The first step in any garment – Design…by Bronwyn Darlington

The following guest blog post is by Bronwyn Darlington, Sustainable fashion expert & Research Manager at the STAR Lab…

The first step in any garment – high fashion or super basic is design.  It is the part of the fashion cycle that many aspire to – unless you are very tall and very slim and you may aspire to being a model.  The life of a designer is not quite as exciting as the Project Runway show may suggest all the time, however it is absolutely the most essential element to get right from a sustainability perspective if you and I are going to have the fashion we want and the planet still in tact.

It is in the design phase that many key sustainability based decisions are made.  In this blog I’m going to focus on two of these: Material selection and zero waste design/pattern making. These are codified in specifications and patterns.

If you’d like to see an example, I’ve included a copy below of a specification for a fabulous kids TV show called Dirtgirlworld’. I had the opportunity to work with them to ensure all their promotional gear really and truly matched the core philosophy of their show.

The essential ingredient in sustainable design is knowledge.  Understanding the options you have and taking control of the choices you make, be it as a consumer or a designer, is the very first step.

Material selection

This is where you decide and put in specifications the type of raw materials to make into your garment.  If you want a cotton garment for example, you already have to specify the technical spec of the cotton (it’s yarn type, weight etc) and you can specify the sustainability standards you require as well.  This is where you can add ‘certified organic cotton’ or Australian Cotton or Fairtrade Certified Cotton.

Oh – and a quick word about Australian cotton: we have a strong Australian cotton industry that leads the world in many areas of environmental performance. It uses less water, less pesticides and has the highest yield per hectare in the world.  The challenge is that we grow the great white stuff, we then send it all (did I say ALL – Ok, 99% – literally, 99%) overseas for processing.  It then gets bundled with cotton from everywhere and we miss out on wearing our own cotton.  We then wear cotton which comes from places unknown and grown in ways we don’t control with sustainability standards which we may not particularly like.  If you are a designer, it’s time to be specific with the type of cotton you want to be in your garments.  Unfortunately, as a consumer, our labelling laws don’t require the source of the raw materials to be included on the label.  I’m hoping that in time this will change.

If you don’t use natural materials, it is important to realise that, from a sustainability point of view, synthetics aren’t all the same.  In other words, they aren’t all bad – however it is a constant process of trade-offs.  There have been great advancements in what we call ‘technical textiles’ which do the most amazing things for us as wearers, are easy and light on the planet to launder and to last forever.  Some can be dyed and processed with less water and chemicals than cotton. But, it is a big but: They are mostly petroleum-based yarns and this is a challenge from an environmental point of view. The challenge doesn’t stop there.  Many yarns which are grown from sustainable or organic agriculture (such as bamboo and modal) also require significant chemical processing to become a yarn.

Zero waste design/pattern making  –

It is amazing to see how wasteful cutting a garment out of fabric can be.  I’m not sure if you’ve ever thought about it before, but if you put three triangles on a piece of paper without thinking about it, and cut around them, there is lots of waste.  If you see these three triangles as part of a jigsaw puzzle, then you can often get the same three pieces cut out and have very little waste.  This is the core idea with zero waste design and pattern making.  Garments with all sorts of odd shapes and extra little bits here and there can take up lots of extra fabric which is wasted.  If you are a designer, challenge yourself to get the amazing designs you want but to make the patterns in a way which can be put together on the fabric like a jigsaw puzzle – minimising the spaces between pieces and reducing both the time on the cutting machines (less carbon) and the waste on the cutting room floor (less waste).

As a consumer, we can’t get involved at this level, however you can think about the designs of your clothes and pretty quickly work out if there might be a whole pile of perfectly good fabric on a cutting room floor going into the fabric waste bucket.

When we specify a garment, we include in great detail information about the materials, the embellishment, the zippers, the buttons, the fabric, the printing, the packaging and the labelling just to name a view.  As an informed shopper or a keen designer, we can have a great influence on the sustainability of the garment by choosing carefully and, where the choice isn’t as you’d like, advocating for better and more sustainable designing practices

And stay tuned, as the next blog will be about the production of clothing!

About the author: Bronwyn Darlington is the Research Manager at the University of Sydney’ STAR Lab. The STAR Lab examines company sustainability and responsibility programs, codes of conduct, industry standards, and product certification systems. Core research questions include whether such initiatives improve environmental and social outcomes in impacted communities, how they affect supplier costs, productivity, product quality, and employee performance and retention, whether they improve consumer sales and market share, and whether segments of consumers are willing to pay a premium for environmentally and ethically differentiated products.

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