Circular Design

On March 15th Ray Stitch travelled over to Chelsea College of Arts for the ‘There and Back Again’ conference hosted by the Chelsea-based Centre for Circular Design (previously ‘Textile Environment Design’), an event that sought to explore the potential for end-of-life design through multiple perspectives. It was presented by the researchers of the Centre to a wide-ranging audience built from students, fellow researchers, fashion designers, consultants, industry professionals, textile artists and our somewhere-in-between Steph, who has both a fashion and textile background.


Speakers at the There And Back Again conference at Chelsea College of Art


We’ve had some chance to think over all of the circular design projects since then, and in particular, how they and the concept fit with home dressmaking. But let’s start from the beginning.

Circular design envisages the design of a product from cradle (birth) back to cradle, instead of the linear life of traditional product design that goes from cradle to grave. By designing products to stay in a resource loop, we are reducing the impact of our resource-intensive making and also the amount of waste we generate through both making and disposal. The easiest way to understand this concept is perhaps by working backwards. Instead of throwing a garment in the rubbish bin for landfill/incineration, we could throw it in a textile bin for collection. The garment is then taken for sorting where it goes for recycling or reuse. Imagine then that instead of the downcycling that usually occurs in these processes (because the material is degraded or shipped overseas and loses value), it is taken back by manufacturers to be re-spun, re-woven and re-knitted into new materials. This loop then continues until the material loses its higher quality, at which point it is downgraded for e.g. industrial insulation and starts a new life elsewhere in the product chain.

Visualising the differences between cradle-to-grave and cradle-to-cradle models of design and production


However, the snag is, for when in a product’s life cycle do you design for it to be put back at the beginning, at raw material stage? Or do you even design it to go back to raw material stage - perhaps you design it for lengthy reuse instead. The Mistra Future Fashion cross-disciplinary UK-Sweden program understands consumer behaviour and applies this to its research aims, considering how fast fashion may not actually be used in a fast manner, and similarly for higher end ‘slow’ fashion items. A well-known example of ‘planned obsolescence’ whereby a product is designed to be disposed of pretty much immediately is the paper dresses of the 1960’s. Fast forward and the modern day equivalent is Tyvek, a high-density polyethylene material used in both construction and medicine, industries that require both material durability and quick disposal - yet can be mechanically recycled into new material and so are closed loop. On the other hand, you have garments passed down through generations because of their hardy materials, finishings and likely some sentimentality so they would generally take a long time to reach their reuse or recycling stage - still potentially closed loop but further down the line.


1960s paper dresses


So there is potential for both fast and slow fashion to fit into the circular design model, it is just a case of designing in a way that minimises environmental (and human) impact or that has a positive effect on consumer behaviour (such as reducing washing, reducing shopping). Mistra is looking holistically at the product design, the supply chain, the user and also the science behind recycling and, having worked for almost 8 years have an incredible amount of available information - you can go here to read up on garment life cycle assessments, or business model innovation for second-hand retailers through to the characterisation of cellulosic fibres in post-consumer cotton... it can definitely be heavy reading and of course overwhelming but a key point to take away from it, in the words of Professor of design Jonathan Chapman, “products are fleeting, only materials can last forever”. Whatever we create can be uncreated, remade, repurposed.

Example of Cradle to Cradle model that fits circular design of natural and synthetic products


How does circular design work for products designed and made at home, most likely using less-industrial methods of manufacture, with no labels and little to no traceability of material origin? In fact, there’s an opportunity here for communication and transparency with your making that is trickier to acknowledge in a wider supply chain - you are the one making the design decisions, so provided you have as much information as possible on the raw material and components, a label can be made to precisely show what went into the item ready for use by the next wearer, or even by the sorter at the recycling factory. A brand that does this perfectly is Honest by., a Belgian-based high-end fashion label that communicates every element of a garment from raw material to transportation to manufacturing time. As a home dressmaker you will understand and be able to fathom how much goes into the making of a garment, so in one respect you will want to communicate the effort you have made, and in another respect you will (generally) want to ensure your design has a good life. The Berlin-based consultancy Circular.Fashion has designed a woven ID tag that through a cyber platform can relay product information for second- and third- generation wearers, as well as for recyclers. It seems that the most marketable way to transfer this information is through simple technology like QR codes and websites - not the most creative of solutions for us crafty folk, however, this in itself has an infinite life cycle ensuring the information transcends human generations alongside product generations.


An example of the material information from an Honest by. garment


Down to the nitty-gritty now. What is the most effective way to design a garment with circular design principles in mind? Assuming your clothing will be collected at the end of it’s life with you, then sorted, potentially reused through resale and then recycled for fibre (known as fibre-to-fibre recycling), the key design constraints for you would involve the following:

Raw material.
a) Blended fibres are harder to recycle. There are innovations in place to recycle by chemical process (breaking the material back down to monomer and polymer stage) allowing a fibre to be as good quality as at conception, but if you can choose non-composite materials, this will help. Where composite materials are necessary (for example spandex to allow shape recovery, polycotton to allow both durability and breathability, viscose-cotton for drape) this is where you can create a label - it may make it quicker for a textile recycler to distinguish the fibres used, or for your garment recipient to ascertain the care instructions.
b) using white fabrics allows for easier dyeing (natural materials also help this) either at home or by a textile manufacturer.

a) Designing with less components makes it easier and quicker to recycle at the end-of-life. This can also make a garment more durable as components break down and cannot always be replaced.
b) Consider the composition of your components - if you’re making a 100% cotton item, then use a natural component, either shell or wood buttons for example, or a cotton zip tape with metal teeth. This would ensure the entire garment can quickly be recycled for the natural materials - or even biodegraded. (Experiment with putting a 100% natural garment on your compost heap ensuring good oxygen flow and see how it degrades; it’s a slow process but eventually the entire thing will disappear into the soil as fertiliser. There’s further design constraints here though as you have to ensure non-toxic dyes and heavy metal-free components.)

a) Similar to the components you use, you should use a natural thread for natural materials and synthetic thread for synthetic materials. Polyester is known to be stronger, but ensuring your machine tension and stitch length is up to scratch will make all the difference when sewing with cotton thread. This also affects your washing instructions, see below.
b) Do you envisage the item needing to be disassembled quickly either for access to repair or because it has a lot of components? Adjust your construction methods to suit - perhaps you can leave the edges raw or pinked (this could look untidy so take a new pair of scissors and some time). The construction methods back in the day relied a lot on handwork, and you could do the same; if those garments are still enduring today, then there is obviously something good in hand-finishing (Note: we run a couture hand-sewing class!) It adds charm to your piece, you have the mindfulness from stitching and it also means easier access for repairs and alterations.
c) Perhaps you want the garment to last indefinitely and so you look to more technical construction methods such as binding, felled seams, taped seams and bonding; most suitable for outerwear, jeans and technical sportswear, these methods ensure bulkier fabrics will stay flat, won’t strain with movement and can even add characteristics such as waterproofing.

a) Our clothing labels state ‘Made in...’ but this doesn’t relate the full story. You have an opportunity to go into depth stating where the material is from, its composition, the thread, the components, where it was made, how to wash it, what size. The more information, the higher the emotional and physical durability - you could even add a personal signature or garment number.

The use phase of a garment can be where the environmental impact is highest. It depends on the overall material, production, transportation, use and disposal phases to assess the true life cycle of a garment, and this can only generally be done in hindsight, as an assumption or using data analysis. Making clothes at home probably doesn’t give you access to this mode of assessment, however, we can still produce clothing that doesn’t need to be laundered as much therefore cutting down the energy use and effect on material quality. You can do this by:
a) using single composition fibres and components as the washing cycle decision is simplified, and can prevent shrinkage from using synthetic thread on natural fabrics (and vice versa).
b) Considering the material characteristics for example, designing a pair of jeans using stretch denim means the fibres can recover rather than leaving you with saggy knees and a need to wash them out.
c) Designing looser fit clothing or installing dress shields so that you need only wash the removable pits rather than the full garment.
d) Using natural materials as they can be refreshed in the shower room or sprayed to release odours; synthetic materials are also known to allow quicker growth of bodily bacteria. However, synthetic materials do dry quicker and tend not to wrinkle as much so consider when and how you’ll use your garment.

This is, albeit actually a long post, only a short introduction to circular design principles. You as a dressmaker are also a designer - and some of you may actually run independent fashion labels or work within large design companies - so the key design features can differ according to purpose, market level and even culture. The above design elements should be taken as something to open the possibilities rather than constrict them, easing in a new way of thinking about how fashion and clothing can be sustainable from the very small scale right up to the super fast fashion chain.

One thing that definitely hasn’t been mentioned is the waste that can be created from your cutting out, or even waste from toiles. If you’re going to think about the end-of-life for your finished article then you should do the same for your initial material. Everything is useful and everything that is recycled to a new purpose means less virgin material needs to be produced and processed. That is why we are paying for textile recycling with First Mile so that you our customers can bring in unwanted textile scraps to be collected and recycled at LMB Textiles’ East London-based mechanical recycling factory. Clothes can still be taken to textiles banks or shops, but bring your scraps to us if you cannot donate to a quilter friend! (Or come and shop some darning thread, participate in a boro or darning workshop and replace your zips to lengthen your garment's life cycle first!)


Textile artist Shelley Fox showcases 10 tonnes of white linen cloth at Belsay Hall - all supplied by LMB Textiles' factory.


Waste from raw material production can be left for another day...

As part of our commitment to open a discussion about sustainable issues within the small-scale fashion and home dressmaker/tailoring worlds, we’ll be updating our blog to highlight various design principles and updating our website with general fabric and sourcing information. Keep an eye out for topics such as zero waste, natural dyeing and even recommended books for further reading. We also hope to showcase such topics as part of our Ray Stitch Events here at 66 Essex Road.