question: (d) What could be the new cutting tool? We made a prototype with a similar weight vinyl
fabric to evaluate the module, units, and overall design concept. The prototype performed well in
terms of the bodice fit using the different sizes and special isosceles triangle modules. The skirt was
Compare and test
initial ideas; make
selections for next
step; review
reflections to
make a decision.
Sub-questions Data Collection Analysis
Evaluate modules
to decide on
module sizes.
Digital drawings
Test gar ment
ideas to make a
decisi on.
Compare cutting
tools to make a
decisi on.
Compare design
lengths to make a
decisi on.
Protot ype
(b) Fitted
(c) Sleeve
(d) Cutting
(e) Weight
Digital drawings
(a) Modules,
units, garment
Figure 2. Experimental Design 1: Advance module functionality.
Chen and Lapolla 47
changed to construction without modules due to the time-consuming hand-cutting process. Once the
fitted top was completed with the final fabric, we created a circle skirt from silk dupioni fabric to
complete the design for exhibition.
Data collection and analysis of Design 2 were similar to Design 1. The process started with more
effort in designing the new module through a combination of data collection and analysis. Sketching
was again the first attempt in the process. This experiment not only advanced the functionality of the
modules in terms of interlocking ability, garment potential, and the ability to resize but also further
expanded adaptability to body contours. The actual design was a credible source of data to reflect on,
interpret, and develop knowledge for empirical inquiry. Figure 3 shows the design research for
Experimental Design 2.
Design 3: Incorporating an aesthetic surface on modules. As our understanding of different functional
aspects of the modules in garment design progressed, we decided to shift the focus of experimenta-
tion to surface aesthetics. Designs 1 and 2 already had aesthetically pleasing surfaces created from
the shapes, so our focus was on printing a surface design on modules. This led us to ask: (a) How
could a print be incorporated on the modules? We used the flower module developed from Design 1
as the starting shape for this design. An image of a natural landscape was used to develop the print.
The image was modified in Adobe Photoshop using filters, resulting in a blue tone print. The flower
modules to be cut were digitally placed onto the print. The arrangement of the modules on the print
resulted in a multicolored surface on the modules.
Once the print was developed and the modules were finalized, a new question prompted the next
step: (b) Which fabric can be used for this garment? Therefore, we reviewed the fabrication list from
the modular fabrication phase. Faux leather was first considered, as we had worked with this fabric
in Design 1. However, digital printing on faux leather was not available at the local printing service
at that time; the same was true of neoprene and wool felt. A screen-printing technique was also tested
Compare and test
module ideas;
make selections
for next step;
reflections to
mak e a de ci si on.
Digital drawings
Evaluate modules
to decide on
module sizes.
Digital drawings
Compare and test
modules for bust
to make a
Digital drawings
Compare cutting
tools to make a
decisi on.
Protot ype
Sub-questions Data Collection Analysis
(b) Module
(c) Dart
(d) Cutting
(a) Module
Figure 3. Experimental Design 2: Advance module functionality.
48 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 39(1)
on the fabrics identified as samples, but none were able to articulate the detailed, fine image on the
fabric surface. Thus, silk charmeuse was selected due to its glossy surface and ability to absorb
digitally printed colors. The fabric was also available at the local print service. However, after laser
cutting the modules on silk charmeuse to test as samples, the edges started to fray due to its natural
fabric content and fabric structure. We then asked: (c) How could silk charmeuse meet the module’s
functional requirements? After experimenting with different samples, we added one layer of polye-
ster fabric on the backside of the silk charmeuse with fusible webbing to retain the desired aesthetic
and functionality. This was inspired by our experience with laser cutting polyester fabrics from
previous design research (Chen, 2016). Polyester fabric can present clean edges after laser cutting
due to the heat from the laser applied to the synthetic fabric content.
Once module design and fabrication were finalized, sketches of the garment design were devel-
oped. We kept the fitted torso design predominantly the same as that of Design 2; the primary change
was an increase in length, as we did not achieve this goal during the previous experiment. Digital
drawings made from rendered modules in Adobe Photoshop were also used to accurately show the
design ideas. One of five digital drawings was selected as the guide for constructing the final design,
as it had the most visually appealing surface effect and showed gradually changing color. Guided by
the previous designs, different module sizes were used to create the fitted silhouette. When cutting
the modules on the digitally printed silk fabric, all smaller modular shapes were placed on the darker
blue areas of the print, while all bigger modular shapes were placed on the lighter blue areas. To
form the shape of the bust, a pentagon module shape was used to take in the ease on the side bust, as
inspired by Design 2. The design focused on fitting the torso with smaller and darker modules on the
neckline and waist and gradually changing to bigger and lighter modules along the hem.
As module function was explored and analyzed during previous experiments, Design 3 focused
on the investigation of the print designs, fabrics suited for printing, and the aesthetic arrangement of
printed modules. In solving problems associated with surface design, the overall data collection and
analysis process was slightly shorter in terms of the number of steps compared to Designs 1 and 2.
This shortened process may be a result of the design researchers’ previous experience with digital
printing. The prototype was also eliminated due to the accurate presentation of the digital drawings
for surface-focused designs. Sketches became the exploration tool for the garment design rather than
module shape. The final outcome of Design 3 achieved the goal of forming an aesthetically pleasing
surface design with prints (see Figure 4).
Design 4: Incorporating transformability in modular design. With the knowledge gained from previous
experimental designs that focused on functionality and surface design, the development of Design 4
was more systematic. We moved the focus of the research into modular design transformability.
Although the modular design concept is meant to be transformable, we had to first understand the
functionality of the modular system.
Unlike the last three designs, we started by asking, (a) Which modules had the potential to
transform garment style? We decided to use the flower module shape from previous designs with
openwork on the module to provide different uses for garment construction. A doily was chosen as
the inspiration due to the various openwork designs it can offer. Following internet research, we
developed four sketches of the module with openwork, along with notes, before creating the digital
drawings in Adobe Illustrator to accurately show the modules. We selected two modules based on
the appearance of the openwork being cohesive, but with different openings and hole dimensions,
resulting in two different transparency effects. Thus, these have the potential to be used on different
parts of a garment and provide transforming styles.
Next, we asked, (b) How can we create a transformable design using these modules? Faux leather
was selected from the modular fabrication phase, as we already had experience working with the
fabric for Design 1. Compared to other fabrics from the modular fabrication phase, faux leather is
Chen and Lapolla 49
also thicker and therefore more durable for the action of connecting and disconnecting modules. A
laser cutter was used to cut the two modules on faux leather as samples. Based on the experience
learned from Design 3, a fitted dress design was adopted. The ease of design transformability (for the
potential wearer) was emphasized. After muslin samples and photos of the module units were tested
and analyzed, we focused on changing the shoulder and hemline designs while keeping the torso part
of the modules assembled. To mark where the transformation can be achieved, modules with smaller
openings were used for the torso and modules with bigger openings formed the neck and skirt hem.
The dress was created utilizing smaller modules on the body, which gradually changed to larger
modules along the hem, as with all three previous experimental designs. The completed dress could
be changed with a different shoulder design and could be shortened by taking out the skirt train,
allowing for transformation.
With the development of Experimental Design 4, we utilized two types of modules forming
different parts of the garment to support transformability. Despite the various data collected and
evaluated, the overall data collection and analysis process was again shorter in terms of the number
of steps compared to the three previous designs. The prototype was not necessary due to our
increased experience working with fitted modular designs. We were able to shift creative explora-
tion toward a focus on transformability. Figure 5 shows that the design process was simplified with
fewer questions and data collection and more supportive knowledge from past designs.
Discussion and Implications
Following analysis of the initial exploration of modules and completion of the four experimental
designs, three common themes were identified: (1) design processes became shorter as experience
with the module designs increased, (2) sketches and digital drawings were important tools at the
starting point of each data collection phase, and (3) functionality is essential when establishing new
design techniques. First, through data collection, we noticed that as experience with the functionality
Compare and
evalua te print
ideas to make a
Digital drawings
Evaluate modules
to decide on
module sizes.
Evaluate modules
on fabrics to
make a decision.
Sub-questions Data Collection Analysis
(b) Fabric
(c) Fabric
(a) Print
Figure 4. Experimental Design 3: Incorporating an aesthetic surface.
50 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 39(1)
of module designs increased, there were fewer questions to answer, and data analysis became shorter
(Theme 1). As the design process for each experimental design in this study reached its end point,
questions in the subsequent project became more refined, highlighting increased confidence and
knowledge. Similarly, the progression of each experimental design process becomes shorter, allow-
ing for a shift to the creative exploration of surface design and transformability. This is comparable
to the work by Parsons and Campbell (2004) in which discovering and solving various technical
problems propelled the investigation to move the focus to creative exploration. Additionally,
although a contextual review was informative, it was clear that sketches and digital drawings were
essential at the starting point of each data collection phase (Theme 2). Sketches helped us compare
module or garment ideas, and digital drawings accurately outlined module shapes and configura-
tions. Finally, we discovered that functionality is essential when establishing new design techniques
(Theme 3). Our research began by solving garment function-related questions such as module
interlocking ability and garment potential. By using hexagonal and triangular shapes to create
Experimental Designs 1 and 2, the modular concept allowed us to experiment further with function-
ality in terms of flexibility. Both designs utilized at least five different module sizes to form a fitted
bodice. The experiments also made it possible to create a fitted torso silhouette for Design 2. The
two designs then provided fundamental data for us to continue exploring surface design and trans-
formability on Experimental Designs 3 and 4.
Focused Knowledge Design Practice Framework
A research through practice approach provided a foundation to investigate modular design. The data
that included sketches, digital drawings, notes, samples, photographs, prototypes, and the experi-
mental designs were analyzed by comparing common themes. This analysis led to resolutions while
also exposing new questions, creating a cycle of inquiry and discovery that directed our approach to
a modular design. This circular process is demonstrated in the framework we developed for this
research through practice, shown in Figure 6. The starting point of the framework is based on a
project aim or questions derived from previous experience. Detailed contextual review leads to the
Compare and
evaluate module
ideas to make a
Digital drawings
Compare and
evaluate samples
to make design
decisi ons.
Sub-questions Data Collection Analysis
(a) Module
Figure 5. Experimental Design 4: Incorporating transformability.
Chen and Lapolla 51
action of data collection through practices such as sketching, digital drawing, and sampling. Then,
the data are analyzed, leading to the development of the experimental design. The process is
repeated to gain increasingly focused knowledge which supports the future study. This coincides
with Bye’s (2010) Framework for Clothing and Textile Design Scholarship, which suggests that the
advancement of a research through practice framework depends on continuous exploration of the
subject and review of past experimental designs.
Each experimental design embodies a phase of the cycle within the framework. With the devel-
opment of each experimental design, the project aim, contextual review, data collection, and anal-
ysis become more focused. In this way, the research through practice for this study spirals inward
from a broader exploratory project aims to more defined and practical ones. This concept is reflected
in other examples of the design process such as Sanders and Stappers’s (2008) Fuzzy Front End,
where the fuzzy beginning explores more open-ended questions and eventually moves toward a
clearly defined outcome. This research through practice framework can fluctuate to accommodate
more or fewer spirals based on project aims. Each spiral can be looked at individually or can be
examined through their connections.
The overarching aim of this design research was to explore modular shapes and interlocking systems
using the research through practice approach. The modular concept allowed design researchers to
experiment with different shapes and interlocking systems, resulting in four experimental designs.
The interactive nature of the modules and modular units encouraged creative exploration, which was
documented and analyzed throughout the design process. Designs 1 and 2 utilized the module
concept to explore shapes and fabrications and develop methods to create fitted silhouettes for
Figure 6. A research through practice framework leads to focused knowledge.
52 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 39(1)
garments. This design research expands knowledge of modular designs previously explored by
Kosuke Tsumura and The Post-Couture Collective by investigating fitted design opportunities.
Design 3 demonstrated the use of digital technologies to create a visually appealing surface. This
advances creative potential in modular surface design that is also seen in earlier work by Soepbaer
and Van Balgooi. The final design incorporated transformability into the modular design through the
use of digital technology. Our findings indicated three themes: (1) design processes became shorter
as experience with the module designs increased, (2) sketches and digital drawings were important
tools at the starting point of each design phase, and (3) functionality was essential when exploring
new design techniques. Finally, the research through practice framework was advanced through
continuous exploration of the subject and review of past experimental designs.
The quantity of experimental designs was limited in this study, a feature that could affect research
findings. Future studies could include evaluating the ease of using modular systems by focusing on
connecting/disconnecting modules, creating modular units, and creating garments. A study might
look at how wearers transform garments through the number and type of modules or level of
complexity. For example, do wearers often make length adjustments, create entirely new garments,
or develop accessories? Another study might evaluate the durability of the modules following use.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or pub-
lication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
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Author Biographies
Chanjuan Chen is an assistant professor at the University of North Texas. Her areas of focus include sustain-
able design for apparel and design research. Her creative scholarship on transformability, modularity, and
upcycling has been recognized through several design awards as well as juried and invited exhibitions nation-
ally and internationally.
Kendra Lapolla is an associate professor at Kent State University. Her research interests include cocreation in
design, product attachment, and creative design research processes. She has been recognized with both national
and international awards for her scholarship. She spent several years working in the fashion industry and has
experience in technical design, apparel design, and apparel graphics.
54 Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 39(1)
... Chen & Lapolla [104] explored the concept of modularity within Bye's "research through practice" design approach [105]. They described the benefits of modularity for textiles in terms of waste reduction in labor, time and material. ...
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... As in previous studies (Coillard et al., 2007;Weiss, 2013;Kołban and Szwed, 2018;Hui et al., 2020), the prototype's belts effectively controlled posture and achieving the ideal position. However, the belts and baleens' modular structure used in this study (Kumar, 2004;Zhang et al., 2019;Chen and Lapolla, 2020) worked for individualization. This research concluded that the main factors affecting functionality in creating fabric-pattern combinations are the elasticity ratios of the fabrics, their layers, the use of baleens (steel or plastic) and the correct positioning of the belts. ...
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