Ecouterre is a media sponsor of the EcoChic Design Award
As one of 10 finalists for the 2015/16 EcoChic Design Award, Amy Ward knows her way around textile waste. Born and raised in England, then educated at the Esmod Berlin International University of Art for Fashion in Germany, where she pursued a master’s degree in sustainability in fashion, Ward was already familiar with the less savory aspects of the garment industry when she signed up for the world’s largest sustainable fashion-design competition. Still, visiting one of Hong Kong’s textile-sorting factories during a workshop with Redress, the competition’s organizer, proved to be an epiphany. “Seeing firsthand…the kinds of clothes that were being discarded was really fascinating,” she told Ecouterre. “It is so clear that we need to change our habits as consumers.”
CUTTING THE WASTE
Ward, who also holds a bachelor’s degree in fashion and textile design from the University of the West of England in Bristol, says she has always sought to keep waste out of the landfill.
“I have always been interested in finding ways to use up old bits and pieces, scraps of fabric, odd bits of yarn. As I started to study in fashion and textiles, I couldn’t let anything go to waste; it seemed obvious to me,” she said. “Unfortunately, as you begin to a dig a bit deeper, it becomes all too obvious how much waste there is in this industry, and, through further research, you begin to realize just how much impact this has worldwide.”
“Once you start to understand the damage being caused socially and environmentally,” she added, “I don’t think there is any turning back.”
But rather than feel hamstrung by EcoChic’s call to design a fashion capsule that reused rather than generated textile waste, Ward says she was inspired by it.
“I don’t see that there are any limitations to working with waste, or to cut out waste in my designs,” she said. “I see it as a way of pushing me to think more creatively.”
While developing her collection for the competition finals, Ward turned to the work of contemporary Chinese artist Sui Jianguo for inspiration.
She created her own yarn by unraveling secondhand clothing and surplus textiles, then dyeing them with food waste such as onion skins, avocado peels, and old tea bags.
There was a kind of alchemy to her process, which resulted in luminous goldenrod, robin’s egg blue, and saffron hues.”The variety of color you can achieve naturally is incredible,” she said. “I love the scientific exploration of the process, too.”
Reconstituting the yarns into garments, Ward let loose with her knitting needles. Texture proved to be king. There was a cropped sweater, gregariously embellished with shaggy-dog curls. There was a copious amount of fringe, a skirt that resembled a fishing net, and a thigh-skimming cardigan strewn with bobbles the size of toddler fists.
And, for a sensory pièce de résistance, a gilet, festooned with multicolored pom-poms like the shag carpet of your dreams.
All invited touching, and deliberately so.
“I love color and textures and tactile textiles, so I wanted to create something that was a bit of a visual bombardment, something that people wanted to explore and touch and understand,” Ward said.
By creating conversation pieces, Ward also opened the door for further discussion about issues such as overconsumption and waste.
“I think this element of interaction and exploration is a big thing for me,” she said. “It’s about communicating a message or a process, storytelling. When people want to get involved they ask more questions, so they get more answers, they are more informed about their choices.”
With the benefit of hindsight today, would she have done anything differently?
“If I had more time I would have liked to have worked more on developing the stitches and textures I used in the collection,” she said. “With knitwear especially, I love the endless opportunities for experimentation and texture creation. As this was only a six-piece collection, I also feel like there is a lot of potential to take the ideas I had and create more pieces to go with it.”
A NEW SYSTEM
Ward isn’t likely to forget her experience with the EcoChic Design Award any time soon.
“It’s one thing reading about it but another thing visiting a new place and seeing how others respond to this issue,” she said.
And her time in Hong Kong has imbued her with a confidence that her work as a designer makes a difference.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re swimming against the current, as we are so over saturated with ‘fast fashion’ and tons of waste, as well as negative preconceptions about sustainable fashion,” Ward said. “But I really think that there is a new generation of designers who are realizing that the fashion industry is broken.”
Rather than salvage from the rubble, Ward thinks it’s time to make a “new system.”
“As designers, we really have to accept responsibility; you can make such a significant impact through your work. So many decisions, about production, about materials, about use, you can decide them all as a designer,” she said. “Great innovations are happening in science and engineering, but it’s useless if, as designers, we don’t consider the way we can design for these innovations to have potential, to be used, and the afterlife of the product.”
As for the future, Ward says she wants to take sustainable fashion out of its niche and make it accessible to everyone.
“Working at a grassroots level is very important to me,” she said. “A lot of studies state that much of the energy, water and carbon impact of a garment comes during the user phase, but the current fashion industry continues to distance the people and places involved in textile and garment manufacture, so consumers have very little knowledge or information about their clothing.”
Ward says she wants to engage with consumers, work to improve the user phase of a garment’s life cycle, and promote the closed-loop economy.
“There are some really inspiring people working in this field, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of them during this journey,” Ward said. “So I want to keep trying to learn more, keep designing, and keep trying to make a difference.”