Sustainable fashion

Materials World magazine
,
5 Aug 2014

Fashion is walking a thin rope. Technological advances are pushing designs into the future, but sustainability concerns are forcing designers to look at their production methods. Rachel Lawler looks at the latest materials science developments in the fashion industry.

Made of 80 Nokia Lumia 1520s, Fyodor Golan’s smartphone dress was one of the most striking to hit the catwalks at London Fashion Week earlier this year. The synched phone screens switch between pictures and films, using a specially created app, in a bid to mimic the shimmering effect of fabric. Created with the help of laser sintering and rapid prototyping, the design is a dramatic step away from traditional garments.

3D printing also had a hand in creating another striking piece. Pia Hinze’s entry to the Muuse x Vogue talent awards featured a 3D printed dress. With a total volume of 2,500cm3 and printed in eight separate parts, the centerpiece of the Néobaroque collection is evidence of the massive potential for 3D printing in the fashion industry. Constructed of polyamide 12 – a plastic traditionally used in injection molding – the dress would be impossible to create in any fabric. The entire printing process took more than 40 hours, but the result looks effortless and truly captures Hinze’s inspiration – ‘the neverending possibilities of 3D printing’.

With more 3D printed creations finding their way down catwalks, Hinze looks to be one of many designers tuning in to new production methods for her designs. But while some are seeing the expanded capabilities that come with new technology, others are looking to 3D printers in a bid to help reduce costs and cut back on waste.

London-based startup WonderLuk is also using 3D printing technology to produce made-to-order jewellery and accessories. Co-founder Roberta Lucca hopes the initiative could help make fashion less wasteful, while allowing for more intricate and innovative designs. Using nylon with a range of finishes, the store produces bracelets, brooches and smartphone cases.

Reducing environmental impact is a growing concern in the fashion industry. Designers and customers alike are interested in the provenance of their purchases and, for some, this is prompting a move back towards more traditional processes, meaning sustainable fashion is becoming more mainstream.

Sustainable chic
Eco-friendly clothing once meant itchy hemp fabrics cut into dodgy hippie ensembles, but today even fashionistas can find ethically produced attire that satisfies. Titania Inglis, a fashion designer, is part of this growing trend towards sustainable chic. Her clothing is minimalistic both in aesthetic and manufacture, subscribing to Dieter Rams’ idea of ‘less but better’.

‘I take a cradle-to-cradle approach,’ Inglis explains. Her designs all use lowimpact fabrics that aim to leave as little footprint on the environment as possible. ‘Leather is a byproduct of the meat industry and by using vegetable tanning, I avoid some of the heavy metals involved in chrome tanning. We only source materials from countries with high environmental standards, such as Italy.’ A favourite material of hers is Italian vegetable-tanned lambskin. She says, ‘The Italians have a long tradition of vegetable tanning and are able to give the hides a wonderful softness and suppleness usually only found in chrome-tanned leather’.

Inglis also considers how her designs hold up over time. ‘I consult with the Metropolitan Museum’s head textile conservator, Sarah Scaturro, to create care labels that help users to lengthen the lifespan of their clothes,’ she explains. Each product’s final destination must also be considered. ‘Since even the best-made clothes will eventually wear out, I try to avoid blended fabrics, which are less recyclable, as well as synthetics that won’t biodegrade.’

Selecting appropriate materials is a difficult balancing act. Inglis’ preference is for organic cotton, but these materials can be fragile, shortening the lifespan of clothing. Inglis found a solution in cotton sourced from Japan. She explains, ‘The Japanese mills have learned to spin and weave the shorter-staple organic fibres into crisp, sturdy yarns that are far more durable than other organic cottons I’ve tested’.

The biggest problem is rooted in the still limited selection of sustainable materials currently available, particularly those that meet the exacting standards of fashion designers. ‘Everything must be visually clean, versatile, high quality and have a certain integrity – while not being wildly expensive,’ Inglis bemoans. Nonetheless, she is excited about emerging techniques and new materials, managing to find inspiration in the limited choice of sustainable fabrics that meet her specifications.

Fast fashion gets green
Sustainable fashion is now trickling down to the high street, with H&M joining the trend with its Conscious Collection, aiming to reduce the impact of the fashion industry piece by piece.

Known for its affordable, fast fashion, H&M might not have been the most obvious destination for sustainable materials. Henrik Lampa, Environmental Sustainability Manager at the company, explains, ‘The price of these materials is generally higher but we do not pass the cost on to customers, as we see this as an investment’.

Cotton is one of the most widely used materials, and the brand is working hard to recycle as much of its own material as possible from offcuts and other waste, while increasing the amount of recycled cotton used. Lampa admits that there are difficulties with the current process. He says, ‘The cotton from recycled garments is produced by mechanical recycling which degrades the average fibre length. That then needs virgin fibres to bridge the degradation.’

Lampa also points to the problem of demand outstripping supply. ‘Organic leather has finite capacity as it requires organic cattle raising, and at the moment that is very limited.’ But he adds, ‘We are increasing our usage of sustainable raw materials every year.’

Clean jeans
But sustainability in fashion isn’t just about reducing carbon footprints and shunning newer technologies. A joint project by Professor Helen Storey MBE from the London College of Fashion and Professor Tony Ryan OBE, University of Sheffield, is looking to use clothing as a means of purifying the air. Catalytic Clothing uses nanoparticles of TiTO2 to break down airbourne pollutants into harmless particles. In the form of nanoparticles, TiTO2 acts as a photocatalyst, activated by light reflecting on its surface. These particles can then be washed away with standard laundering.

The team sprayed the catalyst onto garments, but has developed another method for mass use. It can simply be added to traditional laundry products, such as fabric conditioner, by encasing it within a shell that is attracted towards the surface of the clothing during the wash cycle. The process can turn any fabric into an air-filter.

The catalyst converts nitrous oxide into soluble nitrate and changes volatile organics into fatty acids and soaps. These can all be removed from clothing with standard laundering methods. Should any TiTO2 enter the water system, the inert mineral will not act as a catalyst in such small quantities The team believes the particles could easily be extracted in the waste water system.

Still in development, the technology has been demonstrated at various locations in the form of a ‘field of jeans’. Earlier this year, catalytic fabric was used in a poster hung from the side of the UK’s University of Sheffield, printed with a poem by Simon Armitage. While it would need a large number of participants wearing Catalytic Clothing to make a real difference, the project perfectly ties new technology together with green concerns.