What are Soft Goods?
Okay, so what's the deal with soft goods? Isn't that just clothing and textile-based products? Not so! In short, soft goods are products that are constructed of a majority of conformable or soft materials for their advantages in ergonomics/wearability, cushioning/impact resistance, durability, and aesthetics. Soft goods include products such as backpacks, luggage, shoes, furniture, sporting goods, health monitors/medical devices, consumer wearable devices, safety products, and more.
Unlike many other products which are made in plastics, metal, composites, wood, etc, soft goods utilize a different set of materials ranging from specialty fabrics (woven, knitted, non-woven), foams, rubber/elastomers, and gels. Sometimes soft goods components are integrated with hard components and can incorporate electronics including sensors, displays, and controls (one such example is the Oculus headset). In addition to sewing, soft goods can be constructed using ultrasonic (friction) or heat welding, computer controlled knitting or weaving, injection and compression molding, mechanical fastening and bonding. There are a lot of options!
While we interact with soft goods all the time it's not always obvious how much engineering and design go into the development of these products. A backpack or performance shoe can be just as complicated as a consumer electronic device. Why is that? What is the difference between designing a soft good and another product? Glad you asked!
Design Considerations for Soft Goods
Just like in the design of other types of products where there are considerations for the detailing of injection-molded plastic parts or sheet metal fabrication, in soft goods there are special considerations for the selection of materials, seam allowances and tolerances, pattern design, and the assembly of components. In textiles there are performance advantages in the selection of woven or knitted fabrics, stretch properties (2 way, 4 way stretch), environmental factors (i.e. nylon is hydrophilic, meaning that it absorbs moisture), and strength considerations such as selecting the right denier (a unit of measurement of the thickness of individual threads), in addition to human health and safety factors. There are density choices in selecting foams that impact how it will function in an assembly. In compression molded foam parts there are considerations for top and bottom-side fabric lamination and integration into a sewn assembly. There are methods for applying branding and creating color match that are different than in hard goods. And that's just the beginning!
Specifying and Communicating Soft Goods
There is also a difference in how soft goods products are specified. While molded soft components are often created in 3D CAD, textile assemblies are often drafted in pattern form or in a specialized 2D drawing package (typically referred to as a tech pack). Understanding human tolerance in production sewing construction is critical to getting a product that is acceptable in mass production. Unlike injection molding where a part detail can be specified to .002", a seam tolerance could be 1/8" variation from one product to the next!
Working with a Soft Goods Designer
Soft goods designers come from a number of different backgrounds, from apparel and accessory designers to textile developers and industrial designers. Some designers specialize in footwear or automotive interiors, while others have deep experience in juvenile products or home goods.
At Lexicon Design, we approach soft goods from an industrial design perspective and have a human centered design approach. Our soft goods development process (like all of our design work) is built on design for functionality, aesthetics, design for manufacture, and in service of our client's business strategy. Like all good soft goods developers we design and prototype to arrive at the desired product solution and have experience working with factories to help take designs through production for our clients. If you'd like to learn more about our soft goods expertise, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay tuned for an upcoming article with tips and recommendations for choosing a soft goods design resource!