I've been upcycling textiles for as long as I can remember. I love the challenge of it. It stretches my imagination and creativity and gives me a sense of satisfaction finding a new purpose for something. I seek out beauty in things and I have loved doing so since I was a kid.
It was when I learnt in recent years that approximately 90% of textiles end up getting exported or landfilled that I was horrified and felt that that was such a wasted opportunity of a resource.
No wonder the textile industry is the second largest contributor to pollution after oil. And that’s 90% from the post consumer stage – much more waste is created in the stages before this.
That figure includes the clothing and textiles that we send to charity shops. The problem is that there is such a volume of clothes, thanks to fast fashion, that charity shops just can’t keep the sheer volume in stock. As well as this, items with simple mends such as a tear or buttons missing are deemed as unsalable and unfortunately we don’t have the resources or a system in place to fix them all or send them somewhere for upcycling. We also don’t have the greatest culture of buying second hand here in Ireland to keep them turning over. What happens instead, is that we ‘get rid of them’ by selling them to the rag trade and they are generally exported.
I also learnt that by exporting our textiles to developing countries – it’s actually having a negative knock on effect on their own traditional textile industry and trade. I had previously assumed that our clothing was being sent to those in need – but more often than not, that is not the case.
I’ll delve further into all that in another blog – but I wanted to paint the bigger picture as to why I began to feel so passionately about preventing textiles from coming to an untimely ending.
Becoming aware of all of this, it made me think about my natural instinct as a child – that is to take something you already have and imagine it as something else. We all have much more imagination and creativity as children. In the workshops I hold with kids these days – I find the same thing. They are so imaginative with unlimited possibility and ideas. Maybe we lose this sense of ‘anything is possible’ and vision for what else things can be as we grow up.
In many ways I feel that we, as a society, have over complicated the system by designing things without thinking of the bigger picture and have left ourselves in a bit of a pickle with too much stuff!
As a passion project, I experimented with different clothing and textiles over the last few years to try and raise awareness of textile waste and the over-consumption issue. I've worked on many projects. One of my favourite was at The Garden Festival in Christchurch Cathedral in 2015 where I created an oversized garden I named ‘Material World’. It was made completely from textiles from ‘rag bags’ otherwise headed for export. I explored that imagination we have as children and made giant flowers and friendly garden creatures. Pictured below is one of the characters I created for the garden - Sidney the Slow Fashion Snail.
Another, more recent project I particularly enjoyed was a task for Circular Ocean, an EU funded project looking at fishing net as a resource. I was asked to design something small as gift for the guest speakers at the final seminar - and so I designed and made these plant pot holders from end of life nets.
It was through experimenting, curiosity and learning that led me to focus in on upcycling wetsuits. I had wanted to find a particularly troublesome material and challenge myself to find ways to upcycle it.
I was connected to a lake activity centre here in Ireland for many years and became aware of the annual issue they faced as to what to do with wetsuits needing to be retired. In an industry so connected to the environment - they didn’t want to landfill them and harm it - but didn’t have another option. Wetsuits are a composite material which can’t be recycled. It was 2012 when I first became aware of the issue and at the time I trialed making a laptop case and a stubby holder. Though I didn’t have the correct machine to sew them with so I ended up doing it by hand, which is very difficult to do, so the result was totally shoddy!!
At the time, I was working on other things and wasn’t able to focus fully on it – so I had to park it, but I had it ticking away in the back of my head from there.
I’ve also become more and more into water based sports over the last few years so the problem would keep popping back into my mind everytime I got into my wetsuit!
I had a tough couple of years in 2014/2015 in which a series of sad, life changing events occurred and as a result, I ended up moving to Australia for a while to deal with them and get back on track.
I spent alot of the time on the beach and on the water thinking about what to do next. And it was as if the Universe was screaming back at me ‘WETSUITS!’ because, sure, they were all around me!! So the problem resurfaced again and so I decided to focus in on it.
I figured they must have it sussed in Australia as there are a gazillion wetsuits there. I went to many surf schools and asked them what they did with wetsuits when they are done with them and they told me they either landfilled them or sent them to the charity shops. So I went to the charity shops and asked them. And they said pretty much the same thing. Landfill or shredded to be used in things like bitumen.
So that’s when I realised that this is a pretty big issue. I began researching more and more about it and that is when I learnt that they aren’t biodegradable. Infact, according to this interesting article some of the first neoprene was used as lining for landfills – which tells us alot about it!
A surf school gave me some wetsuits to experiment with – and again, I didn’t have the right machinery – but it just made me become more creative about what I could do. I ended up making simple jewellery and selling a few pieces in a surf shop.
I also facilitated a workshop at TEDxUWA in 2016 where I spoke about upcycling wetsuits and we created some of the jewellery pieces such as the necklace I am wearing in the image below.
Since then, I have been constantly learning about the problem and the material and I’ve been developing my skills and knowledge to help tackle it. Wetsuits are full of chemicals and just so harmful to the environment if they get as far as landfill – or worse - incinerated - and I’m determined to help keep them from doing so. They've a lot more life to give than just becoming bitumen.
If the previous difficult couple of years has taught me anything – it’s that life is far too fleeting not to do what you love. It’s too precious not to work towards something that really matters to you even if it’s not the easiest or clearest cut career path. The constant niggle of what to do with wetsuits has given me a sense of purpose and a challenge I want to help overcome. I don't claim to have all the answers or solutions but I know I’m determined enough to help try and find some. And by doing so, I hope that it opens up the conversation about how we need to design things that are kind to the planet with more of an environmental and circular system in mind in the first place.
If we remind ourselves to look back to our limitless imagination as a kid and take back that fearless approach and vision we once had of 'anything is possible'
- then maybe it is.
This blog was written as part of our Circular Post - keeping you posted on environmental initiatives and designs that are helping to make the world go round.
We'll be covering stories on upcycling, recycling, sustainabilty and the circular economy.
Got a story to share or something you'd like us to cover? Are you an upcycle designer/maker, mover and shaker and would like to be featured? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org