Zero waste fashion and furniture – In Response to Tom and Chris

This is a responce to a comment on a post a collegue wrote about the possibilities of zero waste furniture, and a project that Chris Jackson and I are developing to see how my zero waste fashion practice might positively inform furniture design. I’ve posted the reply here because it was getting stupidly long as a comment… Original article is linked here

Hi Tom. Thanks so much for your comments about zero waste fashion and you bring up many valid points, which both Chris and I have been debating (arguing amicably) about for some time now. The kinds of comments you make are similar to those that Chris make to me, and its great to be challenged in this way.

However, there are a couple of things I’d like you to consider.


For a start there is a difference between fashion and clothing that might be useful for this discussion – a differentiation that perhaps needs to be made for furniture also (perhaps there is and you can enlighten me!). Clothing is generally considered to be concerned with a garments function (both function and aesthetics are important but function comes first). Fashion is appealing first and functional second, and within fashion it is often argued that function is determined not by ergonomics or even fit, but the function of aesthetics and fashionable use. Despite this, both clothing and fashion still needs to hang on the body correctly, enable you to move through space, you need to be able to get into it – not just sit on it or look at it, all of these things are why fashion is made of soft things. Softness enables flexibility, but it also brings its own set of troubles. It is extremely difficult to control or predict exactly how it will behave and there are an infinite array of possible fabric types (which is part of why clothing has been the most difficult thing to accurately render via computer, and why CAD for fashion is about 10 years behind CAD for architecture or objects). Bodies come in vastly different shapes, meaning you need to be able to translate garments into different sizes while ensuring it remains economical to have to variations (something that is not at all perfected as it is so difficult to do). Soft fabrics are dictated to by gravity, you have limitations to form because of this, you cannot defy gravity with stiffness as easily as for furniture. Additionally as your body moves through space you need to be able to wear the same things from the start of your day to the end – unless you plan on bringing a full change of clothes with you for every possible situation you might encounter during the day. Furniture is quite static in comparison. What I am trying to say is that both Chris and yourself seem to occasionally over simplify the requirements and design of any type of garment. Both furniture and fashion have different limitations and advantages, all of which need to be considered when designing using zero waste as a goal.



Almost all of the garments in Yield use less than or about equal to, the amount of fabric used to make that ‘type’ of garment under standard condition – so there is no ‘excessive’ use of fabric per se. The other is that while zero waste fashion is as old as clothes it was abandoned by fashion because the old way of doing it didn’t lead to the kind of ‘frivolity, embellishment or excess that people wanted out of a lot of fashion” Zero waste fashion was too minimal and simple, and most commonly used for underwear – the most utilitarian of garments. It has only been recently explored as a way of making clothing that is expressive in nature – yield aimed to show some of those examples (which is in some cases where you get frivolous decorations – people like that in clothing – and I’d argue that many people might like it in furniture as well if given the opportunity to buy it. Furniture is by and large designed by middle aged white men (gasp!). Frivolous decoration can be done extremely well, it isn’t in of itself a negative which you seem to be implying. Men in general don’t like frivolous embellishment so furniture hasn’t been as comfortable with it for many decades, Fashion on the other hand is quite happy to operate in that way when desired. That being said, personally I’m not a fan of embellishments. All the garments I design utilise the fabric as necessary to the final form within the standard material use for that garment type. The relationship between form and material use is intricately intertwined, and not at all ad hoc or an after thought. Additionally as I said originally zero waste fashion didn’t provide the degree of ‘frivolity’ desired by consumers and designers and was primarily used for underwear. Many of the designers in the show are very minimalist with their designs, David Telfer, Julia Lumsden, Yeohlee Teng, Caroline Priebe in particular all respond directly to the proposed markets and their markets desire minimalist garments (interestingly 2 of those are menswear designers, I wonder what that says about the repressed nature of much of contemporary menswear). Additionally Julian Roberts does not do embellishments, there are no left over’s each part is necessary for the final form, a form which is intentionally voluminous as within women’s fashion this is often desired.



We know how to make a men’s shirt. We can make many of them, very quickly for low cost and they all look the same. Same goes for a hoody, a suit, jeans, t-shirt, just about any items of basic clothing that might fit your idea of pure or functional, the many different iterations of each of these garments types have been played out over hundreds of years many times faster than it has for furniture because simple fashion is simple and cheap to make, . And yet this doesn’t seem to satisfy us. I would argue that part of this is being a covetous human and another part is the sameness of clothing – from a form perspective fashion is often extremely restricted, and those that aren’t are considered ‘frivolous’ by people who look at fashion from the outside. We crave individuality while desiring to fit in, fashion has to deliver this in a format that becomes the first thing you see when you meet a person – you’re not looking at their dining furniture. The goal of zero waste fashion isn’t about making just those items you know and love, tshirt, hoody, jeans what ever – and making them using zero waste (although it is part of it and I’ve done my fair share) it is about discovering new forms, a new aesthetic for fashion, not just generating the same thing over and over again.



Applying this non-strict zero waste principle to furniture design would lead to unnecessarily heavy pieces for example.

I’ve got to say – No it wouldn’t – only if you did it badly, just as badly designed zero waste fashion is still just bad. I can’t help but feel it is an excuse. There are elegant solutions to many of the issues you bring up (IMO) given enough time and energy spent on working out what they might me. Solutions such as embedding multiple items in one sheet of material will minimise the ‘excess’ dramatically, giving greater control toward the final output. These kinds of processes and the ‘how do I do this’ stuff is related closely to your point about time. It only takes so much more time to develop because we aren’t taught how to do it. There isn’t a book or even a wise old man/woman somewhere that gives you ideas about little tricks you might use to interlock pieces on a sheet for maximum yield while enabling your design to work. We don’t have it much for fashion either – Zero waste in this format is in its infancy. The examples in the show are the beginnings of a change – not the end result of one. Any endeavour when you start out is hard.



I found your comment about optimisations becoming “an exercise to preserve one’s style against the forces of the algorithm” and that this is a scary thing for designers really pertinent. Each of the designers in Yield are exercising their designerly prerogative. However there is definitely an element of risk inherent in any process that has boundaries outside of your control. But this can be where the most interesting work emerges.


There is a bunch of other stuff I could mention but this reply is getting far too long as it is.  I’m sure that the first time someone attempted to make something using rotational moulding it took them a really friggen long time to work it out and it took ages to produce something that ‘worked’, and now it’s a standard practice. I’m not saying zero waste fashion or furniture will ever necessarily be that straight forward but given the relative amount of energy put into developing solutions for zero waste vs other processes I think we’re doing well so far.

This whole discussion has really got me thinking (and got my hackles up I’m sure you can tell!) – but I think it is such an important conversation for any designer to be having, whether zero waste or not.


5 thoughts on “Zero waste fashion and furniture – In Response to Tom and Chris

  1. Hi Holly, thanks so much for your blog. I’ve just discovered it and am really enjoying the discussions going on here. I have a blog of my own and have just posted a picture from YIELD and a link to your website. Please let me know if it is not OK to post the image and I will remove it right away.
    Thanks Holly.
    All the best,

  2. Hello Holly!

    I wanted to start a discussion, but I couldn’t have hoped for a reaction like this!

    I guess that’s what one needs to expect when one questions the relevancy of somebody else’s work. And I realize that’s what I did, quite carelessly.

    I do stand by what I said, but the smallish context in which I meant it is maybe not of such importance. So thank you for broadening the discussion from what was really a fairly shortsighted attempt from me (in my comment on Chris’ post) to denounce the use of the term ‘zero waste’ as applied to some of the Yield pieces.

    I think you brought the subject to what it’s really about: fashion vs clothing, form vs function, or from an even larger perspective: the cost vs necessity of play in the things we do and make.

    That same divide surely exists in furniture as well, where certain pieces are hailed and bought for their perfect balance of form and function, yet other pieces enjoy popularity for their extravagance only. Maybe, because of it being more predictable as far as materials, being deployed in fairly static contexts (making it easier from that perspective than clothing), and being generally more of an investment that clothing is, furniture design might be more scrutinized when it comes to sustainability or zero-waste. Moreso even for architecture.

    I think it’s very difficult to quantify play, put it in the balance against function, cost, scarcity of resources. And as such I would argue it’s very difficult to say what exactly constitutes ‘zero waste’. It becomes subjective to a degree. Yet it remains a clear (and necessary!) objective we can work towards. (Or even just work *with*, as a design tool to generate different aesthetics as you say).

    You’re totally right in saying that at this point in time, we’ve only begun exploring that new design dimension of sustainability, zero-waste and the cradle-to-cradle limit to strive for. We have got to thank people like you and initiatives like Yield to keep us exercising towards that goal, and develop skills and tools along the way, however time-consuming and futile it may seem to be today. Soon it will become just as natural and inherent to design as once form became.

    For fashion/clothing, my friend Sebastian Marino started to explore digital prototyping of fabrics. An interesting avenue that might help optimize clothing design towards higher yield.

    Whenever I can, I try to adhere to a Maximum Yield principle for my furniture designs. I’ve driven many a CNC operator to madness with my super-optimized cut layouts! Interestingly enough, these didn’t always lead to more sustainable results – in every sense of the word: broken router bits, miscuts, destroyed furniture pieces, but mainly: making me an unwelcome customer in many workshops 🙂

    But I’ve learned a lot from these experiences, and have developed new techniques that ultimately *do* result in higher yield on all fronts. And I plan to continue doing just that, both on the digital/pre-production, as on the physical production side.

    But I’ll be damned if I ever, in favor of that, forego to be frivolous:

  3. Thrilled to come cross this conversation! So well considered with such a variety of opinions. As a fashion design student I would just like to say; to Holly, Chris and Tom, your time taken to share your work in the field of sustainability and zero waste here is much appreciated, as it is not only incredibility informative but also inspirational. As this conversation demonstrates there are many contradictions and obstacles to be faced when designing sustainably, as a student I have at times found this rather daunting and it’s most encouraging to come across designers who have managed to make some head way in the battle towards sustainability.

    I am currently particularly interested in the tensions between clothing and fashion, and form and function in regards to zero waste and sustainability (mentioned a wee while ago now in this quickly developing convo). The contradictions of aesthetics place in a zero waste garment did initially trouble me, to the point of me asking myself whether ‘beauty’ had any relevance when trying to deal with environmental crisis, and this lead me to thinking about a few things…

    Ultimately sustainability comes down to production and consumption methods. Zero waste pattern cutting in combination with using recycled fabrics is an excellent strategy to tackle production issues, tactile environmental concerns. But inevitably we are faced with this idea of aesthetic indulgence vs. pure necessity. What I have been considering is how aesthectic and form can play a functional role in a garment that is not one of serving that of being simply ‘fashionable.’ As mentioned before, zero waste could be considered a form of sustainable production, but the other half of this problematic consumerist cycle is the wearer and the consumption. Form and aesthetics of a garment could be designed to encourage more sustainable consumption habits. For example if a garment (produced sustainably through zero waste etc) could liberate the wearer both physically (through it’s functionality) and physiologically (through form) the wearer could be freed from the dissatisfied and anxious mindset of a member rampant consumer society.

    Sounds a little crazy when it’s put that way but when you consider that aesthetics (in combination with functionality) could have the power to inspire emotions and attitudes (eg optimism and hope in the face of environmental disaster) or help the wearer develop a relationship with their garment, and a respect for the materials they take from the earth to cloth themselves. This could change consumption habits completely, to a far more sustainable attitude more in touch with our relationship to the earth and our production and consumption habits. Zero waste design may in fact also be an excellent design tool to create garments of this nature (as I believe Holly mentioned somewhere).

    Does this make any sense? Couldn’t be less straight forward really could it?!



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