Let me fume about Zero Waste.

Timo Rissanen showed me an interesting post that invited the readers to let the writer “Fume About Zero Waste” – see here.

It’s always a slightly painful experience to see your own work be shredded in this way, but a number of the arguments are totally valid and I agree with them whole heartedly – such as why destroy a perfectly functional second-hand garment to make an ugly hybrid. But that is just a matter of personal taste and everyone sees things differently.

I just want to answer a few of the criticisms

You think you invented this? Its been around for centuries!

I didn’t invent Zero Waste Fashion (not even sure where the name came from, its relatively new though). I’ve never claimed to do so. Timo Rissanen has never claimed it either. We both know the full and rich history of making clothes without making waste for the thousands of years that humans have done it – it is after all as old as throwing an animal hide over your shoulder to keep the rain off.

The biggest driver for me is that I strongly believe that the process isn’t refined enough for contemporary consumers yet because people historically didn’t push it forward as a design process. Historically the garments made without waste were made primarily as utilitarian garments. Embellishment may have been used to lift them above this (as is seen with Kimono and many other examples) but the fabric form itself was kept relatively simple. This may well be the best way to use Zero Waste – but we won’t know unless someone tries out the alternatives, and that’s what I’m doing. Additionally zero waste outcomes will only get better the more people do it – we have had 150 years of western style garment design and pattern cutting heading toward what we see and accept as normal these days. Zero Waste was largely forgotten about by western fashion for the last 200 years or so – with a few notable exceptions, Clare McCardell, Zandra Rhodes, Bernard Rudolfski etc. Zero Waste design has not until recently evolved in the same way current western garment design has, teaching people how to get started and showing some of what is possible is going to enable some evolution.

You could use the left-overs for other stuff

Yep that’s true – and I encourage people and companies to do so – Alabama Chanin is an excellent example of this in action, and for this reason Timo Rissanen and myself included Natalie Chanin in Yield: Making Fashion Without Making Waste.

As for me – I use a technique I call “embedding” (it’s just a name I give it to make it easier to talk about – I didn’t invent the process) to give the designer more control of more aspects of the design outcome from the start of the process rather than relying entirely on trial and error to come to the end result – this technique ends with one pattern, cutting multiple garments. The same process could easily be used to make a garment and a bag instead of two garments, or any combination of parts of garments/objects in order to make infinite variations and possibilities of fabric combinations and form.

The problem with using the left over pieces from traditional pattern cutting is that these pieces are randomly shaped, so might not work that well for what they are intended, they are often too small. That being the case with some trial and error it is entirely doable and a great way to use up scraps. Zero Waste pattern cutting designs the positive and negative space to make all pieces usable.

Its only high fashion/exclusive

The outcomes of zero waste fashion are entirely determined by the designer. In much of my work I am trying out a technique or approach to see if it offers anything new or solves a particular issue that I’ve encountered or that someone else has bought to my attention.  Zero waste doesn’t need to make ‘high-fashion’ or ‘exclusive’ garments, indeed we already know how to make basic garments using zero waste – after all patterns for these have been around for centuries. Many people are working on variations of these (David Telfer, Julia Lumsden to name a couple), including myself, and I make and wear many versions in my every day life.

I’m trying to raise the profile of this technique, while simultaneously drawing people’s attention to the waste currently created through the standard fashion production process and we all know fashion loves a bit of a spectacle. A criticism I’d make of my work its that it isn’t spectacular enough for this. I think Iris Van Herpen‘s work does a great job of showing us whats possible for the future of the fashion industry through 3D printing. Is it accessible for the average clothing consumer? No. Does it look amazing and inspiring and make people talk about 3D printing? Yes.

It’s not wearable

The work I do is attempting to find new forms through an old technique. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, I’m trying to satisfy some contemporary fashion consumers with an old process. You manipulate the process to the consumer – so if you don’t like what I come up with, you probably aren’t my target market.

Also while some of my work targets consumers, as a researcher some of it is effectively a test – I’m challenging myself to come up with a different way of doing things within the confines of Zero Waste Patterncutting. So aesthetic is not always the driving force. What you are looking at are probably best described as early 3D sketches – a work in progress.

WTF “Hyperbolic Tessellation”

The “Hyperbolic Tessellation” which was so strongly derided by a number of people in the post was an attempt to make garments that were modifiable – it is entirely experimental – so experimental in fact that it has only ever been pinned onto a half scale mannequin (never sewn up even) and put on the back burner until a number of aspects can be resolved. I stand by the general premise of it however, and will be working on it further in the near future. It is a work in progress. The name derives from the formula used to help generate it.

You use more fabric than is necessary

The garments I design use either less fabric or about the same as a standard garment design of that type. For example I designed a mens two piece suit which uses 140cm wide by 270cm long piece of cloth. Normally this might take at least 300cm of cloth depending on the design. This is true for the vast majority of my designs. Julia Lumsden made 18 mens shirts that use less fabric that a traditionally cut mens shirt for her Master of Design project, and they are all mens shirts which fit into a contemporary work or social environment.

You think it will save the world

Zero waste pattern cutting will not save the world. I’ve never said it would. It is merely one very small tool that can be used when it is necessary and appropriate and it DOES minimise material waste and/or use. Which has to be a good thing. I think we have forgotten that cloth is a finished product by the time we cut into it. Vast amounts of energy, resources and time have gone into its design and production. To thoughtlessly cut and throw it away seems idiotic to me. I do not believe every garment should be made this way – there are different solutions for every problem and a designer should have many solutions to the variety of problems which come up in any given design. Zero Waste is just another tool.

See here for a few more thoughts on related things

Risk, design and beautiful things

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about risk and the design process. In particular how much in fashion design and business the goal is to minimize risk – we often explore and commit only to the sure thing. I wrote about it briefly in a paper i presented last week at the IFFTI 2010 conference on Sustainable Fashion in regards to copying and the fashion cycle. I feel that copying or referencing is a method for minimizing risk and through this copying, design (in particular fashion design) becomes derivative and drives the cycle of novelty – consumption – boredom – novelty which dominates the fashion world. Through the fashion cycle, aesthetics become risk free. Risk requires more of the soul of a designer, it requires more sweat and worry. But risky design and leaps of faith are what create truly exciting and innovative ideas. Risk can change the world not just regurgitate it.

Risk also requires more time, and we need to take more time when we design. We need time to put other things first ahead of aesthetics, and what that first thing might be is up to each designer. For myself i put the environment first, for someone else it might community or fair trade, for others it might be animal cruelty, and for yet another it could be freedom of expression. Putting the aesthetics and trends of fashion first has lead us to an industry which pollutes the environment, exploits communities, workforces and animals and promotes ideals of beauty which for most are unattainable.

That is not to say we should disregard aesthetics, indeed the aesthetics of things cannot be ignored even if we tried. As when people purchase anything they own it with their eyes first. But designing only for the look of something gives nothing back to our world except a beautiful thing that is empty and will eventually reveal it’s empty-ness and make the owner feel empty in their consumption of that beautiful thing. So they go buy another to fill up.

So… Risk… Ignore trends for a bit. Ignore how it looks for a little while. Don’t think about Cool. Design something which puts the important stuff first. Then make it beautiful so we can buy real beautiful things instead of empty beautiful things. It would be a start at least.

New years resolution one down!

Here are my fixed elbows! I decided to go for the classic leather patch but with contrast thread to draw attention to the mend (and my bad bad stitching!). Such a feeling of accomplishment!

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I used a Buttonhole stitch to sew left over leather i had laying around from when i was a student.

I love these old illustrations of stitching/sewing. My mum gave me a pocket Vogue sewing book from the late 1940’s a few years ago that i use all the time.

Wolf / Sheep

Wolf / Sheep
Wolf / Sheep

Within the fashion industry the resources and energy invested to manufacture cloth and clothing is extraordinary, from the use of non-renewable resources to produce synthetic fibres to the 8000 litres of water used to produce only 1 kilogram of cotton fibre (Fletcher, 2008). And yet today, at a time when clothing has never been so cheap, cloth has become a readily disposable commodity with little value. Indicative of this is the fact that on average 15 – 20% of cloth needed to produce a garment is unused and the useless remnants are destined for the incinerator, landfill or occasionally as mattress filler (Abernathy et al. 1999; Cooklin, 1997; Feyerabend, 2004). China, one of the world’s largest exporters of textiles and clothing produced 31.8 billion metres of fabric in January to July 2008 alone (Tingting, 2008). You could reasonably estimate that 5 billion metres of that fabric were wasted. This astonishing wastefulness is caused by the entrenched traditions of the fashion industry, which separate the stages of garment design and production into hierarchies where the designers often work isolated from production and the accountant is God. It is a system that fails to acknowledge that textiles are a finished product with energy invested into their design and manufacture, relies on the conviction that we can take from and dump on our planet infinitely, and which seems blind to the reality that the fashion world (and the human world) is part of a natural world.

As a child I could see a panther living in the trees lining the road we drove down every day, leaping from tree top to branch, stealthily following our car, but never making that fateful leap. I saw that wolves with yellows eyes lived in the rugged bush on our farm. There was a monster that lived in the lake, ready to pull under any child foolish enough to wander near its dark waters. This mythical natural world was all around me, menacing, and yet somehow also a warning – protective. I was not separate from nature, I was nature and on any given day I could be prey, protector or predator. In the urbanized western world we have come to view Natural as Other – it is easier for us to consume nature if we are not natural ourselves. By viewing ourselves in this way we avoid acknowledging our vulnerability as part of the fragile natural world. The environmental philosopher Val Plumwood in Being Prey (cited in Rothenberg & Ulvaeus. 1999) wrote

“in the human supremacist culture of the West there is a strong effort to deny that we humans are also animals positioned in the food chain”,

she argues that it is this concept of human identity which distances us from our natural world and places humans as “external manipulators and masters”. This illusion of other-ness enables us to exploit at our peril the world we rely on to survive but every facet of our existence relies at some point on the natural world because we are natural.

Wolf/Sheep is a fashion product developed through a zero-waste design process, where all parts that are removed for fit or aesthetics are reincorporated back into the garment. Surplus is resource, not to be used for another product at some time in the future but as a resource for it’s own creation. Designed around the form of the wolf/sheep head and constrained by the dimensions of the textile, while requiring the goal of fashionable dress; nature, industry and design each play their own part to make the whole. Thematically Wolf/Sheep seeks to explore the precariousness of our self-titled position as masters of nature. In it I explore the shallow deception and denial that revolves around the design, production and consumption of clothing. Wolf /Sheep borrows the allegory of folklore to become a watchful and predatory guardian that deceives both viewer and wearer. We seem to have a choice to make on wearing the garment to become either wolf or sheep, but the position of clothing on our bodies as a communicator and protector of the fragile self throws our understanding of the wolf / sheep dichotomy into disarray and the reality is we become both.

Precarious Design for a Precarious World

I love fashion! It is beautiful, frightening, exhilarating, confronting, elegant, communicative, intelligent, frivolous and thought provoking. However I also know that fashion is the cause of massive environmental and social injustices. When the concept of “sustainable fashion” was first touted, it was considered an oxymoron – and to me it still is. As how can an industry be considered sustainable when its primary concern is the propagation of the Next New Thing at the expense of perfectly functional existing products? Despite consumer desire for change – as shown in the worldwide awareness of sustainability and growing demand for sustainable products – the majority of the fashion industry are responding with what can be considered ‘Less Bad’ solutions – and less bad just isn’t good enough. ‘Less bad’ in the fashion world has predominantly meant using organic and recycled fibre within the current inherently wasteful clothing production and consumption model. At either extremes of the fashion system waste occurs with shocking familiarity. It is standard for garment producers to expect to waste approximately 15% of the cloth needed to produce an adult sized garment, resulting in a loss of profits for the manufacturer and landfill waste. It is also not unusual for a garment to have travelled vast distances to get from cotton field to consumer. The globalisation of the fashion industry has in some cases lead to the raw material of textiles being grown in New Zealand, woven into fabric in Italy, designed in America and manufactured in China – generating vast quantities of carbon dioxide while divorcing the consumer from the production of the clothes they wear every day. At the consumer end of the fashion industry the rapid and insatiable desire for new fashion products that drives the fashion cycle and contributes 30kg of textile waste per person in the UK every year is growing so swiftly so as to be granted the term ‘Fast Fashion’, where new styles take mere weeks from design to consumer and “affluenza” drives consumers to buy everything, now! – I wonder if we are we in the midst of a rampant clothing ‘epidemic’.

For me the conflict is triadic – I am sitting on the very pointy apex of a three sided pyramid made up of sustainable designer, educator and fashion lover, and it is getting very difficult to keep my balance. The primary contributor to my unease is the knowledge of what I should be doing and its conflict with what I am doing and encouraging. Leon Festinger – a psychologist from the ’50s – described this emotional state as Cognitive Dissonance and argued that when personal beliefs and actions do not align, one or the other will change so as to remove the source of discomfort, usually by justifying the actions rather than changing the behaviour. I have been doing a little of both and it is through this precarious balancing act I have discovered a new ease with unease – I realised that uncertainty can be a great innovator and that as long as you have a destination in mind, you don’t really need to know how you are going to get there.

Precarious Design version 1
Precarious Design v. 1 - First Son 2005