Zero fabric waste fashion design

I’m having an interesting conversation with Timo Rissanen, a Ph.D candidate and undergraduate fashion professor at the University of Technology in Sydney Australia. He’s interested in the concept of zero waste of materials in manufacturing. I’m doing a series of two posts on this. The first one is Timo’s latest email as a matter of introduction to the topic and the second entry will be a pattern puzzle from one of his protégés (I was definitely feeling protégé envy). Timo is also the person who told me about David Pye’s ideas on the workmanship of risk, an interesting idea I’ve yet to explore.

I’d be interested to hear what you make of his ideas. The point he makes in his paper that I think many people lose sight of, is how the production of a garment is driven and how this affects material utilization. He rightly says “Hierarchical divisions of labour within the fashion industry can create limitations for innovation in sustainable fashion design strategies” meaning that the traditional means are designer ->pattern maker -> marker maker. Unfortunately, the tail end of the process is where most utilization strategies are focused. I stressed the problem with this approach in my book and discussed ways to reduce the problems but it seems that the tendency remains to assign responsibility for cost cutting through out the entire cycle on the cutting and sewing floor. Reiterating Abernathy and Dunlop among others, Timo says waste reduction must be realized at the front of the line in design, which is then incorporated in patterns rather than leaving all the responsibility for waste reduction and reducing fabric costs with the cutters.

Before I say what my project is about, I will get slightly defensive as I’ve had so many dismissals from so many people over the past three years. Regardless of the outcome (it could be that I conclude that this kind of designing is not feasible in an industrial context) I think the research is worth doing. So, I’m investigating, through the design and making of a small menswear collection – wait for the word monster – zero-fabric waste fashion design. In short, clothes that use all the fabric, and none is wasted. So really, I’m looking at fabric waste as a design rather than a manufacturing/production problem, and from an environmental rather than an economic perspective. So there you have it. Oh, and in the context of my project patternmaking is an integral aspect of fashion design, rather than some afterthought like it is to some designers. That’s how I’ve always worked as a designer. And that’s probably why I get patternmaking rather than design work. I also had my own, financially incredibly unsuccesful label for three years and I laugh at your blog when you write about the mistakes newbie DEs make. I made them all! Thankfully I came out of the experience without any debt, though very thin. To answer the ‘What to do with scrap’ question at FI, I say don’t create any in the first place. Ok, not always possible but we could do so much better.

Just over two years ago I spoke at a conference in Denmark, mainly to textile designers, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The paper is still downloadable (direct pdf link). Bear in mind that I wrote that in the first six months of the project; my thinking has advanced quite a lot since, and I no longer necessarily agree with some of the things I put forth then. But, as a review of the various examples I found in literature it’s not too bad; I’ve found more since. What I’m curious about is whether this kind of designing is feasible (I know it’s possible), and what the various problems would be (grading is one big one, obviously, but I think more ‘flexibility’ exists there than is often thought). Fairchild is putting out a book on sustainable fashion early next year and I have a chapter in that; as it gets closer, I get more nervous. Though debate is welcome, of course. I think I take the lazy, uneducated dismissals much too personally.

The paper he presented (and I linked to) is readable so don’t fear you’ll get bogged down in academia-ese and he includes his source material in the end notes for further research. Some of the material I have, other bits I’ll have to track down. Another book that explores these ideas is Cut My Cote ((1973) so it’s probably little surprise that I’m interested in Tarrant (The Development of Costume) and Rudofsky (Are Clothes Modern? and Cultural Foundations of Mass Fashion), neither of whom I’d read of before. I remain absolutely fascinated with the notion that when fabric widths were standardized, two yards of 55″ wide goods made the average man a coat. Two yards of 44″ width goods, made an average woman’s blouse -which feeds my lamentation of increasing consumer girth as it will ultimately entail changing our entire floor infrastructure (wider tables) and I don’t know how we’ll manage to reach into the goods to cut them.

The next entry (Pattern Puzzle: Mark Liu) illustrates some of Timo’s ideas.

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