‘Scraps:’ New, Sustainable Approaches to Fashion

The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum’s latest exhibition showcases ways to reduce waste in the textile industry.

September 11, 2017

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"Scraps" is on view until Jan. 7, 2018. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By Julyssa Lopez

Where do your unwanted garments go once you dispose of them? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the answer is either to an incinerator or to giant landfills. This wreaks massive damage on our environment—burning clothes can release damaging toxins into the air, while landfills are only growing bigger and bigger. The garment and fast-fashion industry have created a major environmental crisis, which gets worse at the post-consumer level as the average American discards approximately 70 pounds of textile waste every year. Pre-consumer waste—produced by the textile manufacturing process before items ever reach the consumer—is another troubling problem.

Some designers are finding new approaches to creating remarkable textiles while protecting the environment and reducing waste, both at the pre- and post-consumer stages. Three of these innovators are featured in the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum’s new exhibition, “Scraps: Fashion, Textiles and Creative Reuse.” The show was organized by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City and will be on view at GW through Jan. 7, 2018.

George Washington Today spoke with the museum’s curator of contemporary art Camille Ann Brewer to learn more about textile waste, the exhibition’s artists and sustainability efforts in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why is the issue of environmental sustainability so critical in the textile world?
A: Every day, there are truckloads of textiles dumped into mountainous landfills, and the amount of textile waste is expected to grow by 35 billion pounds in 2019. This is driven by the production of cheap garments, as manufacturers like H&M make inexpensive clothing that lasts just a short period of time. Textiles are one of the fastest-growing waste producers in the world, and the problem will only keep growing, as textile consumption has doubled annually since 2000.

This exhibition investigates every step of the production chain and highlights the work of three designers using scraps and cast-offs to reduce waste. “Scraps” shows that there are many ways of addressing this issue and improving sustainability efforts. 

Q: Can you tell us about the three designers in the show and how their work illustrates creative approaches to textile sustainability?
A: Reiko Sudo, based in Tokyo, Japan, has been working with silk for decades, and she began examining silkworm cocoons. The outer layer of a silkworm’s cocoon is usually extracted in the silk-producing process because it’s thought to be too thick to spin, and it typically ends up as animal feed or it’s simply discarded. Ms. Sudo has devised several ways to reprocess the material and use it to produce beautiful luxury silk textiles.

Luisa Cevese is a high-end designer in Milan, Italy, who salvages fabrics from various stages of the production process that often automatically end up in the dumpster. She thought there was such a waste of fine material and silk, so she decided to cut up scrap materials and mix them with a polymer called polyurethane to create handbags and wallets, both of which are available at our museum shop.

The third artist is Christina Kim, the founder of the fashion brand Dosa in Los Angeles. She’s making clothing out of hand-woven cotton sari material from India. When you cut out a pattern for a garment, there’s waste fabric that’s not part of your pattern piece. That’s called fallout. So, she’s taken the fallout and created a new line of clothing. She’s also dedicated and invested in handwork and focuses on repaying people for handwork skills. She employs people in Mexico and India to produce intricate, hand-stitched garments.

Q: What are some pieces in the exhibition that stand out and reflect the innovation of the artists?
A: I think Ms. Kim’s work is interesting because she’s invested in handwork, and she documents clearly that she has created a sustainable business more so than just sustaining textiles and fabrics. She has developed a good market model, so it’s an interesting ancillary issue that she brings to the table. People have a tendency to believe, “Well, if you’ve discarded something, and it’s already pre-paid, you’re not going to make the same money as you normally would.” But she demonstrates that’s not the case.

There are also three videos in the exhibition, one for each artist, and really nice didactics that illustrate well the recycling process that each artist undertakes when producing a new fashion garment.

Q: Why was it important to show this exhibition in Washington, D.C.?
A: There’s a large and active textile sustainability community here, whether it’s in the creation of textiles or fashion, and the university also has a long commitment to sustainability efforts. The city is hosting two sustainable textile conferences in the fall, and the conference attendees will be coming to see the exhibition. There’s a lot more going on here than many people realize, and we’re excited to bring this show to D.C. and have the opportunity to introduce new audiences to our museum.