Open Collection - fashion, brands, and fabric

The achievements of the OpenCores project have opened up entirely new opportunities for using the Open Source method. The project has already demonstrated that Open Source thinking can be applied outside the virtual world. We've already dealt with computer programs, literature, music and films, and now OpenCores has taken Open Source thinking into the manufacture of tangible products. Does that mean Open Source can be applied to just about anything? Considering the products sold in stores and all the stuff we live with, it's clear that in the end many of them have very little to do with the possession and treatment of raw materials. Instead, many products have a surprising number of intangible characteristics that are well suited to the Open Source method. Computer programs and the intellectual content of books are intangible, which is why the notion of creating and distributing them through Open Source was so obvious. But a lot of intangible work also goes into the manufacture of other things, which is why almost any product can benefit in some way from Open Source thinking. At the beginning of this book, I used oil as an example of a raw material, a limited natural resource for which production and sales follow the law of supply and demand, a mean-spirited logic. However, Rob McEwen's story showed us that there are advantages to be gained from Open Source thinking, even when digging for gold. If such thinking can be used in gold-mining and in the production of microchips, surely it can also be applied elsewhere - even in drilling for oil.

For instance, let's look at clothing. Could clothes be manufactured using Open Source methods? Why not - particularly as programming was born out of a loom.1 It is clearly time to reunite computer programming and the production of clothes, although this time it is the world of fashion that has something to learn from the hackers.

Clothing is a good example of an everyday product, but that doesn't make clothes mundane or unimportant. If you don't believe me, just ask the next teenager you happen to meet.

When it comes to buying clothes, it's not just about the garments themselves. First of all, there's the brand! Many people would rather buy a very expensive pair of Nike sneakers because the brand has high status on the street, than buy a cheaper unbranded pair, even of equal quality. To maintain the high status of their brand, Nike pays Tiger Woods hundreds of millions of dollars to be their public showcase, yet they pay the Asian workers who make the sneakers just a couple of dollars a day.

Of course clothes - like microchips - are also about design. Today, when people talk about making clothes the sewing itself may never be mentioned, but more likely they'll discuss the coordination of cut, fabric and colour - the design. And if we're talking about sneakers - say, Nike sneakers - the designs are created by engineers like myself, because today's sneakers really are masterworks of engineering. They include so many special features, such as soles with air pockets and ventilation holes for perspiring feet, that just taking a walk has become an equipment sport. Once the design is decided, the actual manufacture of footwear or clothing is a minor detail, and the main focus becomes where it can be done most cheaply. Which is why so many clothes are made in Asia, by people who work for a couple of dollars a day.

But that's not the end of the story. Once the Asians have been good and sewn a big pile of clothes or shoes, these need to be delivered to stores in Europe and the Americas, and that is a matter of logistics. And - apart from the trucks, ships and aeroplanes - logistics are mostly about information technology.

Brands, design, logistics, project control, and so on, are intangible and therefore areas in which Open Source methods are strong. But how is an Open Source clothes brand created? In order to understand that step, we must look to Richard Stallman's General Public Licence (GPL) and the principles behind it. In addition, we need tools that make sharing easier, such as SourceForge or BitKeeper, which Linux programmers use in their work. And then, of course, we need designers, seamstresses, makers, and shopkeepers - all sorts of people to do all sorts of things - just like in Linux. And because it's all about creating a brand, we also need a name. Let's give our clothes the brand name Open Collection.

Open Collection is a clothes brand that lets anybody take part in its creation. Anybody, from children to grandmothers, from students of design or the arts to the best-known designers in the fashion world. Anyone who wants to, can create sewing or knitting patterns, textiles, pictures, logos, and anything else that is part of designing clothes. Their patterns are stored on a www page on the Internet and are available for others to use. Naturally, everything is done with some form of the GPL type of licensing, so that anyone is free to use any of the patterns or textile designs so long as they too contribute their own changes for others to use.

Just as a working computer consists of several smaller programs, a single piece of clothing consists of several separate design elements. One person or company may have developed the fabric; someone else may have created the pattern printed on it; and a third person may have combined the colours in a new way. Yet another person designs the cut of the garment and determines how its seams will look, while a fifth designer decides on the shape of the pockets, and so on. Like many other jobs, making clothes is often a collaborative effort. And collaboration is what Open Source is good at.

Just as there are several Linux distributors, there would surely be many manufacturers of Open Collection clothes. And why not? If you could get fashionable designs free off the Internet and there was a demand for the clothes, then the manufacturers would definitely be interested. And just as Linux is different to Microsoft, so would an Open Collection be different to existing brands of clothes, in that nobody would own it. It would be our common brand. An Open Collection manufacturer in Asia might take the initiative to produce these clothes, but would have to find themselves a European importer or store to sell them. Not having to pay expensive licensing fees to the owner of the brand would in theory allow the manufacturer to pay more to their employees who actually make the clothes. In addition to large-scale clothing factories, there would also be manufacturing on a small-scale. Teenagers could sew their own fashion clothes if they chose, and grandmothers could knit Open Collection sweaters. Some people would make their own clothes to save money, others because they enjoy doing it, but most people would continue to buy their clothes from the stores because they have things they prefer to do, other than sew clothes - just like with Linux. Some people would buy clothes made by the cheapest manufacturer, while others would prefer to buy clothes made in their own country or perhaps handmade clothes - just like with Linux. In schools and colleges, people doing craft- or needlework classes could make their own Open Collection shirts and print them with images of their own choice in their art class. Or they could just print out images they like. And nowadays, special paper for making transfers is available for inkjet printers. Images printed on it can be ironed onto, for instance, a T-shirt. See how much we engineers have done to enable people in the clothing business to take the Open Source revolution to its next stage.

The quality of the Open Collection brand clothes might vary slightly. While uneven quality is usually considered bad, here the diversity would be a feature of the Open Source process used to create the clothes. It is unlikely that any two shirts, each made by a different manufacturer, would ever be completely identical despite their design having originated from the same pattern. One manufacturer might make it in a Mexican cotton fabric while the other one makes it with linen from India. And each homemade shirt from the same design would also be unique. And that is just the way we like it. Open Source is all about the joy of doing, of appreciation for individual makers, and of celebrating versatility!

Something else that differentiates Windows from Linux is that Windows is made by a company, whereas Linux is made by individuals. This is a significant difference which those who have switched to Linux are usually very excited to discover. When a computer user encounters a problem with a program made by a faceless corporation, they must call that corporation's technical support. Usually what they get is an answering machine that tells them to press 1 if you have this problem, press 2 if you have that problem, and press 3 if you want to speak to a human being. If they make the mistake of pressing 3, what they get is a pre-taped message telling them that "unfortunately all our lines are busy at the moment, but please hold and wait for your turn'.

Whereas, if you encounter a problem in an Open Source program you can tell the makers of the program about it directly by e-mail. The e-mail address is always given in the source code of the program, and is even easier to find on the "About' page of the program. The makers are usually very happy to have your feedback and answer you with thanks because you have told them how they can improve their program. If the corporation behind a closed program even answered an e-mail informing them of a flaw, it would probably come from a company lawyer denying the existence of the problem.

So a label on an item of Open Collection clothing would not, for example, say "Made in Hong Kong', but in the spirit of Open Source would read something more like: "These sneakers were sewn by Lu from Shanghai, the design was by Fabrizio from Brazil'. And if they'd also included the seamstress' e-mail address, a buyer happy with their new pair of sneakers could even send Lu a brief note of thanks. At the same time, he or she could ask about Lu's working conditions and make sure that all the employees were getting decent wages and that no child labour was used in the manufacture of the shoes. In these ways, Open Source could even help to address the problems about which the movement against globalization has been voicing such loud concerns in recent years.

Garment manufacture is just one example of the many business activities that could benefit from the adoption of Open Source thinking. However, this book is now written and the as-yet-unwritten innovations of openness will continue to grow out of the ingenuity and imagination of people who see the advantages of Open Source methods. We have seen how Open Source thinking can change the world of gold mining, encyclopedia publishing, and the clothing industry, and I hope such examples will encourage people to develop and innovate in ever more inventive ways. I am convinced that the stories presented in this book are just the beginning, and that there is plenty of room for a new generation of innovators like Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds.

How about restaurants publishing their secret recipes on the Internet for customers to make at home? The recipes would be freely available for use by other Open Source restaurants who similarly publish their own recipes on the Internet for others to use. Customers could add their own favourites to the collection and, for instance, order their own favourite dish as made by the best chef at a five-star restaurant. The restaurants could have a common menu and a common logo and brand. It would be an Open Source chain of restaurants - perhaps called McOpen.

Yes, yes. There are plenty of ideas to go round, particularly when one gets excited. It's been exciting for me, at least, to relate these stories. I hope they've enthused you, too, because enthusiastic excitement is one of the greatest virtues of the hacker community. I hope their stories will inspire all of us to think and behave more openly - to live an open life.

  • 1As I stated in an earlier footnote the first programmable machine, and therefore the forefather of all computers, is reckoned to be the loom invented by Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801:
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