Rebecca Earley Upcycles Style

Rebecca Earley Upcycles Style

Secondhand clothes exude a certain aura. Vintage is one thing, but then there’s the other category: nothing-particularly-special- secondhand-clothing. Consider a polyester blouse, perhaps with stains under the arms or smack in the middle where no carefully pinned broach can hide the mark. Discarded, this garment could take 200 years to decompose in a landfill. British designer Rebecca Earley has spent the past decade researching and designing prototype solutions to problems such as these. Top 100 is one of a number of innovative research projects to come out of the Textiles Environment Design (TED) Research Group at Chelsea College of Art and Design, London, where Earley is a designer and Reader. The prototype solutions not only critique our contemporary consumption patterns but also propose new responsibilities for designers today.

Fashion and sustainability must coexist. There is no point creating the greenest wardrobe in the world if no one is tempted to wear it. In fact the harsh reality of most do-good projects is that, ironically, they promote waste by producing unwanted products. The solutions may be green, but they are often also unfashionable – an oversight the fashion industry has little time or patience for forgiving. Earley’s approach is surprisingly rare: meticulously researched, it is also unashamedly fashionable. The simple fact that her projects yield clothing which many would choose to wear on aesthetic grounds alone has finally moved the green debate to a new level.

Public awareness of sustainability within the fashion and textiles industries is on the rise, but Earley feels “trend is the wrong term” for the shift in attitudes seen today. “I’ve worked in the [fashion] industry for ten years,” she explains, “and I’ve seen small changes over time. There is no end to the innovations out there, but currently they fall down when you examine how much of the industry is affected. It is a challenge to develop solutions that can make a positive impact on large production runs rather than on the niche market. However, through the research undertaken here at TED, we are interested in finding out what is possible from a designer’s perspective.” A recent symposium organised by Earley and held at Chelsea College of Art and Design questioned how ideas generated from research could move into the mainstream and begin to make significant market impact. Rather than expect the industry to adopt sweeping changes overnight, Earley feels, “The answer is about niche. Potential capsule collections, for example, within larger collections that begin to bring these ideas to the public.” The benefit of working with capsule collections is that they tend to use a small group of garments that can be mixed and matched to create a collection, as seen in the work of British designer Katharine Hamnett. Perhaps best known for her political and pop band t-shirts, Hamnett relaunched her self-titled clothing line in 2005 to adhere to more strict ethical business practices.

Earley began her career as a fashion designer but moved into textile design research in 2000 when she felt her business had outgrown the methods and the values through which she wanted to apply her ideas. Today she continues, on a smaller scale, to market designs under her B.Earley label, but she also uses her design practice to “illustrate possibilities that create a balance between practice and theoretical dialogue”. Top 100 is just one example of a project that is now marketed under the B.Earley label . Late 2009 will see the project’s conclusion, for which seventy blouses have been created; they will be sold after the exhibition Slow (working title) organized by the England-based nonprofit distributing company Craftspace.

Most recently, Earley has worked on the development of seven strategies for designers to reduce the environmental impact of their work. Available for public download from the TED research site (, the list ranges from ethical considerations of recycling to the use of new technological systems and services that may lower waste and increase energy efficiency. The latter incorporates examples such as Amy Twigger Holyrod’s business model for the alternative luxury label Keep and Share [FA JanFeb 2007] which includes consumer access to laundry and repair services for the long-term maintenance of their knitted items. Earley explains that the seventh and final strategy included in the report is campaigning, “encouraging ideas that aren’t product-based, but instead are about changing habits.” Broken down into manageable sections, the hope is that designers will take on board whatever level of change they feel capable of making at any given time. Adopting three strategies is, of course, three times better, but the message is that even small change is better than no change.

What about designers of the future? Will the green agenda be a given for them? Earley notes a significant increase in interest about sustainability issues among the textile design students she supervises at the Chelsea College of Art and Design. “In 2000 I marked forty-seven dissertations, and three showed an interest in sustainability. Those numbers are far greater today, but the impact of these ideas on studio practice has been slower. The sex appeal is growing…. slowly.” TED is part of the larger Textile Futures Research Group (TFRG), lead by Dr. Jane Harris, which spans a number of institutions that fall under the umbrella of the University of the Arts, London. Earley explains that this network facilitates, “collaboration within the university and allows us to see changes that can quickly feed back into the curriculum.” One outcome of this research emphasis, she notes, is that, “all staff at Chelsea are now involved with TED research, which means they are now more confident to discuss and explore these ideas in the studio as well as seminars.” The Ever and Again project at TED, for example, brought together twelve tutors from Chelsea College of Art and Design. For this project Earley and Kate Goldsworthy, a Chelsea PhD candidate, collaborated on two garments within the Top 100 series by focussing on laser etching, welding, and photogram techniques. Examples of their LaserQuilt and LaserLace blouses are now on display at the 3-logy exhibition at Price Towers Art Center in Oklahoma through January 4.

In her own design research, Earley is a proponent of “upcycling,” a term coined by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their influential text Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things published in 2000 by North Point Press. Upcycling, as opposed to recycling, is based on the idea that an object’s second (and third and fourth….) life can enjoy increased, not decreased value. Within the ongoing Top 100 project, upcycling is applied to garments purchased from charity shops and transformed from the unwanted into the fashionable. Each garment’s life is extended via a number of textile processes responsible for an increase in the garment’s value over time. Shape, for example, may be altered and overprinting used not only to enhance aesthetic value but also conceal stains.

The idea to create one hundred outcomes was, in part, a response to “the sheer number of polyester blouses with just one stain” found by Earley in charity shops. “A single stain means that a number of these otherwise high quality garments are quickly discarded by a certain type of customer,” she explains. In response, she determined that revamping ten sets of ten blouses would allow her to develop a “longer term project that I could break down into subprojects with different research agendas and findings.” Seventy blouses have been remade at this point in the project, with one hundred anticipated for completion by the end of 2009. Each set is created using a number of techniques, including an exhaust printing process first used by Earley in the 1990s (with the benefit of minimal chemical usage and pollution of the water used) as well as heat photogram transfer printing onto paper and objects, dye sublimation with reactive dyes, and digital printing. The narrative potential—that is, the ability of each set to tell a story—is important, and a chronology begins to appear within each set as layers of pattern build in complexity; simultaneously the intensity of color begins to fade.

In recent collaborative work with Goldsworthy, a blouse may morph into a quilted waistcoat reshaped and lined with recycled polyester fleece attached by a laser welding process. Goldsworthy has adapted the laser welding process from a new technology called ClearWeld, a precise joining method designed initially for plastics. One of the many benefits of laser welding is that the process eliminates the need for sewing and adhesives. To complete this work, Goldsworthy uses specialist equipment housed at The Welding Institute [TWI], a research facility based in Cambridge, England. Digitally controlled laser etching may offer yet another level of reincarnation, such as the doily lace pattern etched over Earley’s thistle print blouse. Throughout the project, she notes, “Upcycling is achieved without using material resources, and the resulting product retains its inherent recyclability for another lifetime.” This and many other projects are included in the 72-page illustrated report “Upcycling Textiles: Adding Value Through Design,” which documents the final outcomes of the Ever & Again project. The report is available for purchase through the TED website.

Earley’s approach to fashion design differs dramatically from the mainstream values of an industry driven by volume and high turnover. But her approach is also pragmatic: to introduce changes to the fashion industry, designers must first create products that people will want. Moreover, the results of her Top 100 series have communicated these changes in a way that inspires rather than overwhelms both designers and consumers; offering important lessons from which we all can learn.

New pieces from the TOP 100 project can be seen in the group exhibition 3-logy Triennial 2008: Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things at the Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, through January 6. “Upcycling Textiles: Adding Value Through Design,” the 72-page illustrated report which documents the final outcomes of the Ever & Again project, available for purchase through the TED website.;;;;;

FiberArts magazine (Jan./Feb. 2009: 38-41)