Future Fabrics Expo 2018

Last week, Ray Stitch went across town to visit the Future Fabrics Expo hosted by The Sustainable Angle. In its 7th year, the FFE is a showcase of textile innovation and most notably materials that have a more sustainable footprint than those coming from conventional fibre manufacture. It was incredibly busy - hosted in a wonderfully light studio space - which just shows how powered up those working in the fashion, textile and interior design sectors are about making concrete positive change.

Alongside having a very good feel of the 5000 commercially available (and viable) fabrics on show, we attended two seminars to increase our knowledge about what is going on further afield in the textile world. The first was presented by Lauffenmühle, a workwear fabric manufacturer in Germany who explained their decades-long efforts to be Cradle to Cradle certified (1 - see jargon buster at the end) - in basic terms, controlling a product’s life cycle from birth to rebirth - and their research into creating an antimony-free recycled polyester (2). While not hugely relatable to our business, the lowering of antimony in polyester is a huge leap for synthetic fabrics, and in particular for the ability to produce an upgraded recycled material - laundering of clothes is a main contributor to the release of chemicals into our water system (3), and Lauffenmühle’s practical research shows that they needn’t be present in the first place. It left us wondering what we can do better.

The second seminar we attended was an inspiring one presented by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation who aim to help redesign fashion’s future by using the key principle of a circular economy (4). They’re currently attempting to crack the issue of how to utilise ocean plastic, transfer it to the fibre manufacturing loop and then keep it there, whilst simultaneously inspiring the redesign of products so that they don’t just end up discarded anyway and therefore disrupting the loop. It’s all about making things in the best way possible; as designers and crafters we find it difficult not to make stuff, but how can we make things with a lower impact on our planet’s resources? The Foundation was aimed more towards those in the fashion sector, those who make decisions on thousands of garments, and while we’re responsible for only a tiny margin of that, we’re still responsible: as retailers and as makers ourselves.

Explaining how all of the elements in a fibre's journey needs to be addressed

 

Ambitions for The New Circular Economy as posited by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Click here for full reports from the foundation.

 

Most of the time we make clothes for ourselves because we cannot find what we want in the shops. Of course we get the satisfaction from the process of making, but the end product is what we’re generally working towards. Now that fashion brands have sustainable sourcing teams and are genuinely working towards alternative solutions to the textiles they use and the end-of-life of their garments, it’s up to fabric retailers to take the same approach; you as customers of fabric and haberdashery should have the same - if not higher - amount of choice as if you were purchasing a finished piece, and consequently the ability to decide what the full journey of your product looks like.

Organic cotton, post-consumer cotton and lyocell jerseys on show

 

There are so many avenues of ‘sustainability’ to explore that it isn’t fair to take away or focus on one aspect when another aspect may be of more importance to you. For example, we have an ever growing selection of GOTS certified organic cotton fabrics (5), but alongside that we also have conventionally grown cotton fabrics as the organic market still isn’t that big and choice is relatively limited, especially when it comes to printed textiles (printing is another matter unto itself...). The initial origin and finishing has a massive impact on the difference in their sustainability factors, yet the end of life is still pretty much the same whether organic or conventional fibre. We can present both products to you, and it is up to you to create something with it in the best way possible, perhaps ensuring you stitch it with cotton thread so that it is fully biodegradable, or by reusing/recycling the scraps.

Wool is a tough one: in comparison to cotton it has minimal demand and lower market value yet requires more land. In terms of sustainability though, a wool jumper or coat can last a lifetime, can be constantly repaired and doesn't necessitate much laundering. The wools on show here included yak (!) and organically-fed and treated British wools from Isle of Mull Weavers.

 

That being said, we were so excited by the possibilities of materials on offer that for the most part there wasn’t a restriction in choice - we could switch from a conventionally grown heavily dyed cotton denim to a post-consumer waste low-impact dyed denim and you would still have plenty of option, yet your footprint would’ve already been reduced. So it works both ways - us presenting you with the option of more sustainable materials, and you as a customer committing to use those materials in as sustainable a manner as possible. We’re very riled up to make changes within our business and would be eager to hear from our customers as to what you believe Ray Stitch can improve upon in terms of our material offering, knowledge exchange and transparency, and resource use.

At the end of 2017 we started collecting textile waste from our sewing school and our aim is to start offering this textile scrap recycling service to our customers - we’re first looking into where this waste goes and what it becomes so that we’re giving you the full picture. We will be increasing our organic fabric offering and giving you further details into where it comes from and how it is manufactured and processed, alongside where possible the details for our other fabrics and notions, with a handy website guide on textile information for knowledge transfer. We aim to start stocking Tencel (lyocell) fabrics as a lower impact and cyclical alternative to viscose (5), restock organic cotton threads, champion textile manufacturers that are based in the UK, further increase our book and journal offering to include those that explore sustainable issues in textiles and product design and, provide a hire service for certain tools. We’re looking into better alternatives to our packaging for our mail order customers (our shop bags are already paper) and we have already switched our Sewing School sewing machines to be on a hire-and-repair basis so that their lifecycle is closed loop.

There is so much that needs to be done to slow down resource use, and it honestly feels overwhelming, especially when your business is based on selling... yet we’re eager and willing to make change where we can. It’s been very nearly a year since we moved in to Number 66 and we have expanded considerably, so much so that we probably need another or a bigger shop still! Thank you to all of our customers, physical and cyber. Keep asking questions and we’ll do our best to find out at the answers - if we don’t get there to provide them first.

Jargon buster:

  1. Cradle to Cradle: this is an approach to the design of products and systems that views materials as 'nutrients' constantly circulating. There are certified products, however, the C2C approach is one that can be applied as an inherent design principle anyway.
  2. Antimony: a naturally found metallic mineral that is toxic in large doses. It is found in the PET that your water bottles are made from, and with the disposal of these plastics comes degradation and leaching of the chemical element into our water systems. Further washing of recycled polyester (rPET) that contains traces of antimony will continue the discharge.
  3. Recommended read: Sustainable Fashion & Textiles: Design Journeys by Dr. Kate Fletcher
  4. Circular Economy: an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life (definition from WRAP).
  5. GOTS Standard Certification: "only textile products that contain a minimum of 70% organic fibres can become GOTS certified. All chemical inputs such as dyestuffs and auxiliaries used must meet certain environmental and toxicological criteria. The choice of accessories is limited in accordance with ecological aspects as well. A functional waste water treatment plant is mandatory for any wet-processing unit involved and all processors must comply with social criteria. The key criteria of GOTS, its quality assurance system and the principles of the review and revision procedure are summarised in this section." (definition from GOTS).