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30 November 2023

Understanding digital fabrics and their physical properties

In the ever-changingworld of textiles, a profoundly transformative revolution is at work. While technology has long transcended the traditional boundaries of the textile industry, it is now reaching new heights by merging the material world with the virtual. Materials make up 80% of a garment, and it’s vital to understand all the technicalities involved in digitizing materials, to better grasp the future of fashion that lies ahead. This article takes you to the heart of the metamorphosis from physical matter to its digital twin (digital fabrics) to better understand its importance in the3D ecosystem.

What is digital fabric?

A digital fabric is simply the virtual twin of a physical fabric, which we can use in 3D software. If we transpose a fabric robrack to a digital fabric file, we will find two identical pieces of information:

1. The visual aspect of the material (colors, finishes, transparency…)

2. Physical properties (composition, weight, fall, elasticity, etc.)

Although we can’t touch a digital fabric, thanks to this information, we’ll get a visual and material behavior close to the real thing.



Digital material is available in several file formats, such as U3M, SBAR or Zfab, depending on the 3D software used. So let’s take a look at how these digital material files are composed.

The visual aspect of the material

For the visual part, imagine that your digital material resembles a mille-feuille. To achieve your pastry with relief, shadows and nuances, you need several layers of ingredients.

Like a mille-feuille, the visual will be composed of several layers known in the jargon as 3D ‘.maps‘. By placing your layers one on top of the other, you’ll obtain your visual – in this case, your material. They can be found in .png or .jpeg format. Let’s take a look at the different maps of our mille-feuille… or oops! of our digital material:



  • La diffuse/color map – est liée à la couleur. C’est sur cette couche que l’on va placer les imprimés ou modifier les coloris. C’est la photo à plat de la matière.
  • La normal map ou la Bump map – définit l’angle du reflet de la lumière sur le tissu. Cette couche donne de la profondeur et de la texture à la matière, et permet de voir ‘les bosses’ de la matière.
  • La Displacement map – va approfondir les détails de la structure de la normal map, elle donne le volume. Elle sert beaucoup dans les composants. Par exemple pour un patch, une boucle, ou une broderie…
  • La normal map + displacement map – fonctionnent en général ensemble et sont complémentaires.
  • La roughness map – indique la dispersion de la lumière sur la matière. Elle donne l’effet rugueux ou soyeux. Plus la matière est rugueuse, moins on a de brillant sur la matière.
  • La specular map ou glossy map – elle définit la réverbération, l’intensité de la lumière sur la matière. Pour avoir du vinyle par exemple, on pousse une grande valeur sur cette couche.
  • It’s important to play with Specular and Roughness together generally to get real results, as these two layers are interdependent. In the example we have a mesh that tends to absorb light, so there’s no reverberation, which is why the specular is opaque.



    Finally, there are two other maps that are not used systematically (depending on the subject):

    • La metalness map – montre le reflet de la lumière avec l’aspect métal. Ce que l’on voit en blanc correspond à un effet métallisé sur la matière.
  • L’Alpha map – montre la transparence de la matière. Cette map fonctionne un peu comme les png. Ce que l’on voit en noir correspond à la partie transparente.




    Here is an example of the interdependencies between roughness, specularity and metalness:



    How do I create maps?

    Depending on your organization and your needs, there are several ways to generate the 3D visual of a material:

    1. Des plateformes type marketplace
  • Vos fournisseurs
  • Un centre de service de scan 3D
  • En interne

    Via marketplaces

    If you want to get started quickly, there are marketplaces offering 3D-compatible files. Some will be more compatible with a specific editor, such as Swatchon for CLO for example. It will then be possible to download the material in SBAR (Substance) format for use with other 3D software. You also have Swatchbook , DMIx Cloud or Material exchange which are compatible with the majority of 3D editors on the market.

    These platforms also allow you to contact suppliers directly, consult their catalogs, download materials for testing in your 3D software, and order robracks or footage for your final prototype.

    Thanks to this, you can exchange ideas with your supplier more easily, try out new materials on a model, and develop new colors without having to ask your suppliers to develop everything.



    Via your suppliers

    Suppliers of materials and components are also undergoing a digital transformation. Although they are aware that it will be necessary to transform their entire collections, they are making timid progress in response to customer requests. So don’t hesitate to contact them to show your interest.

    Via a 3D scan service center

    If you want to outsource material scans, you can request the services of a 3D scanning center. Editors offer to scan your materials and analyze their physical properties. It all depends on your location, but fabrics are usually sent to Asia, which is expensive, takes time and is not at all environmentally responsible. Since then, 3D scan centers have sprung up in France and Europe, shortening lead times, distances and costs. I encourage using this service in the early stages of an implementation, or when there isn’t much material to scan per season.


    If you want to develop your collection without going through platforms and create your own library of digital materials, you’ll need to invest in a scan and create the physical properties (which we’ll look at in detail later).

    To begin with, here are 3 main scan models dedicated to 3D.


    These machines scan the fabric from several angles, using light, to generate maps (texture, normal…). The purchase of a scan requires a certain investment, as it will be necessary to use additional software to generate the maps. Thanks to them, you can recover the texture of your fabrics and build up your library. It will lack the physical properties that can be added later. More on this later.

    For a strictly visual rendering, there are also software programs that allow a great deal of creativity, such as Substance 3D from Adobe . Beware, however, of the temptation to modify properties and leave reality behind, or to no longer be in phase with what is available from material suppliers. On the other hand, it can be very interesting to obtain a bluffing final rendering.



    Now that you know what maps are, here’s how they appear in 3D software. How does it work? Simply import your file into the software via import or click-and-drop.



    Physical properties

    Physical properties provide information about the material’s behavior.

    To define the behavior of the material, we need information such as :

    Standard info

    • Le poids (density)
  • L’épaisseur (Thickness)
  • La composition
  • Feedback

    • L’élasticité/ Traction (Tensile)
  • La torsion (Shearing) rigidité
  • La friction
  • Behaviors

    • La rigidité (Bending = Détermination de la raideur/ rigidité de la matière)
  • La nervosité de la matière
  • Le drapé
  • There are several possible approaches to obtaining this information:

    • Via thepublisher, who will carry out tests in-house
    • Via a service laboratory(such as VVC, for example)
    • Via the editor’s analysis kit, as used by CLO, Browzwear or Style3D, for example, which will be set up internally.

    To date, publishers offer their own tools for recording physical properties, but none of them follows a standard. The laboratories test materials to ISO standards wherever possible, whenever 3D software allows.

    Let’s hope that in the near future publishers will enter into a transparent discussion and refer to ISO tests to obtain more homogeneous data, which can be carried out from anywhere.

    If all this information in your material is properly filled in (whether visual or physical), you’ll be as close as possible to the real thing. By scanning in high definition and taking the time to check that the material is evenly repeated, you’ll obtain photos with realistic renderings that you can then use for your marketing and e-commerce visuals.

    There’s also another, more technical aspect to the development of a collection: fittings. If the physical properties are identical to the real material, you’ll be able totry on your avatars andinstantly adjust your pattern with the right material. A great opportunity to reduce the number of prototypes in your collection development.

    Now that you know more about digital materials, all you have to do is get started!