Designing Clothes For Sustainability

Design, be it good or bad, is the main factor in determining the lifespan of a garment, so the fashion designer has a responsibility to make good decisions from the start. Sustainable fashion aims to derive longevity from clothing, meaning that it should have a useful life for a long time; one of the main objectives is to keep it from being thrown away. Every year around 350,000 tonnes of clothing are dumped in landfill in the UK and this is especially bad news when it is made from synthetic fabrics like polyester, which not only does not decompose, but can also release toxic chemicals into the environment. Sourcing fabrics which have a less harmful impact on the environment as well as ensuring that the supply chain respects the human rights of workers worldwide, is one factor we as a sustainable clothing brand must consider when sourcing fabrics and manufacturing.

But what about the garment itself? The average time a garment spends in our wardrobe is about two years, but this may not mean it has actually come to the end of it's lifespan, just that we've got bored of it. A fashion blogger wrote that she knows it's time to have a wardrobe clear-out when she's run out of hangers, an experience perhaps familiar to many of us as the consumption of fast fashion has encouraged us to think it's ok to turn over the contents of our wardrobes at an ever increasing pace, particularly when we anticipate that some items only last a few washes anyway. According to WRAP (the UK organisation helping businesses and individuals reduce waste, develop sustainable products and use resources in an efficient way), extending the average life of clothes by just three months of active use would lead to a 5-10% reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints.  

What of the designer's role in this? Designers love seeing the clothes they've designed being worn by people living real lives and it's the greatest affirmation of good design to discover a garment still being worn, years after it was first produced. From the designers point of view designing for sustainability should be an opportunity rather than a constraint with the main aim to show that ethically produced clothing can be gorgeous - and stand the test of time. Undoubtedly, the style of the garment is the primary consideration for the wearer; something that looks appropriate for the demands of the day, whether it's being professional at work, doing the school run or an evening out. A garment serves us best when we know that we look good, but we feel we look good, too.   

sustainable fashion

A range of decisions by the designer affect the life expectancy of the garment: choice of fabric, trimmings, washability, construction and finishing will determine how hard wearing it is, but the styling and aesthetics of the garment are more subjective, although nonetheless crucial for longevity. It is probably true that tailored or semi-fitted garments are longer lasting as they frame the body favourably, although looser fitting pieces offer versatility of fit and therefore can also be long lasting. It may seem dull, but clothing in the 'core' colours of black, white, grey, red, navy and beige tend to stand the test of time.   

The clothes we design and make at Tamsin Blackbourn are the clothes we want to wear ourselves - and we expect them to last. Designing for longevity means bringing together the elements of style, function, quality, colour, proportion and fit. One of the main reasons people don't wear the clothes in their wardrobes is because they no longer fit, so we try to leave extra fabric in the seams so they can be let out and in the hems, so they can be lengthened. We're also looking at incorporating adjustable fastenings in the future so that the fit of our clothes can be more flexible. We don't believe in unnecessary detailing; to mis-quote Coco Chanel, where there is a button there should be a buttonhole and where there's a pocket flap there should be a pocket, meaning that it's a waste of labour and materials to add something purely for show – all details should have a function. When appropriate, we prefer to fully line our clothes; we think most clothes hang better for it and it increases the strength and durability. It also saves having to search for an under-slip that isn't quite the right shape or length. When cutting the garment from the cloth, we look at the width of the fabric itself to be sure we're not creating unnecessary waste – better to have a little extra swing in the skirt than for the excess fabric to land wasted on the cutting room floor! We cut pattern pieces as cleverly as possible, but inevitably there will be offcuts, which we keep for trimmings. A Tamsin Blackbourn homeware collection is planned to repurpose left over fabric.

sustainable fashion

Sass Brown is a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and has written two books on ethical fashion. She suggests, “Design at it's best is problem solving. It's finding a way to make the world a better place. And fashion has really got away from that. Fashion by default becomes something about trends and keeping up appearances as oppose to solving problems and investing in solutions. We've lost a real material connection to our clothing.”.  

We love this idea of design helping people re-connect with their clothing, it's a holistic way of thinking about creating; remembering that clothes must look beautiful, but must also be something we want to wear again and again, because they meet a practical and an emotional need. The role of the fashion designer is to consider the whole life cycle of a garment, where the designing and making is only the start of making clothing with timeless style that will endure through the wearing and caring stage, for a long, long time.