Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Reflections on “Upcycling Textiles”


Reflections on “Upcycling Textiles: Adding Value Through Design

A number of key themes surfaced during “Upcycling Textiles: Adding Value Through Design”, a one day symposium convened at Chelsea College of Art on Friday July 18, 2008. The concept of ‘upcycling’ coined by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things was debated throughout the course of the day through a cluster of Pecha Kucha style presentations delivered by six designers, followed by four further case studies in the afternoon.

Reflecting on the impact of the event, educator and trend prediction journalist Philippa Wagner noted the “enriched thinking at WGNS behind what upcycling can be”, which she observed as having “a direct impact on fabrics coming out from mills showcasing at the last two seasons [at the trade show] Premiere Vision”. Wagner also highlighted the “emotional aspect of sustainability” as “a key message that came from that symposium which is central to the way that we teach/forecast sustainability/responsible design now.”

The following text attempts to highlight themes that recurred throughout the day’s varied conversations.

Think Like a Child

Professor Marie O’Mahony’s keynote address called not only for a reappraisal of where sustainability fashion design now needs to go now, but also reminded the audience that it was time for a “celebration of where we’ve got to”. O’Mahony remarked: “A child, if they see something for the first time, they don’t have any preconceptions about what it is and how it’s used. If we could regain some of that as a way of thinking, as a way of approaching things, I think it would be quite a wonderful thing.”

Design deserves a constant re-evaluation of materials and process if sustainable agendas are to be addressed effectively. Without the constant process of reappraisal O’Mahony warns that we become, despite of good intentions, “like ants following an ant trail” in the search for sustainable solutions. This “ant trail” is a curious downside of the popularity sustainable design. Solutions are proposed and a bandwagon appears, looking to take up a standard cure-all for the challenges the textiles and fashion industries face. The PR company Futerra refers to this as “greenwashing” – the casual dabbling, for marketing purposes, in the image rather than the core intentions of sustainable design. Thinking like a child seems to require not only an absence of preconceptions from a designers perspective, but also a brutal honesty: ‘if it is not interesting, we are not playing with it’ approach from consumers.

Dr Emma Neuberg also noted the lessons to be learnt from working with children. Education is an important responsibility that can change future consumption patterns. But engaging with children also allows for experiments and ideas to emerge in an unselfconscious context. Earley noted that the most important feedback from the “Ever and Again” research project “was from our children’s workshop which Emma ran, which was about engaging a different range of users, a very different age group with the work and the idea of recycling.” Equally, Amy Twigger Holroyd explained that in her work with school age children in workshops she has come to see that “recycling is in the school syllabus now in the design technology part of their GCSE…. You see these children coming through up to further education and they’re very clued up about recycling and the whole process.” Designers need to think like children in order to remain open to new ideas and approaches, but they may also look forward to an increased awareness younger generations may bring to their future consumption decisions.

Incorporate the Aging Process

The stereotypes which plague materials that look ‘aged’ continues to be a significant stumbling block for sustainable design. Despite a product continuing to function on one level (i.e., the garment provides warmth) traces of wear and tear are observed to be unacceptable by a vast majority of consumers. O’Mahony voiced the fundamental question here: “Why not incorporate the aging process into the material and have it as a thing of beauty?” She went on to distinguish problem materials, noting that leather and wood, for example, are often appreciated when visibly aged, but plastic seems be a material “we don’t treasure” once it is discoloured. She suggested a rethinking in relation to plastics particularly, so that “it [discolouration] evolves as its own aesthetic.” Neuberg echoed this question during the afternoon session when she questioned why plastic, in particular, always has to look new?

One potential shift in the way that we engage with the material world is through rethinking what we define as valuable. ‘Aged’ and ‘old’ have to be repositioned as positive rather than negative attributes. But on the other side of the coin is the realisation that the weakness of many early examples of sustainable design was a lack of attention to aesthetics. Earley explained that at the heart of the three year research project “Ever and Again: Rethinking Recycled Textiles” was a desire to “challenge the way recycled textiles look.” A balancing act is needed here. Two very different approaches are proposed. On the one hand it may be time to re-educate the consumer to think differently about materials previously undervalued after the material ages. On the other is the importance Earley noted in providing the public with sustainable design that does not conform (as worn surfaces tend to suggest) to the grubby-granola aesthetic.

Up-scaling Up-cycling

In the afternoon session Earley pushed the audience to consider, “how do we upscale upcycling?” While a number of excellent projects and companies are in existence, their market impact continues to be painfully modest. Is the solution to this problem simply to recreate these projects on a larger scale? Some of the participants recognised the benefits and need to stay small. For example, Cyndi Rhodes Worn Again noted, “When cool ideas start to become successful business opportunities the harsh realities of production and supply become vital learning lessons… It is about having this bigger vision of where we want to be and knowing that, as a small company, we can only take those steps, step by step.”

Amy Twigger Holroyd’s discussion of her company Keep & Share also noted the benefits of staying small scale, not for the sake of production but rather the quality of communication she is able to deliver to her customers. Holroyd explains her ethos “Is about the experience of acquiring an item and using it, the story behind the design or the way that you came to have it. The relationship is with me as the friendly neighbourhood designer/maker who is very accessible and ready to chat, unlike your normal fashion design archetype who would be up on a pedestal.” Nonetheless, she conceded, “there is a big system going on behind the smiley face and the glib comments” that populate her website and are the hallmark of her own careful branding.

But another perspective was also voiced, one which asked why we don’t demand a greater scale and audience engagement. “Why can’t it [fashion using recycled clothing] be sold in that sort of Oxford Circus area, it can be a commercially viable thing?” Emmeline Child challenged after speaking of the Salvation Army’s new shop plans situated at the heart of London’s conspicuous consumption streets. Annika Saunders of Junky Styling raised another perceived contradiction of values when she described her business’ “concession in Top Shop, which is a bit like dancing with the devil but we don’t mind because it’s a destination shop for young female consumers… to get people when they’re young, it helps to change fashion values.” Scale it seems, is determined by practicalities but the underlying suggestion was that at times scale could also simply be the outcome of thinking small rather than thinking big. And then there are the compromises, such as Junky Styling’s Top Shop concession, which agrees to rub shoulders with the antithesis of sustainable design, precisely so it can introduce its ideas to a new, and lets face it, bigger, audience.

Big and small are, of course, two ends of spectrum. The middle ground may not be found literally between the two, but in alternative approaches that preserve small-scale designers and companies within a larger framework. Dilys Williams, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion questioned what many must have been asking themselves, “Do we have to become big in order to be able to be commercial, to take on big companies?” From Somewhere Director and curator of Esthetica, Orsola De Castro, concluded that, at least on some level, the industry needs to engage: “I feel that we’ve done a good job in facilitating the rest of the industry to see the potential of the future of sustainability within the fashion industry. I hope that it will be now the industry’s turn to support us, to be able to make viable businesses because to a certain extent that is still where we are lacking.”

Other People’s Rubbish

Recycling is fundamentally about the reuse of materials. But on a big picture level it may be worth remember that all materials, at least at their molecular level, are the product of reuse.

Kate Goldsworthy introduced the overarching idea behind her PhD research that materials are “not ours to do with as we wish and at some point they need to go back into the mix.” Nothing is really new. Everything is, to a certain extent, a reconfigured version of something else. Tackling that reconfiguration in the most sensitive way is fundamental to how designers engage with their materials. Some, like Orsola De Castro admit to enjoying “the slightly fraudulent feeling that I am selling and using other people’s rubbish.”

Others don’t use existing waste, they try to minimise the waste their design work creates. Dr Emma Neuberg put forward the idea that recycling be considered as a system of “voluntary inheritance”. Amy Twigger Holroyd reiterated this thinking when she explained that the “psychological lifespan, the time that products are able to be perceived and used as worthy objects” is a core concern of her business model. But that does not necessarily result in the recycling of materials. Ever the pragmatist, Holroyd defended her approach: “I’ve always worked with virgin materials, partly because I challenge anyone to unravel a jumper and make a consistent quality product out of it.”

Along with quality, profit provides a potential incentive. Orsola De Castro offered the pragmatic reminder: “I think progressively if more designers were to embrace pre-consumer [waste] and show that out of rubbish profit can come profit, then I think that companies are very quickly going to turn around and start looking in their own rubbish bin themselves.” Similarly, Goldsworthy proposed a future where, after exhausting our raw materials, “recycled fibres just become more economic”.

Consuming: Guilt or Desire?

After all the recycling and good intentions are complete a difficult question remains. Are we looking as a viable design or an object that will be purchased by the consumer out of a sense of guilt or charity? Holroyd speaks of marketing that “talks about the emotions that you’ll have about a garment, not what a halo you’ll have from buying it.” Alex Whitney, speaking on behalf of Pli Design a sustainable furniture company that manufactures a recycled plastic chair confirmed that “Using recycled, single source plastic can give you an amazing point of difference… in the market”. This sense of genuine desire versus guilt buying seems to be what has plagued earlier generations of sustainable design and recycling projects, creating products with the best intentions but essentially more objects that we don’t need or want because of challenges with style and quality.

Can today’s sustainable fashion and textile design be accused of a certain PR crisis? “We’ve still got a bit of an image problem,” O’Mahony confirmed, “there is still a sense of ‘buy this because it’s good for you’.” But Orsola De Castro defended sustainable fashion design and found “no higher amount of bad design in ethical fashion than there is in normal fashion.” Perhaps it is case of stereotypes dying hard. From the audience a sage participant noted “It is very good that it’s redesigned, and it’s even better when you can’t tell.”

Participant Emma Skinner asked the panel in the final discussion of the day: “If all we are left with is good choices…. Surely that’s what we should be aiming for?” The voice from the industry spoke of such sweeping ambitions with caution. Mark Sumner, a Sustainable Raw Materials Specialist from Marks and Spencer noted: “what we have at the moment is consumers not interested in buying it [sustainable fashion] or the consumer is not interested in paying a bit more for these products. So we have a real problem in terms of connecting with the market and selling products to the consumer…. At the moment this connection doesn’t seem to be there.” Sumner’s message might be deflating for some to hear, but it is also provides that ever vital reality check. “Choice”, Earley determined, is now central to allowing consumers to make educated decisions. Options, rather than requirements, are starting to be within reach.