Saturday, 30 October 2010

Trash Fashion Exhibition at the Science Museum

Despite being hidden in a corner at the back of the ground floor of the science museum, this small exhibition is extremely innovative, exciting and well worth a visit. To be honest, I wasn't terribly eager to visit the exhibition. 'Recycled', 'eco-friendly' fashion and textiles are referred to so commonly nowadays. Consumers who previously associated the term with the stereotypical image of a tree-hugging individual in a tofu kaftan are now encouraged to posses hundreds of jute bags, canvas bags, bags made out of crisp packets etc. Surely this is not achieving anything as far as the environment is concerned apart from satisfying our consciences in the belief that we are somehow 'helping'. But don't let this preconception put you off. This exhibition showcases high quality garments using groundbreaking technology. On the whole, they are garments you would look and admire without realizing that they are indeed eco-friendly.


I have chosen to examine 3 different examples of sustainable clothing, discussing their merits and failures and ultimately suggesting whether I could see a viable future for the project.

1. 'Bio Couture jacket'

In my opinion, the ‘BioCouture’ jacket stands out as one of the most radical projects. Made out of cellulose produced by millions of tiny bacteria grown in bathtubs of sweet green tea, this method of producing cellulose provides an ecologically refreshing alternative to cotton. The environmental advantages of this material are numerous. The designer Suzanne Lee is utilizing this ancient technique as a natural, non-toxic and compostable alternative to cotton which wastes billions of litres of water in its production each year. In addition, the fabric can also be dyed with natural colorants like turmeric, beetroot, blueberry and indigo.

Despite its advantages, 'BioCouture' has yet to gain widespread acceptance within the fashion community and many believe it lacks credibility or are simply put off by the unappealing use of bacteria. The first part of the process which involves growing the cellulose takes at least 2 weeks so one has to consider it as highly time consuming. The fact that Suzanne Lee herself has only made 10 garments in the past 7 years may well be a clear indication of this. However Suzanne Lee argues that the one month complete process is much shorter than the growth and harvesting time needed for cotton crops.

Practical disadvantages include the fabrics absorbing properties. If rain were to fall on your new 'BioCouture' jacket then the whole garment would turn to jelly and break down. Furthermore the materials' lack of stretch could hinder the wearer's comfort significantly.

So does this material have a realistic future within our fashion industry?

Scientists are working at solving some of the problems currently encountered. They are experimenting with the inclusion of water repelling molecules and how to manufacture the material on a large scale. Despite its significant environmentally friendly credentials, I believe that a lot of work in improving its appearance, feel and comfort will be needed to convert our cotton loving nation.


2. Kate Goldsworthy

In contrast to the 'BioCouture' jacket the simple, eye catching design of this shift dress by Kate Goldsworthy would, in my opinion be a highly credible garment to find within our fashion industry. Goldsworthy has used a new laser technology called 'Clearweld' and has collaborated with Japanese textile company Teijin in formulating a chemical recycling process for polyester fiber.


- The garments are created using only 100% polyester and therefore utilize material that would otherwise be destined for landfill. This would benefit the environment significantly as polyester takes a long period of time to decompose.

- As the material is 100% pure, at the end of its life it can be recycled again. This is often referred to as the 'Closed Loop Concept'. As well as being environmentally favorable, this continuous process can be economically beneficial as one could reduce costs if the garments are collected at the end of their life span.

- The process does not allow for any harmful chemical finishes and therefore has no negative secondary effects such as water contamination.

-As a fabric used for fashion and interiors, polyester has many advantageous qualities-

* Durable
* Does not stain easily
* Does not fray easily
* Holds shape and doesn't wrinkle
* Can be washed and dry-cleaned
* Cannot sustain a flame (i.e. will burn in isolated places but not catch on fire and spread)
* Mold, mildew, fungi etc. will not live on it
* Does not absorb moisture but allows for evaporation making it far cooler than cotton


- Currently, the laser technology means that there are many limitations as regards to the pattern designs one can create.

- The machinery costs are high. Not only is the initial purchase of lasers very expensive but sustaining the high energy costs could also pose significant problems.

- As discussed in the previous point, the high costs could push up prices and garments would cost a premium hence isolating the cheaper end of the market.

- The technology used is undeniably complex and trained technicians are required.

- If the process were to become economically viable the time taken to manufacture garments would need to be decreased significantly.

- Consideration must also be given to what would happen to all the other types of fabric in circulation if 100% polyester were to develop into a dominating fabric. These would surely all end up in landfill, contradicting the initial aim of the project.

-There has been discussion regarding the health effects of polyester. For example reports have shown that the electrostatic field it produces reduces the sperm count of humans.

-The practicality and constraints of the fabric must also be considered-

* It is made from oil which is ultimately a non-renewable material and is subject to price changes with the price of oil
* It lacks the natural feel of other fabrics such as cotton
* It will not absorb dyes
* Polyester can only be ironed at a very low temperature

So what does the future hold for this forward thinking project?

Goldsworthy discusses how "In future, large companies could operate local hubs where people bring their old clothes to be chemically recycled into fresh polyester fibres. New digital manufacturing methods would enable new clothes to be made individually and on demand at the same site, which would massively reduce material waste and transportation costs." I can definitely see the clear advantages of this material and production method however I am uncertain whether it is realistic to believe that the textile industry can be dominated by one fabric only.


3. Knit to Fit

Sandy Black's Knit to Fit initiative uses high tech technology to translate a 3D body scan into a seamless garment created by an automated knitting machine. This means that bespoke clothing could become an everyday reality which in turn would banish the tones of unsold clothing which ends up in landfill.

As with the other projects, Knit to Fit also holds a number of advantages and disadvantages.


- No wasteful off-cuts
- Produces on-demand, customized clothes which in turn will reduce waste in the clothing supply chain
- The concept of 'bespoke' clothing will undoubtedly earn it credibility within the fashion industry
- Provides greater consumer comfort and satisfaction


- Does not provide a solution as regards to what to do with the abundance of garments already in circulation
- It is currently an extremely long process
- Once again, like the laser technology, costs are high. The machinery is expensive as well as the energy needed to power the complex body scanners. This could hinder its success significantly
- Do the body scans pose a health risk especially with repeated exposure?

The future for this project appears to be full of optimism and further development. Already, scientists in America have taken the concept a step further by experimenting with a system that allows an individual to try on clothes 'virtually' in order to cut down on unwanted online purchases. The bespoke nature of this project particularly appeals to me. I am definitely a fan of buying one well-made expensive garment which will last rather than several cheaper ones for the same price. However 'bespoke' clothing is more often than not far too expensive for the average consumer. This technology would make individually tailored garments a reality for everyone and not only the wealthy, whilst also reducing harmful environmental impact. Although I do not believe it would not provide an answer to the ultimate goal of a 'sustainable' fashion industry, it is one step in the right direction.

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