The dye garden was started two years ago as a pilot project to demonstrate that fabric dyeing, which packs a heavy environmental punch, could be done with specific plants and flowers that are grown, then harvested and dried, to become a source of natural dyes.
In a separate but related initiative, two final-year students from textile development and marketing, Lydia Baird and Willa Tsokanis, developed the FIT Muslin Compost System,in answer to their own question: the fashion industry uses so much muslin, why can’t some of it be recycled?
When mixed with organic matter such as food and coffee grinds, it can, becoming a dense, nutrient-rich substance that can help fertilize and sustain growing plants, add beneficial bacteria, fungi, and worms to the soil to help it retain water and add biodiversity.
The compost was the result of 300 pounds of muslin and 200 pounds of food from the FIT cafeteria and coffee grounds from the campus Starbucks.
The prepared compost was brought from the composting bins in one of the college’s courtyards to the dye garden on the ninth floor of the Feldman building. Baird and Tsokanis, along with fashion business management student Amanda Farr, began sifting it, making sure no inorganic material had found its way in, and to create a spreadable consistency.
“These projects provide mechanisms for students to reach back into agriculture as a point of origin, and forward through the supply chain to biodegradation and recycling,” said Jeffrey Silberman, professor and chair, textile development and marketing. “It’s really a cradle-to-cradle learning approach to product development and a circular economy. It enables us to expose the students to every part of the supply chain.”
Cotton-muslin fabric is at the heart of fashion designers’ creative process. They use it to test ideas on a form, experiment with sewing, and make sure fit and proportion are correct before cutting and sewing the final fabric.
Cotton muslin is different from other fabrics because it rarely has a life beyond the designer’s studio. It does not make its way into wardrobes or charity shops. What makes cotton muslin’s lifespan so short is also what makes it perfect for the FIT Muslin Compost System.
Some facts about cotton muslin:
- Cotton muslin is free of dyes, printing, and finishing.
- If cotton muslin isn’t composted, there’s no secondary use for it, so it is tossed away.
- How much cotton muslin is being wasted? The design of a blouse typically uses 1.5 yards of muslin. A circle skirt takes approximately 3 to 4 yards of muslin.
- The production of cotton, the most common natural fiber in the world, reached over 120 million 480-pound bales per month between 2013 and 2014. While a number of “downcycling” processes exist for cotton waste (secondhand clothing, the rag market, and industrial products such as insulation), these methods only defer the inevitable dumping of the waste in landfills.
“It’s hard to know what seed you’re planting in their minds, but hopefully these future designers will become more conscious of where material comes from and where it goes,” Baird said, referring to FIT’s cohort. “Maybe it will open up their minds and help them approach fashion design a little differently.”