“ The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life. It’s so easy to make it complex. What’s important is leading an examined life.” –Yvon Chouinard, 180°South
At the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, first semester fashion design students cut and pin into the dress form. For each garment made in their Draping I class, about 1/3 of the 100% cotton muslin fabric used ends up as scrap. With around 10 projects and 255 students in Draping I each semester, this one course creates about 110 lbs. of cotton muslin waste. With few options for reuse, this waste has traditionally been landfilled. Surely, this isn’t the worst of our problems, but to lead an examined life is to question the waste and to ask, is there a better solution?
Forest Alethea is a senior fashion design student at Pratt Institute. This past year, she helped bring a clothing and textile recycling bin to campus, and yet according to Forest, “We are taught to throw scrap fabric, pattern paper and threads on the ground. It’s terrible because people can just leave it on the floor and someone else will clean it up. One night I went around the studio picking up scraps and was able to make a patchwork jacket out of them.”
For Forest, repurposing is the joy of invention, but other sustainable-minded students find the waste to be a heavy burden. For Rebecca Sunde, a recent graduate from Parsons New School of Design, collecting and saving scraps was not an option.
“I am a minimalist, so it’s uncomfortable to keep everything.” Parsons has muslin collection bins for recycling, but not in every classroom. Rebecca aimed to throw all her scraps in the bins, but like anything else, if the trashcan is small or its outside the classroom, it was just really inconvenient.”
The author’s end of the year locker clean out at FIT
This story is not singular to Parsons. Recent Rhode Island School of Design fashion design graduate, MacKenzie Ami, said of their fabric sharing room, “It’s located in the old apparel building, and you need to ask the tech for a special key to get in, not really user friendly.” These inconveniences leave busy students looking to easier options despite the ecological shortcomings.
For some students, like Joseph Rotondo, a senior fashion design student from the University of Rhode Island, looking to more sustainable fibers is the key to managing waste. “Hemp is better than organic cotton, because it yields way higher, and the renewable growth, the lower water usage, no insecticides. It’s called a weed for a reason because it grows like a weed.” The point is not mute in a discussion about waste management. Design and disposal are connected and the sustainability of the waste is dependent on the sustainability of the product.
For the most part, the solutions are being left to students like Joseph and Forest. However, there are some big picture ideas. Dr. Timo Rissanen, an Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at Parsons The New School for Design, practices, writes and teaches about zero-waste fashion. But even Dr. Rissanen acknowledges that development requires experimentation.
“Some waste is necessary when students are learning, as well as when designs are being developed; even the muslin in the zero waste class are not zero waste most of the time, while the final garment is.”
Students are not alone in their cotton muslin use. It is a system repeated in design studios around the world.
Lectra Modaris pattern making
Amy Axt, a pattern maker from Carolina Herrera’s New York City design studio explains, “In the pattern making process, we use muslin to drape a garment. After receiving a sketch from the designer, we will drape the silhouette on a dress form, and then show it to the designer to see if it’s in line with their vision.”
As for recycling methods, Axt says, “For recycling muslin, we will hold onto the larger scraps and use them to drape other styles. If I need to add length to a piece or re-drape an area of the garment I will stitch a muslin scrap onto that area to avoid throwing out the whole piece and starting over. “
Axt says that at Carolina Herrera, new technology has also helped reduce muslin waste.
“In the past four years, we have been transitioning to paper patterns and keeping an electronic library through Lectra Modaris. Thankfully, using Lectra hasn’t eliminated draping, but it has greatly reduced our muslin use in the design process. Prior to Lectra, we had to copy patterns onto muslin to begin a new drape, and the final pattern was traced on a clean piece of stiffer quality muslin that was more durable, nearly doubling the amount of muslin used in the process. Now, we store everything in the electronic library, eliminating that final step of tracing onto muslin.”
Technology has been a driving force for recycling in the fashion and textile industry. Recycled polyester, through brands like Nike and Patagonia, has mainstreamed, and companies are working hard to increase recycled cotton in garments above the 20% mark. As the technology increases, muslin waste, which is undyed and unbleached cotton, will be an ideal source for recycling and reuse.
Writer Lydia Baird is a senior in the Textile Development and Marketing major Bachelor of Science program at FIT and a huge proponent of composting muslin waste. At FIT, Baird, along with her partner, Willa Tsokanis and other student volunteers have been composting muslin waste. The group collects fabric scrap from the classrooms and food waste from the dining hall, composting it in campus bins and use the finished humus on the rooftop gardens. In just three months, they have saved over 200 lbs. of cotton muslin from landfill.
Image: David Kemp, Lydia Baird