Research: Sustainability in Textiles

Notes from Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change by Kate Fletcher & Lynda Grose:

An interesting comment from the beginning of this book is:

Sometimes… the biggest change comes from a series of small, individual actions rather than from big international declarations – a realization that brings change within the reach of us all. [p10]

This is stark contrast to a textile artist I contacted via email who commented:

I am afraid I have never got involved in the matter of sustainability, as I tend to use very small quantities of material.

Transforming Fashion Products

Sustainability issues:

  • climate change
  • adverse effects on water and its cycles
  • chemical pollution
  • loss of biodiversity
  • overuse and misuse of non-renewable resources
  • waste production
  • negative impacts on human health
  • damaging social effects on producer communities

This list creates a complex trade off of characteristics for each fibre. Sustainability-led innovation roughly divided into:

  • increased interest in renewable source materials
  • Materials with reduced levels of processing ‘inputs’ eg water, energy
  • fibres produced under improved working conditions for growers and processors (Fair-trade fibres)
  • materials produced with reduced waste eg biodegradable, recyclable fibres. Note: biodegradability/ decomposition inhibited if synthetic and natural fibres combined. Facings and trims also need to be considered.

In their book Cradle to Cradle William McDonough & Michael Braungart propose two cycles acceptable in sustainable industrial economy:

  1. composting – waste from one part of economy becomes raw material for another
  2. industrial recycling – materials perpetually reused

Significant challenges to a fibre’s biodegradability:

  1. Design of completely biodegradable garments where all fibres and component parts compost fully and safely.
  2. Development of suitable infrastructure to collect and process compostable fibres
  3. Better information and labelling for biodegradable fibres, specifying composting routes and differences from oil-based degradable or non-degradable synthetics.

People-friendly fibre issues:

  • health and safety issues
  • better working conditions
  • access to unions and living wages
  • larger questions on business models, domestic & global trading practices

Fairtrade is market-based response that emerged from need to maintain industrial production within safe limits – organisational fix. Challenge is for designers to develop relationships themselves.

If virgin fibres are compared on energy profile:

natural fibres < regenerated natural fibres eg viscose < synthetics


Goal -> Action

  • make wise use of natural resources -> minimise # processing steps
  • reduce risk of pollution -> minimise # & toxicity of chemicals
  • minimise energy consumption -> use low temp and/or combine processes
  • minimise water consumption -> eliminate water-intense processes
  • reduce landfill -> minimise waste at all stages

Interesting ideas to incorporate at design stage:

  • utilise natural variation in colour of fibre
  • utilise natural dyes
  • design patterns to minimise/eliminate waste – Sam Forno, Timo Rissanen, MATERIALBYPRODUCT
  • avoid usage of electroplated trims


Designers need to think about both where products are produced as well as how they are transported.

Consumer Care

Focus on cooler temperatures and line drying.


Almost 75% of textiles end up in landfill in UK.

Reuse < Reconditioning < Recycling < virgin fibre production

Take-back schemes oblige manufacturers to accept products for reuse/recycling

Transforming Fashion Systems


  • in a business context
  • trans- and multiple functions
  • trans-seasonal
  • modular
  • changing shapes

Optimised Lifetimes

“A discarded product is not an indicator of poor product quality, but rather of a failed relationship between the product and the wearer” – focus on building emotional response in wearer

Low-impact Use

  • low launder
  • no wash
  • design to stain
  • low iron

Services and Sharing

  • design for repair
  • leasing systems
  • design services


  • locally produced materials
  • utilising skills/heritage/culture local to material production


  • nature as a model – imitation
  • nature as measure – standard of comparison
  • nature as mentor – what can we learn from it?


  • steady state economics
  • rethink concept of fast fashion
  • slow fashion – small-scale production, traditional craft techniques, local materials etc. Focus on diversity


Max-Neef’s taxonomy of fundamental human needs:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

Little brown dress project – Seattle mum wore one brown dress for an entire year.


  • co-design – with users
  • craft
  • fashion hacking

Transforming Fashion Design Practice

Designer as communicator-educator

“A society that talks about creating jobs as if that is something only companies can do, will not inspire the great majority of its people to create jobs for themselves or anyone else” Donella Meadows

Designer as facilitator

  • enabling action and change
  • co-design
  • clothes swaps
  • ready-to-wear vs readiness-to-make
  • act as intensifier – eg use of craft

Designer as activist

working independently, with NGOs or government

Designer as entrepreneur

changing ways of thinking and acting, using new media

possibilities for fashion in a sustainable future:

  • impact rather than trend led
  • pluralistic aesthetic – regionally available materials etc
  • raw materials become scarcer -> other aspects of fashion dominate?
  • products and services adapt to regional/seasonal variation
  • optimise energy/water use
  • work alongside economists, policy makers, ecologists, business etc
  • reference psychology, sociology etc to develop new business models
  • business success measure in social, cultural and environmental value
  • scale of production will be proportional to community
  • scale of production will be defined by ecosystem
  • educational establishments involved in new business models

Organisations and certifications:

Fletcher, K. & Grose, L. (2012) Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd


Research: Christian Boltanski’s Personnes

Christian Boltanski’s Personnes (2010) at Grand Palais







Personnes was an installation consisting of an enormous pile of clothing and a large red mechanical grabber which would periodically descend and pick up a selection of the clothing and lift it up high before dropping it back onto the pile.

The clothing forms a large scale pile that dominates the room even from a distance. The repetition of individual items of clothing gives a sense of scale as it encourages the viewer to imagine how many items must make up the pile and by extension the number of people in the world. The red of the mechanical grabber is often used in warning signs and as it picks up a selection of clothing, the viewer is lead to think of how many people are dying at that moment. It could not be predicted in which order the items are picked up in and so there is an element of chance, perhaps reflecting the chance evident when a death occurs

The soundtrack of a heartbeat can be heard at the same time and this seems to add to an element of fear or suspense as it is reminiscent of being able to hear your own heartbeat.

Christian Boltanski can be seen here discussing how his idea was to represent the hand of God selecting people for death. The textiles are an appropriate representation of death as once someone dies, their clothing is left behind and must be disposed of.

What did the critics have to say?

Laura Cumming says in her review that ‘The austerity of the scene is overwhelming, compounded by the booming heartbeats that seem to emit from nowhere and yet all around – time being measured out by human life.’ This interpretation is emphasised when she explains that at the end Boltanski asks each visitor to record their own heartbeat saying ‘All the world’s heartbeats stretching out until the last syllable of recorded time: that should stand against oblivion.’ Cumming also comments that each viewer interprets the work differently, whether fearfully or as something uplifting. Describing the surroundings of the main pile, Cumming explains that there are ‘Sixty-nine camps, but there are no tents and no living people, only thousands of old clothes lying face down on the floor’. Again the viewer’s temperament and perspective are relevant as there are many interpretations of this configuration. Are they ‘mass graves, or corpses arrayed for identification in the school gym’ or perhaps ‘they also constitute a kind of cemetery’?

Adrian Searle’s review emphasises the extreme cold of the installation and how Boltanski postponed the installation to take advantage of the colder weather and the temperature’s association with the dead. Although this installation at first glance appears to be intended to be viewed from a distance rather than immersive, Searle comments that Boltanski stresses ‘the importance and place of the ­spectator, and their ­relation to objects and spaces’ and how the artist is ‘also ­preoccupied by repetition and ­difference, a sensitivity to the ­conditions of place and time’.

Devika Singh notes that ‘The work’s title, Personnes, is a play on words: it means ‘people’ in French but is pronounced the same way as ‘nobody’.’ Singh comments that ‘Personnes was about survival, as are all memorials’ and in this way, visiting a memorial in effect collapses time by reminding the viewer of events of the past whilst viewer and memorial will move on through time. The installation itself was only temporary in its physical form however the recording of heartbeats was intended to endure.


Boltanski, C. Personnes (2010)

Cumming, Laura (2010) The Guardian ‘Christian Boltanski: Personnes’

Searle, A. (2010) The Guardian ‘Christian Boltanski: It’s a jumble out there’

Singh, D. (2010) Frieze ‘Christian Boltanski’

Christian Boltanski discussing his motivation for Personnes (2013) YouTube

Video of the Personnes installation (2010) YouTube

[All links accessed 6/4/18]

Research: Wrapped Trees

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands (1980-83) surrounded 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami with 6.5 million square feet of bright pink floating woven polypropylene fabric to cover the water. I found their determination and method of self funding fascinating and an interesting dimension to their work.

In 2018, this work possibly has a very different connotation than it did in 1983. There is much in the news about the levels of pollution of our waters. At the time, much of the rubbish on the islands was collected up and disposed of in preparation for this work however it would be an interesting project to turn the waste from waters into a fabric (if this was possible) or perhaps have a fabric that has the same mass as the rubbish collected as a stark visual image of the pollution we cannot see beneath the surface.

The OCA course book analysis of Surrounding Islands is as follows:







I would also say that the colour (pink) is a dominant feature of this artwork and there is a strong element of repetition in the fact that there are eleven islands surrounded rather than just one. The bright pink does have a transformative effect on the landscape in that it draws the viewers attention to the islands where normally they may go unnoticed.

Wrapped Trees







The 178 trees that make up this piece were between 2 and 25m tall and 1 and 14.5m wide which is still relatively large scale for a textile work. The work transforms the trees into abstract shapes which are defined in combination with the fabric, branch structure, ropes and the wind. Wrapped Trees is designed to be seen from a distance (to appreciate the structural shapes formed) but also to be experienced up close as the woven polyester fabric used was translucent allowing viewers to see shadows from the branch structures beneath. The fabric is used in Japan to protect trees from frost but it was used in Germany which translates a visual experience across the globe.

The fragile nature of the textile used means that this work would be temporary no matter what structure was underlying. Although the trees create the frame, the visual structure, colour and shape is defined by the textile covering.