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: Mister Finch

Mister Finch is a textile artist who uses scraps of fabric to creative fairy tale creatures. He is inspired by nature and British Folklore and includes recycled materials in the majority of his pieces. Mister Finch says:

It’s a joy to hunt for things for my work…the lost, found and forgotten all have places in what I make.
Most of my pieces use recycled materials, not only as an ethical statement, but I believe they add more authenticity and charm.
A story sewn in, woven in.
Velvet curtains from an old hotel, a threadbare wedding dress and a vintage apron become birds and beasts, looking for new owners and adventures to have.
Storytelling creatures for people who are also a little lost, found and forgotten… Continue reading “Research: Mister Finch”

Exercise 1: The art of craft

Justin McGuirk’s articleThe art of craft: the rise of the designer-maker discusses the move towards designers including and participating in craft processes.

I believe that there is a demand for handmade objects however I am not sure how large that demand is. There will always be a niche for unusual or bespoke products aimed at the super rich but I am more interested in the demand for handmade products within the general public.

Reading McGuirk’s article which mentions designers creating craft hairdryers etc, these objects have the feel of novelty items or a gimmick. Personally, I think that there is possibly a greater appetite for objects handmade locally as an alternative to mass produced items freighted half way around the world.

I do believe that people like to own objects which are high quality but also are individual. With so many products mass produced with everyone ending up with identical experiences, people start to crave the unique. I think McGuirk makes a valid point about poorer countries moving toward mass production to lift their citizens out of poverty. Ultimately, I believe that a balance will have to be reached. Many basic products will be mass produced so that they are affordable and everyone has a decent living standard. Consumers will then have the choice of purchasing a smaller selection of unique or handmade products which allow them to express their individuality.

There is certainly a romanticised nostalgia when discussing hand made products, a focus on the idea of each individual product being lovingly crafted. However the reality is that most people expect a basic level of quality for a minimal price point which is something that is impossible without mass production or the exploitation of others. What will be interesting in the future will be seeing how the improving living standards in countries that mass produce many of our goods will affect consumers buying patterns once the costs are similar to those should those goods be produced locally.

I believe that the only way for makers to sell products that are hand made is to emphasise their luxury value. If the maker cannot compete on price with mass produced goods, the additional cost must be seen to reflect some other value added. Whether the focus becomes on the individuality of the products or better quality or ethical values is a choice of the designer and a marketing exercise.

There are a multitude of mass produced products that are good quality and have a long life cycle. After all, I don’t think anyone would want to individually cast the nuts and bolts for washing machines. I believe that mass production and hand making products could both be ethical, the question is about the appropriateness of each process to the final product. A hand made product is not necessarily inherently more ethical for example products created using child labour or workers making things by hand for poor wages is no more ethical than a factory.

The first handmade product that I purchased was bought when I was 16. I was given money for my birthday and decided that I wanted to buy myself a ring. The one I bought can be seen below. I was drawn to it as it was unusual compared to most other rings found in jewellers. Made by Gavan Riley in New Zealand it features Arun lilies which make up the band. I still wear this ring (hence why it probably needs a good clean!) and it was probably one of the first objects that started my fascination with hand making objects myself. Part of the decision making process for me was purchasing jewellery which would not irritate my skin so the fact that this ring was made in silver was a key deciding factor (at 16 I couldn’t afford more expensive metals such as platinum). The fact that I still wear this ring shows that the design and emotional attachment I have to it has meant that it has stood the test of time.

The other rings that wear everyday are also handmade by a lovely woman called Zomile. These rings are made in silver and are decorative however fulfil an important function. They are actually splints to protect my joints from bending backwards when I type or write. I decided to invest in these as the NHS provided splints are the ubiquitous ugly beige plastic which screams “medical product”. The designer of Zomile ring splints uses them herself to mitigate the effects of her own condition. For me, this first hand understanding of the medical needs as well as the desire to have aids that reflect your personality created a sense of community or bond with the designer-maker.


The art of craft: the rise of the designer-maker 1/8/2011 The Guardian

[All links accessed on 21/3/18]