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Published: The Voice of Fashion, September 19, 2018

Few zero-waste fashion labels are giving discarded fabric a new lease of life

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 1.59.09 PMBanner photo, from left to right: Doodlage, Tilla, Ka-sha by Karishma Shahani Khan

While consumer waste and the need to upcycle and recycle are ongoing and pertinent dialogues, how do designers in the fashion industry set a standard by being thrifty with the waste from their own manufacturing process? Scrap may be defined as the textile remnants left behind during the design and manufacturing of garments. In the garment districts of Dhaka, the jhut are left in go-downs (where fires are a regular occurrence), sold at the curb, dumped reaching landfills, or burned, causing immense pollution. Kriti Tula, of the upcycling label, Doodlage points out: “Approximately 120 billion square metres of fabric end up as waste in India, China, Bangladesh alone, and this does not include garment rejections during quality checks. Considering cotton takes one to five months to decompose while polyester sits around for 200 years, fabric scraps need to be managed better.” On an average, the Delhi-based Doodlage upcycles up to 600 kilograms of waste fabric every month—working with post-cutting waste, fabrics discarded for small defects and rejected garments.

The Art of Upcycling
All garments are cut from fabrics which come in rectangular panels, leading to up to 16 percent of the fabric being thrown away in cutting and stitching processes. This is the raw material for designers keen on saving resources that would have otherwise gone into the production of virgin fabrics. Karishma Shahani Khan, the founder of Pune-based label Ka-Sha believes in negligible waste in an endeavour termed ‘Heart to Haat’. She uses fabric waste extensively in embroidery, footwear, patchwork, stuffed toys, macramé and bags; reaching out to friends and other designers in the industry for their scrap as well. When clients come to Shahani Khan for a bespoke piece, she first checks if there is anything in their wardrobe which could be reconstructed. Says the designer, “Upcycling gives something that could have lost its actual value a new meaning. It is a creative process to ensure longevity, which works best if the garments are of high quality and are made to last.”

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Designs for Longevity
Aratrik Dev Varman from the Ahmedabad-based slow-fashion label, Tilla, finds the waste from the cutting to be valuable because so much time and effort is invested into the sustainable textiles he uses for his garments. “Odd bits and pieces—like the negative spaces under the armholes or neck—tend to normally be discarded, but since we produce the fabric ourselves, we consider it precious, and we save it all.” Varman gives the scrap a new lease of life: all the fallout is immediately categorised according to colour or fabric into a ‘library of scrap’, while the design process involves parallel thinking about artfully using the textile along with the leftover bits. The designer doesn’t believe that there is any scrap that cannot be used, “Waste is the failure of the imagination,” he points out, using the mantra of Douglas McMaster, founder of a first-ever zero-waste restaurant called Silo, in Birmingham.

For the Mumbai-based duo, Rekha Bhati and Nikki Kali, from the sustainable label, Kishmish, leftover textiles—which are grouped into bundles or ‘potla-potlis’—are designed into thoughtful products, like clothing, scarves and bags, leading to a ‘Potla Potli’ collection.

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Historically, handcrafted garments were designed with thrift in mind: saris, dupattas come off the loom in that shape, styles like ponchos, anarkalis or kalidar clothes use artful cutting without waste, and in cultures like Japan, the Kimono as a garment uses narrow strips to make a whole. Austrian Lenzing Group’s innovative Refibra technology (launched last year) upcycles cotton scraps from garment production along with wood pulp into Tencel™ Lyocell fibres from which new clothes may be made—brands like Zara and Cone Denim (USA) have begun using it.

Scraps have their own non-linear life journey, and it may not be wrong to say that the garment is richer for it. Japanese artist, Chiharu Shiota, who has created installations out of well-worn dresses (Memory of Skin, Yokohama Triennale, 2001), has said in Chiharu Shiota – Memory of Books, in conversation with James Putnam: “I am not interested in using a new dress because there are no memories or stories inside it.”

London-based Hendrickje Schimmel working under the name, Tenant of Culture, archives found or damaged pieces of anonymous clothing—and through her work, attempts to extend the longevity of the products as opposed to discarding them. She is quoted in 1 Granary, a publication by the students of Central Saint Martins saying: “[…] We live in such a remix culture. I don’t really believe in authorship and so naturally I feel that an artwork or garment should have more than one lifecycle.”

Finding the Right Balance
Evidently, post and pre-consumer scraps are one of many practices of the fashion industry which are set to have a long-term impact on our environment and the world we live in. While they make a garment textured, can scrap solve the problem of the cutting waste from the fashion industry? The duo from Kishmish, like all the others attempting to make a difference with thoughtful design, agree: “If every fashion label upcycles, it will eventually create a balance between consumption and the earth’s regenerative capacities.” Says Tula, “The situation is slowly heading towards a point of no return and the only way to effect a change is to reform the mindset of those who create as well as those who buy.”