Page 1

Professor Rebecca Earley

University of the Arts London Professorial Platform 2019

Professor Rebecca Earley

University of the Arts London Professorial Platform 2019


Every shirt tells a story. From fibre to factory, fabric to finishing, ship to shop; from the wardrobe to the washing machine, the second-hand outlet to landfill or incineration. This ubiquitous garment comes with climate change credentials. Becky’s lecture looks through the archive of twenty years of remaking secondhand polyester shirts, bringing them back to life to discover the new slow design stories we need to write for the industry, and for a more equitable circular society. The shirts, including the most recent work, Service Shirt, are viewed through the lens of Latour’s Actor Network Theory to help us understand more about the value of the emerging roles of practice researchers in creating material systems for our circular futures. The future of the polyester industry is also discussed in this talk, drawing from multiple expert opinions. As we move towards peak oil and discover more about microfibre fibrillation, we need to make a plan for this part of our materials future. University of the Arts London is Europe’s largest specialist art and design university and a vibrant world centre for innovation drawing together six distinctive and distinguished Colleges with international reputations in art, design, fashion, communications and performing arts: Camberwell College of Arts, Central Saint Martins, Chelsea College of Arts, London College of Communication, London College of Fashion, and Wimbledon College of Arts. Proudly associated with some of the most original thinkers and practitioners in the arts, the University continues to innovate, challenge convention, and nurture exceptional talents. One of our goals is to sustain and develop a world-class research culture that supports and informs the university’s academic profile. As a leader in the arts and design sector, we aim to clearly articulate the practice-based nature of much of our research, and in doing so to demonstrate the importance of the creative arts to scholarly research. The Professorial Platforms series is an opportunity for University colleagues and associates, as well as invited members of the public to learn more about the research undertaken in the University. The Platforms enable Professors to highlight their field of interest and the University, in turn, to recognise and commemorate their successes to date.


Forewords: Professor David Crow Professor Kay Politowicz

03 05

Shirt Stories: 06 Frameworks 08 Materials 10 Models 12 Mindsets 14 The Service Shirt 16 Actor Network Theory (ANT) 26 Tracing Relations 28 Perspectives on the Future of Polyester


Know Thyself: Future Shirt Stories 38 MA Textile Design, Summer Project 2019 References 40 Acknowledgements 41 Biography 42




One of the most compelling features of design practice is that it constantly adapts to the context it finds itself in. Arguably, design practice also shapes the context itself, leading our thinking on social and economic values that affect us all. Most recently this re-evaluation has led us to an increased understanding of design practice as a social activity as well as an economic one. A new generation of creatives have emerged who are engaged in an ethical discourse around their practice. They are internationally connected through social networks and are tuned in to social and political issues worldwide. They are surrounded by the spectre of a global recession, global inequality and are deeply concerned about a climate crisis. As our economy shifts towards a knowledge-based economy our new generation of designers are attending themselves to big problems that affect us all and an appreciation of the social importance of design practice. At UAL we recognize the need to respond by constantly re-modelling design education. Significantly there is a desire to create a design education culture, which is truly flexible and responsive, where design becomes more accountable to those around us. It is so important then that we support the practitioners in our institutions who have a passion to improve the world and propel the discussion forward by asking the right questions.

Professor David Crow

Pro Vice-Chancellor Student Experience and Head of Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon




We have been lucky Foreword enough to benefit from Becky’s contributions to teaching and design research in textiles, fashion and the sustainability agenda at UAL, since her appointment as Research Fellow to the Textiles Environment Design platform in 2000. This was at the time of a newly established UK national academic research culture in art and design. Subsequently, through her energy and insights, Becky has contributed to the transformation of research in textiles and fashion sustainability and circularity, to considerable effect, within and outside academia. As Director of UAL Textile Futures Research Centre and, more recently, Co-Director of the Centre for Circular Design, Becky has forged exceptional links between research and taught courses. She turns presentations into visual problem-solving opportunities, inspiring and provoking dynamic models of social exchange, towards the formation of new knowledge networks. Becky also delivers workshops which are best described as pure physical theatre. Driven by a desire to develop her practice to the highest level, Becky’s enthusiasm for the subject extends to those around her an added confidence and impetus, to explore a future created from – and for – interactions. Becky’s deep commitment to securing connections between academic research in design and industry has seen the impact of her proof-of-concept prototype development. In doing so, Becky has fiercely protected her academic freedom to discomfort industrial partners and disrupt profitable business strategies, in order to effect systemic change. She works with individuals to identify and express their core beliefs and truths. Not only has this benefitted academic staff and students internationally, but also it has transformed the wider field, inspiring significant changes of mindset in leading research projects within two Europe-wide, cross-discipline, consortium groups. She has pioneered communication bridges between practice and research, academic enquiry and industrial engagement, thematic ideas and narrative expression, leading to sustainable design solutions in an enduring legacy of positive change.

Professor Kay Politowicz

Emeritus Professor of Textile Design





If we look inside this jacket, what do we see? It’s an old yellow polyester shirt, bought for 25p from Anxi Clothing market in Shanghai; overprinted using hand-drawn and painted imagery, fusing together Chinese and Swedish textile imagery. Lined with a charity shop yellow sundress from H&M. Bound at the seams with printed messages from collaborators and experts who ask us to think each day about what we wear and the impact we make with those seemingly innocuous decisions. Our wardrobes are full of shirts and blouses. Our shops are overloaded with them. Our second-hand shops too. A great many of them are made from polyester. It’s a hard-wearing material but also an environmentally damaging one. Made from crude oil, taking energy, chemicals and water to manufacture, we can buy it very cheaply by the metre. But this does not reflect its true cost. For the last 20 years I have been collecting these shirts from charity shops, one by one, and giving them a new lease of life as part of my Top 100 project ( Working alone in my studio, or with a collaborator, I remake each shirt using low-impact techniques, continuously testing new ideas to understand, locate and communicate the true value inside our wardrobes. In this talk I will present some of the results of this longitudinal practice research study. Beginning with the frameworks that I have co-created to help execute and teach my experiments and using Actor Network Theory to help explain the prototype shirts I create, I will talk about the new materials, social models and user mindsets that we need to adopt to shift from a linear to a circular industry. I also asked my network of experts for their views about the future of polyester; they were keen to contribute so a lively debate unfolds here too. But the shirts are the stars of this show. The actors on the stage. The characters that tell the stories of how sustainable design became circular, and why practice research gives us original perspectives on where change is needed and how we might achieve it. The talk concludes with a small performance piece created with the MA Textile students – who will be wearing shirts from my archive as well as their own recently remanufactured creations.



The TEN (Earley & Politowicz 2010)

These two frameworks have emerged through practice research and making textiles, facilitating workshops and curating exhibitions, providing researchers and students with guidance and inspiration on how to make sustainable textiles and products. When the Textiles, Environment, Design (TED) research group was founded in 1996, it identified the need to create design strategies that could help us make better decisions when making new work. Since we brought the cards out in 2010, The TEN have been used widely and with enthusiasm from a diverse number of people. They have been used to develop and bring new products to the market. They were the basis of providing training to designers at H&M in Stockholm and a way to map R&D innovation at VF Corporation (USA). We have used them to educate our students in London, and many others as far away as Mexico City, Berlin and Boras.


Materials, Models, Mindsets (Earley, Goldsworthy & Vuletich 2015)

After I made the cards in 2010, I audited the shirt collections and could see that I had not extended my approach and thinking to the more social or systemic ideas within The TEN. I created new shirts as part of Phase 1 of the Mistra Future Fashion programme, co-curated the Textile Toolbox exhibition, and then the MMM model was born. This helps us understand the complex relationship between materials, technology and people in the circular economy.




Working from my little studio on Brick Lane, back in 1999, I was hand-printing fabrics for seasonal collections to show at London Fashion Week. It quickly became clear that the monetary and environmental cost of making the garments was too high to sustain that way of working. All around me were second hand clothing outlets – from charity shops to railway arches, full to the roof. I began to pull out polyester shirts to print on. I realised I had ready-made garments I could work with; saving me from buying virgin materials and


employing pattern cutters and machinists. The Top 100 project came about through financial need, but I quickly understood the environmental savings I was making too. Polyester as a fibre is strong and durable. It has great flexibility, meaning there always seemed to be a vast number of ways I could experiment as a printed textile designer. Over the years I have remanufactured old polyester shirts using my ‘heat photogram’ technique (using real objects, like plants, as stencils), hand painting designs, and using digitally manipulated scanned images printed on to dye sublimation paper. Through collaborations with other researchers I have laser etched and welded it (Kate Goldsworthy), created silver-electroplated jewellery (Frances Geesin) and embroidered both the material and the left-over painted papers (Karen Spurgin). My kids and their school friends have even skateboarded over it to make upcycled shirts! Using textile design approaches to keep polyester in use for as long as possible became my mission. Through funded research programmes like Mistra Future Fashion and Trash-2-Cash, I have been able to explore its circular potential more formally – understanding the challenges and benefits of new modes of production and innovation in textile recycling technology. An approach to design evolved which responds to technology, science, material developments, people and the planet we all live on.





Our textile industry has grown rapidly from the linear, Industry Revolution model. It is exploitative in terms of workers and excessive in terms of over-production and over-consumption. We can make durable, flexible and light materials. We can recycle them. But they operate within outdated and damaging (yet profitable for industry) systems. We need to design to create and test new models. We need to open up the system to enable others to make for themselves, within equitable and balanced socially innovative structures. From 2010 I began to make the shirts in new ways, opening up the processes by designing methods and tools to enable users to remake shirts for themselves. Supporting co-creation and multiple cycles of remanufacture, I began designing for systems, services, alternative business models, networks and communities.


As a research team we began to consider speeds of production and material cycles, ‘appropriate’ design decision-making, products for technical and/or biological cycles and designing to create more social equity within the textile supply chain.


CAN WE USE DESIGN TO DRIVE AND SUPPORT THE MINDSETS AND BEHAVIOUR CHANGE THAT CIRCULAR ECONOMIES REQUIRE? We can design clothing to be rented out from fashion libraries, but will people actively use them, changing their habits of buying new goods from the high street or online? Some research says the interest in a sharing economy from clothes is very limited, showing only “a moderate interest among fashion-conscious consumers.” (Armstrong et al. 2015:37, as cited in Petersen & Riisberg 2017). I can see that this is true, and yet things can change very quickly. We used to smoke in offices and pubs. Now we don’t. Laws can make change happen and people adapt. The recent ‘Extinction Rebellion’ demonstrations make me think that the next generation are so incensed by the lack of political action to counter climate change, they are ready to act. We need to be ready to offer them viable alternatives to linear consumption.


From 2014 onwards, I began to consider how we can design to support behaviour change in both users as well as designers who are working in increasingly challenging situations. Using yoga, meditation, portrait painting and photography, this shirt series took the co-creators and I on a journey of self-discovery. I wanted to question how design could change our consumption habits, as well as how we can have the confidence to work in tricky situations. These shirts are about supporting designers in circular economy contexts – those that face up to the wicked problems.

“…I developed both respect and sympathy for fashion industry professionals. Although fashion designers, for example, are commonly portrayed as shallow ‘artistes’, they must not only master a lot of knowledge about style, cut, fabric, colour, and design; they also have to navigate the technical and business worlds of textile processing, marketing, communications and distribution. These issues are complex enough. To be told, as is happening now, that their decisions impact on watercourses, air quality, soil toxicity, and human and ecosystem health, in other parts of the world, is incredibly hard to deal with.” (Thackara, 2015:89)




Paola Antonelli says the next generation of designers are “critical, activist, organic, and political; they are about ‘thinkering’…problem finding and problem framing more than problem solving, and about functional social fictions rather than science fiction; they are guided more by ethics than by user-friendliness.” (Antonelli, as cited in Escober 2018:34)


The Service Shirt represents the synthesis of the Top 100 project work. After eight years of research in the Mistra Future Fashion programme, working with collaborators across the whole fashion system, this prototype brings together ideas about fibre regeneration, material and technical innovation, user behaviour, new business models and lifecycle assessment.

Overprint #1 The original white recycled polyester ‘silk’ shirt is sold to the first user in a traditional, linear way. The user keeps the shirt for 5 years before handing it on to her daughter, who after a while gets the item overprinted in the brand’s flagship store.



Replacing buying new products with renting clothes has been identified as one way we can reduce the impact of fashion. Product Service Systems (PSS) make us design by thinking of the user first. They look hopeful in terms of being able counter the current problem of over-consumption and resource use, as in “…contrast to conventional modes of consumption, PSS focus typically on fulfilling the customer’s needs rather than selling a product.”

Overprint #2 The daughter eventually swaps the shirt with a friend, who wears it for a while before trading it in at the flagship store for a voucher. The store creates the second overprint, and puts the garment out for loan in the Fashion library part of their shop.

(Petersen & Riisberg 2016)



Overprint #3 The shirt gets a third overprint during its time in the library. Digitally-printed transfer paper and a heat press is the technique used. The designs are based on the jewellery items that get made later in the product’s life, giving the shirts an unusual aesthetic narrative. This time a simple black paper goes over the top of the shirt, and it produces a textured black finish. The black shirt is easy to wear and is popular with library users.



Laetitia Forst (2018), a CCD PhD Researcher, was commissioned to make the jacket through the Mistra Future Fashion programme.

Next the black shirt is transformed into the lining for an occasional-wear jacket. Through a semi-artisanal process, using laser cutting and hand-assembly, the outer layer (made of a polyester felt and using the same zerowaste pattern as the shirt) is connected to the shirt.

The jacket is designed for disassembly so that the different components it is made of may be taken apart and reused in the next life of the materials. This anticipated future reuse is integrated into the jacket’s design by etching the cut lines for jewellery pieces on the surface of the material as decoration.


Katherine Wardropper (2018), a Chelsea alumnus, was commissioned to make the jewellery through the Mistra Future Fashion programme.

The shirt/jacket is transformed into these unique pieces by bonding then cutting strips and hand rolling, folding and stitching, to create a series of unique, one-off bag and jewellery products. Cutting the jacket up along the etched marks, a skilled artisanal process transforms both the outer-layer and the lining into a collection of accessories to be worn as collars over a shirt or top.


ACTOR NETWORK THEORY WHAT CAN LOOKING AT THE SHIRTS THROUGH THE LENS OF ACTOR NETWORK THEORY (ANT) TELL US? I have never made the shirts as commercial products, for wholesale, or to order. Instead they are one of the ways in which I think as a researcher. (There are many other ways, including lecturing, writing, curating, and facilitating workshops). But the shirts have special powers. They say more than I can say when I talk or write about them. Friends who wear them – I have given away or sold several over the years – tell me that strangers tell them how much they like the shirt. For me, that’s not just a nice compliment, it’s evidence that the shirts have a power. In the last few years of the Top 100 project I have been looking at change from within the context of a design team in a company. Through the Mistra Future Fashion programme I have spent a lot of time in Sweden at H&M, and more recently at Filippa K (FK). My team and I use design thinking methods to help the participants explore sustainability, circularity and design decision-making. We often ask designers to look at the clothing the owner acquired from the brand they work for, and keep in their wardrobes at home. We ask them to use the clothes to “follow the actors” (Latour 2005:12) and think about the relationship between the work they do and who they are outside of work. It’s a workshop method we have used for many years, but it is often clear that these are not questions that they consider, even when they are working on their ‘Conscious Collection’ (H&M) or the ‘Frontrunners’ (FK). The shirts I created in parallel to these interventions reflect the insights from the workshops; they are not sustainable fashion prototypes but actors that tell the story of the problems and the opportunities that lay ahead for brands (Pederson, Andersen & Earley 2018).


Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT) proposes that any system we encounter (e.g. circular fashion textiles) can most effectively be approached if we look at all of the parts - whether they’re natural, technological, or human - as interacting and active members of the system. According to ANT, each human, technology and natural factor has an equal part to play in the system, and must be considered. Kate Fletcher has written about fashion and the techniques and processes of use (2012); Petersen & Riisberg (2017) recently built on this with their study of Vigga, a PSS for childrenwear. They highlight what Joanne Entwistle and Kjetil Fallon argue, “…that ANT offers a methodology for tracing the connections between human and nonhuman actors and a way of studying fashion simultaneously as materiality and practice. The ability to trace relations across otherwise well-established borders, such as the sphere of production and the sphere of consumption (Fallan 2010, 82) or nature and culture (Entwistle 2015b, 29), may be one of the most promising aspects of applying ANT to design and fashion.” This tracing of relations aligns well to the way in which we use The TEN and the MMM frameworks – we took a broad, holistic stance right from the beginning, seeing design as more than product design, but also communication design and service design too, for example. However, as ANT is used to study organisations, it seems to also offer us the opportunity to get us closer to understanding how the problems we identify through our creative work can be used to help us “design our way out” of industry’s current practices. Yet, as Whittle and Spicer (2008) point out, “…while ANT provides a valuable framework for the empirical analysis of the organizing process, it cannot provide a critical account of organization.” So, it helps us see but does not provide the strategy to achieve the change required. It’s clear we need other ways to make the change happen, which is why the Design School at Chelsea, Camberwell and Wimbledon, and the Social Design Institute at UAL – both founded this year – are welcome and timely ventures. This bringing together of the expertise at UAL marks a significant moment for design research and practice and what it might be able to do to create real, impactful change. Designers can only really help create true circular economies – and achieve a sustainable textile fashion industry – if they can see the full system and know how to be effective within it. 27


TRACING RELATIONS: ANT showed us what the Service Shirt might mean for a brand, but also what would ultimately lie outside of the business which was potentially more interesting and impactful. The idea of the shirts existing in public ownership and being widely circulated and used, supporting new social innovation networks and giving agency, was the insight from the research that excited us most. By tracing relations of the Service Shirt with Dr Marion Real, to include people, places and processes, we found the following new questions emerged: 1. How can we design services for providing new experiences in making and using our clothes? 2. What are the future shopping experiences for circular fashion? Can we design retail places based on multi-revenue models? 3. How can designers create clusters of multiple, independent businesses? 4. By engaging consumers in renting and take-back services, can brands form strong partnerships with designermakers who do the remanufacturing work? 5. In 2086 will textile recycling be chemical or mechanical? Which is best for what context? 6. How can lifecycle assessment be integrated into localised service offers, to help us see the changes we can make through choosing to borrow instead of buy? 7. Can we make places for interaction between designers and makers in order to foster new conversations that explore value versus time? With thanks to Dr Marion Real and Laetitia Forst



These days, whenever I am at a sustainable fashion and textiles conference, the debate around synthetic fibres and polyester often reminds me of the Brexit discussions in the media. People tend to be on one side or the other of the naturals vs synthetics topic. My favourite dad to meet on the school run is James O’Brien, who experiences very polarised views from the public every day on his LBC radio show, and laments the lack of accurate, critical debate. “Ultimately, it discourages thinking. Instead, we are encouraged to pick our side…” (O’Brien 2018:62). Love it or hate it, polyester is everywhere, and we are in desperate need of some expert-level, in-depth discussion. Today’s discourse around fibres and their environmental impacts is too often overly simplistic and generalised. Kassia St Clair wrote ‘The Golden Thread: how fabric changed history’ and she takes a clear-cut position. “Environmentally, synthetic fabrics are a disaster.” (St Clair 2018:219). Yet, in the research conversations Dr Kate Goldsworthy, my team and I are part of, polyester is seen as one of the most viable solutions to meeting our global clothing needs, albeit with huge changes to how it is used and reused.


The collaborative research work with Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE), where Kate currently leads on the Design Theme questions, have provided us with a rich network of expertise on which to draw. I emailed them and others – material scientists, lifecycle assessment experts,

journalists, designers, CEO’s and futurists – and asked them to tell me what they thought lay in store for polyester and our planet. I asked them to consider when it works best, and when should we absolutely NOT use polyester. I asked them to respond to a series of themes. These included how it fits into the luxury market and whether it can be luxurious as well as durable; experiences of using and wearing polyester; whether they can imagine us valuing it differently in the future as the price and availability of oil changes; how the outdoor clothing sector regards its future functionality without it; and whether biosynthetics and regeneration technologies will provide us with all the answers we seek? Of the 20 answers I got back, 10 were ‘industry pioneers’, 8 from academics and authors, and 2 were from RISE scientists. All respondents highlight durability, strength and versatility as the key assets of the fibre, so for the sake of space, I have edited out repetition around these comments. ‘True cost’ versus current low prices also came up a lot; the whole industry needs to reconsider its value system, pricing clothes based on all lifecycle stages being considered and labour being fairly remunerated. Perhaps some of the most interesting views I present here are those that contextualise the current use of oil and chemicals, emissions, fibrillation truths, and the answers that recycling technologies, biopolymers and PET engineering are providing for the future. But in the end, it comes down to how different experts view the timeline ahead. The academics often give us their position on the kind of future we want to achieve for polyester and fashion; yet the ‘industry pioneers’ and the scientists offer us incredibly useful reality checks in the form of insightful comparisons to other fibres, as well as ideas about the steps to take towards a future, ‘planet-safe’ polyester.

“First…fossil feedstock – burning it at end-of-life causes climate impact. Second, the fossil fuels powering its production… Third, it sheds microplastics to lakes and oceans, which attracts hazardous contaminants…This can be mitigated by better production: less brushing, using ultrasound cutting, and removing and safely disposing of microplastics at the production stage. The second can be mitigated by using low-carbon energy sources. The first can be mitigated by using bio-based feedstocks, recycling the fibres at end-of-life, or by using polyester primarily for long-life garments, in timeless designs fit for function...” This is a pretty clear starter for ten. But what is timeless design when it comes to polyester? From the wearer’s point of view, when it works well, it can really work well. Tamsin Blanchard, journalist, editor and special events curator, Fashion Revolution: “Some of my favourite items of clothing are made from 100 % polyester and every time I wear them, I marvel at the way they always look like new… a pair of grey Homme Plissé pleated trousers designed (apparently for men) to be easy to wear, with all the comfort of a pair of jogging pants without looking like I couldn’t quite be bothered to get dressed properly… seemingly indestructible. They can be washed cold according to the label, but I generally chuck them in with everything else at 30 and they don’t mind. I pack them in a suitcase and they can be rolled up to take minimal space, then spring into life when needed.”

Prof Sandy Black author and researcher, London College of Fashion, also wrote about her wardrobe successes in her email reply to me: “Two of my favourite garments are 100% polyester, both by Japanese designers and I have owned and worn them for a very long time, one for over 20 years and 10 the other; these garments give me constant pleasure. The mouldable properties of their polymer structure enable heat setting into permanent pleats or crumpled surface textures that simply recover to the original shape when stretched. They never look old or worn, they can be thrown in a suitcase and put on without ironing, they hand wash at low temperature and air dry very fast, no ironing required – ideal for travelling. In the 1990s, Issey Miyake’s Pleats Please range was a ground-breaking innovation, continued by Yoshiki Hishinuma, who had worked for Miyake. Japanese design and technology has for decades elevated polyester fibre and fabric to the status of luxury, contrary to its commonly held perception.” The other Sandy in my address book, Sandy McLennan, Director of East Central Studios, shared insights about how designers for the luxury market are employing it well, writing that they are “quietly using it…[for example] a great 2 way stretch crepe for modern tailoring from Girbaud, or in blends with high twist components making super hi performing fabrics that I know Armani uses, and also a brilliant weaver in Italy who makes very kind of couture quality satins for sport and fashion, all from regenerated polyester. Cos of course uses masses of it very well too. For sport it’s still a top choice along with PA [polyamide] qualities…For me there is a place in the grand landscape of fabrics and while I reckon fossil fuel resources get a bad rap, perhaps when we stop using it for fuel and energy there could be lots left over for this benign way of locking it up in garments without causing havoc?”


Let’s start with Dr Gustav Sandin a Lifecycle Assessment scientist at RISE who gives us a really concise overview of the environmental shortcomings of polyester and his suggestions for where to look for solutions:


Others are not at all fans of wearing polyester. They can see its benefits, but believe that material science and engineering could help us design away from the need to use it in the future. Dr Veronika Kapsali Reader Material Technology and Design, London College of Fashion: “I don’t wear garments made from, or containing polyester next to my skin, they give me the ick. However, I appreciate that there are many next to skin applications such as high wicking polyester fibres used in athletic/gym wear that consumers find beneficial…Polyester should be regarded as an expensive material, it has been created at huge cost to the environ-ment that exceeds its perceived ‘low cost’ commercial value. We have already produced enough polyester to meet the demands of products that rely on the properties of this material. Why not stop, focus efforts on reclaiming the material from waste and reuse it, over and over again?” Annie Gullingsrud Founder of and author, ‘Fashion Fibers Designing for Sustainability’ (2017), also writes about its ‘true cost’ to us and its distorted value – urging us to understand more about how to use it, as well as develop the essential plan to recapture it. “…Our planet, our oceans, and our bodies are deeply experiencing these unintended negative consequences today from this fiber and the non-existent system of recapture. As we move forward, we must acknowledge the sheer scale of usage, and be realistic with our efforts to move forward, understanding there is not a quick fix…ensuring these materials can be actively recovered and identified, and can be regenerated at the proper time to retain their highest value.”


Holly McQuillan researcher and co-author of ‘Zero waste Fashion Design’ (2015) sent me a really well researched statement, which resonated with a lot of the points being made by others here, as well as writing this: “We make value judgements on polyester, primarily that it is ‘cheap’ and therefore only useful for garments that are cheap. However, by treating it this way we place it into the very context where it will cause the most damage. Perhaps, since polyester is literally here to stay, we need to use only what we already have, and value it more – it’s what we do with it that counts.” Sass Brown academic and author of ‘Refashioned’ (2013), has looked at what designers do with materials for many years. She asks us to love the signs of wear and design for reuse and remanufacture, getting maximum value before it gets to the recycling stage: “…as long as we have it, we had better find ways of valuing it and keeping it out of landfill…Flipping the concept of wear and tear from something that devalues materials, into something that pridefully exhibits intrinsic value through the wounds of time served and service rendered, is truly magical, and something the best upcycling designers manage beautifully on an ongoing basis.” Using it well because it is already here is a response that continues with many others who emailed me back. But this can seem a little reactive to some. If you are a design academic full to the brim with ideas about the kind of change we ultimately want to see in the long-term, then the pace and processes of industry can be deeply frustrating. Dr Timo Rissanen, co-author of ‘Zero waste Fashion Design’ (2015) and Associate Professor at Parsons the New School: “We absolutely should not be making disposable, low-quality items from [polyester]…I used to think that polyester had great potential due to its capacity for recycling. Instead of designing for that cyclability, we have instead flooded the old linear model with low quality (both in fabric and garment) polyester, much of which ends in landfill or incineration…

There are many aspects of Timo’s frustrations that are commonly voiced – some I will pick up later in this essay – but the request for extending the use phase and evolving models for recirculating clothing is echoed in the statement by Francois Suchet, Lead at Make Fashion Circular at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. He says if it’s not safe and renewable, it’s not circular; “…benefits of polyester can not be truly enjoyed without addressing its negative impacts on people and the environment. In a circular economy all garments are made from safe and renewable materials. To achieve this, there is a need to shift away from oil-based virgin inputs. Non-toxic production processes need to be developed, for example to avoid the use of heavy metals such as Antimony Trioxide, a known carcinogen, which is currently used as a catalyst. In recent years, the textile industry has been identified as a major contributor to the issue of plastic entering the ocean. Focussed innovation is required to design out non-biodegradable microfibre shedding from the outset.” The natural world providing new materials solutions excites many of us. The huge innovation potential is what Ina Budde,, Berlin, wrote about. She also wants to see oil replaced with plantbased biopolymers. “We assume there will be many interim and hybrid forms replacing

traditional polyester in order to slowly but steady pave the way for the ultimate bio-based, biodegradable and recyclable fibres and filaments of tomorrow.” Materials that come from nature, function as well as polyester, and then go back to nature through biodegradation. It’s a tall order as Timo pointed out in a follow up email, “I do think that if we are going to continue with polyester for some time, but we ought to think about transitioning away from it, to plastics generated from renewable sources that can also return to biological systems via biodegradability, that perform as well as or better than the fibres they replace. (A somewhat formidable design brief for material scientists working with designers.)” Experts working with the development of new materials and exploring their properties for and with clients, wrote about this and other concerns, like the essential need to evaluate the polyester fibre in terms of the relative harm that comes from others in the sector, as well as the trade off with growing food. Charles Ross, sportwear and outdoor wear specialist, academic and journalist: “At a time when over 1 billion people on this planet live below the nutritional poverty – why are we still growing textiles instead of food? 99.2% of the oil extracted from the ground is burnt or buried within 12 months; there is such a little looped into clothing that this area could be further expanded. Polyester is the most popular textile in world production now, but cotton is 8 times weaker - so the latter produces more pollution (which does not biodegrade quickly if it has been synthetically dyed). Synthetic micro-filaments in the sea are not such a problem as the chemicals that use them as a carrier to enter our food chain. PCBs, DDT, PFCs, pesticide & herbicide are those most dangerous chemicals found in the sea; the latter two are used extensively in the cultivation of cotton crops.” Dr Sandra Roos Research Institutes of Sweden, was one of the key people that inspired this article for me. She has been aligning the arguments through her research


All polyester, whether virgin or recycled, contains carbon that doesn’t belong in the carbon cycle of the planet at the quantities and speeds that we have inserted it into the cycle…As for virgin polyester, we should aim to transition away from it as rapidly as possible; polyester textiles should not be a gateway for the fossil fuel industry. What is still in the ground should stay in the ground, as a matter of survival of life on the planet. Synthetic fibers in circulation are carbon that ‘doesn’t belong’; we put it there…Having an industrial infrastructure for recycling doesn’t mean everything ends up recycled - see any roadside or ocean for evidence - so we ought to design for things not entering the recycling systems (through biodegradability and compostibility) as much as for doing so.”


over the last few years. She makes a really clear case for understanding the trade-offs from all angles, but especially chemicals: “My daily work means advising on how to reduce harmful effects of chemicals in textiles. The most powerful solution I’ve found so far is dope-dyed polyester. Firstly, because water pollution from conventional dyeing can be avoided by using dope dyed polyester. Secondly because pesticide use during conventional cotton cultivation can be avoided by material substitution using polyester instead. The lifespan of garments can be increased using this durable fibre. What’s the hitch then? That polyester is fossil? So are a lot of cosmetics, for example baby oil, where ‘synthetic’ is interpreted as ‘clean’ from allergenic substances. From the natural science perspective, it seems irrational to worry about 100g fossil content in a polyester t-shirt, but not raise an eyebrow over the 1000g fossil fuels needed to produce a cotton t-shirt. Microplastics? Yes, this is a question. Although microsized plastic particles are not harmful in themselves they can act as carriers of toxins. Safe removal of dust in production and selection of non-toxic additives is not rocket science and is a must in the future, regardless of fibre type. What if in the future we don’t throw waste in the oceans, we base polyesters on plants or recycled feedstock and dope dye the fibres. We could save a lot of harmful impact!” Christian Tubito Project Manager, Innovation and Research at Material Connexion Italia, writes about the madness of demonising a fibre, in his email with the subject heading, ‘Rethinking the Environmental Impact of Polyester, aka re-discovering the potential of an overused fibre’:


“Prejudice is a dangerous state of mind when we talk about materials, preventing good innovation. To envision the future (of) polyester, it is necessary to re-consider this material in light of the new technologies and opportunities ahead. We have to stop demonizing polyester, assuming that a synthetic material has a negative impact per se; to be a chemical material might

prove to be an advantage in the future. Innovation in recycling often can be found more in the recycling process itself than in the material derived from it. The environmental potential of polyester needs to be unveiled for the future…When it comes to chemical recycling, only polyester and certain nylons can currently be reprocessed. We can modify it at fibre level, we can work on cross sections, we can dye it at the spun fibre stage.” I worked on the Trash-2-Cash project with Christian, so know first-hand what he means about the innovations we can make through recycling. He also warns us about the limitations of biopolymers and the time required to adequately develop them: “Polyester, like all plastic materials, was originally not meant to be disassembled into its constituent parts at the molecular level and then re-constructed, but now it is necessary and it is possible to do this and to do it in a sustainable manner, and ever more in the future; this changes the unfriendly fate of this versatile material. Biopolymers are far from being a real alternative to polyester fibres, even more when we talk about technical and highperformance applications. What should we do whilst we wait for the new bioplastic fibre miracles? Polyester is a material with which man can do better than his (the man) nature. The new regeneration processing technologies (starting from waste textile) are opening new scenarios on this material, provided that to know what is in the Polyester (composition, finishes) with traceable origins. Is that an issue of the material or of its use? The polyester fibre obtained in the future from chemical re-generation processes will ensure stable chemical and functional properties, will be easier to process with improved dye adsorption, and chemical reactivity for the creation of a water-scarce end to the textile manufacturing value chain and water-scarce finishing treatments, will be heavy-metal-free and free from chemical substances, will be designed to be used, recovered and remanufactured safely and effectively throughout multiple product life cycles, and will be available in a wide range of deniers. Are we really sure we want (and we can) give up this material?”

“With the speed of the current industry, the true potential of PET is yet undiscovered. As the workhorse of the textiles industry with 64% usage across all fibres, it is more often cited as the commodity fibre…but its potential is far greater, with innovation opportunities currently hidden within its DNA and myriad of process steps from its building block chemistry to the final consumer-facing garment. PET engineering opportunities beg for discovery in a race to solve sustainability challenges. There is an escalating need for the use of renewable resources, fibre to fibre recyclability, zero water colouration and solutions to the escalating concerns around microfibre shedding, all of which can be met by this versatile polymer which currently is undervalued as far as the innovation potential it can offer. As we use PET as a vehicle for sustainable innovation, the ultimate systemic change will be seen in the commercialisation of direct polymer to garment manufacturing, cutting out the complex process steps grandfathered into the industry, but which now seem somewhat redundant as we rethink totally how we best utilise this underdiscovered fibre.” New production processes is a pet (not PET!) research passion for my colleague Dr Kate Goldsworthy, who has done a lot of work on looking into the future of this fibre: “Polyester (and indeed plastic) is part of a much bigger materials story. In some ways it’s already a recycling solution to one of our biggest waste streams – that from oil. Of the 4,000 million tonnes of oil used towards world energy consumption, less than 1% is converted for use in plastic and

synthetic textiles. Even if we stop using oil tomorrow we still have all existing plastic available – what an incredible resource if we harness and recover it efficiently for future generations…so many of the life-changing advances we see in the world today have plastic in their story – we must acknowledge not only the ‘easy to see’ impacts of material and production but the wider societal value it can create.” Kate goes on to highlight the need for us all to clarify the terminology: “The science and technology behind ‘recycling’ is a hugely complex set of activities – not a singular process. Recovery and ‘undoing’ of materials can happen in almost as many ways as we create them. It is in essence a reversal of creation processes. Often the word ‘recycling’ is used to mean very different things to different people which is where confusion sets in. We must find consensus in the language we use in order to comm-unicate and debate the real issues. This is where design can really help. Some chemical recycling processes can be used to remove impurities and contamination OUT of the system, resulting in a cleaned-up version of the virgin material. How incredible that we might be able to retain the value in the materials we already have whilst simultaneously Improving the material world we have for the future.” Kate works with Worn Again Technologies innovator Cyndi Rhoades, Founder CEO, who sees a positive future: “The exciting news is that new processing technologies are currently in development which will overcome [these] barriers and enable the vast majority of all polyester, whether pure or trapped in blends, to be recycled. The reality is that we already have enough polyester in circulation today, in the form of textiles and PET plastic bottles, to satisfy our annual demand for new polyester textile raw materials. With the right processes and collection infrastructure in place, we can continue to make use of these resources into the distant future.”


Sophie Mather Material Futurist at Biov8tion, also writes about our great potential to engineer it in the future, in particular, by using it in direct polymer to garment manufacturing:


Edwin Keh CEO of The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textile and Apparel, leads on the direction of the R&D Centre, and is the midst of ongoing research activities that reclaim polyester at fibre, not molecular, level. He says we can’t get back to the same quality of material through recycling: “It’s very hard to recycle. It’s down-cyclable, but can’t be repurposed to do the same thing over and over again due to the damage in the process of recycling…Our hydrothermal system is the only known method to truly recycle polyester, but we’re only at 100kg a day… a drop in the ocean really. We need to scale it quickly before we can say it is truly recyclable.” Isaac Nichelsen CEO of Circular-systems. com, sent through an amazing timeline – steps towards change that included policy ideas. He looks forward to a future (perhaps as soon as 2030) where all petroleum based virgin synthetics are a thing of the past, the world is moving toward a thriving and regenerative bio-economy with a [booming] recycled synthetics market and efficient collection systems for all waste plastic resources. In order to make this happen, we need a massive drop in the cost of ionic solutions fostered by government subsidies to enable the biggest challenge of all, the chemical separation of blended fibres; cellulosic and synthetic. By 2025 Isaac can see “the oceans and land [are] raked clean of plastic waste to drive the recycled raw materials market.” My final respondent, the ever-inspiring Elin Larsson, Founder of Elco – advisor for sustainability and circularity, also highlighted this new ‘raw materials’ market: “In a near future we will be able to wear clothes that have a positive climate impact, made from harvested greenhouse gases from the air and the oceans that have been turned into polyester pellets.”


The plan ahead seems to involve being able to shift our value systems from using polyester in cheap, low-quality clothing to more durable, long-life and high-function contexts. Several experts say we have already produced enough polyester – so working with collection systems to reprocess it and circular design models to keep it perpetually in use seems key. A few experts are concerned about quality and downcycling, but one way forward is to add small amounts of virgin materials into the regeneration and/or re-spinning process. Others say the percentages of oil going into this sector are tiny (less than 15% of all non-combusted oil is used for single-use plastics) when compared to the petrochemical industry – but few think that long-term we should still be using fossil fuels; we can create new polyester materials from biopolymers as well as recycled sources. We need to evaluate the materials landscape ahead in terms of lifecycle trade-offs outside the existing system boundaries – from land use, through production as well as impacts through wear, re-wear and regeneration. Lifecycle assessment techniques aren’t quite ready to do this yet. The trade-off with future food needs is a huge one, and needs further review, as does the chemical contamination from all kinds of fibres in our oceans – not just synthetics. The innovation potential here seems immense, and as designers this excites us. Redesigning polyester’s use – and even perhaps its reputation – is one of many material approaches needed; legislation and behavioural ones are needed too. But to be able to use the waste around us to make infinite cycles to meet our future needs means that an old outdated system can become one that’s truly fit for purpose. The sky is the limit. Quite literally.



MA Textile Design:

This spring I designed and delivered a masterclass with a group of MA Textile students at Chelsea, encouraging them to understand themselves more fully, before attemptiong to design for others. Circular design is complex. It requires a whole new way of working with materials and people, and an ability to see the whole picture – the systems we are currently part of and new ones we want to create. In this project we asked ‘What kind of designer do I want to be? How can I best go out into the world and create change?’ Our aim in this masterclass project was to make a remanufactured shirt to suit our conscious selves. Self-selected MA Textile Design students at Chelsea College of Arts (2018 – 19): Tracy Ann Bergstrom, Cecilia Ceccherini, Fiona Daly, Natasha Khurana, Emma McGinn, Kath Lovett, Jiaxuan Li, Laura Piva, Sarah Trowsdale, Nour Abdul Salam, Giorgia Vergani, Yuqing Wang, Chunqing Wu, Qianqian Wu. Our Co-Created Guiding Principles: Our inspiration must come from conducting original mesearch (or autoethnography, when a researcher uses their personal experiences to tackle academic questions): • We should attempt to make something for ourselves, that we will want to wear, and be able to articulate why this is • We must use fabric that is second hand, preferably a shirt (but it doesn’t have to be). We should consider its next life and future recyclability – if it is not monomaterial, how can the different elements be identified and come apart later? • We should explore and employ low impact textile techniques Intended Outcomes: A heightened sense of one’s own design identity. An improved and informed sense of one’s direction and purpose as a textile designer. New textile knowledge and skills. More self-confidence. New friendships. Fun memories.



Armstrong, M., Niinimäki, K., Kujala, S., Karell, E., Lang, C. (2015) Sustainable Product-Service Systems for Clothing: Exploring Consumer Perceptions of Consumption Alternatives in Finland. Journal of Cleaner Production 97: 30 – 39. Entwistle, J. (2015) Sustainability and Fashion. In Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion, edited by Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham, 25 – 32. London: Routledge. As cited in Petersen, T.B., Riisberg, V. (2017) Cultivating User-ship? Developing a Circular System for the Acquisition and Use of Baby Clothing. Escobar, A, (2018) Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham and London: Duke University Press. Fallan, K. (2010) Design History: Understanding Theory and Method. New York: Berg. As cited in Petersen, T.B., Riisberg, V. (2017) Cultivating User-ship? Developing a Circular System for the Acquisition and Use of Baby Clothing. Fletcher, K. (2012) Durability, Fashion, Sustainability: The Processes and Practices of Use. Fashion Practice: The Journal of Design, Creative Process & the Fashion Industry 4 (2): 221– 238. Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. O’Brien, J. (2018) How to be Right…in a world gone wrong. London:WH Allen Pederson, E.R., Andersen, K.A. & Earley, R. (2018) From Singular to Plural: Circular Business Models for Fashion, Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management. Forthcoming. Petersen, T.B., Riisberg, V. (2017) Cultivating User-ship? Developing a Circular System for the Acquisition and Use of Baby Clothing, Fashion Practice: The Journal of Design, Creative Process & the Fashion Industry. Volume 9, 2017 – Issue 2. St Clair, K. (2018) The Golden Thread: how fabric changed history. London: John Murray Publishers. Thackara, J. (2015) How to Thrive in the Next Economy: designing tomorrow’s world today. London: Thames & Hudson. Whittle, A. & Spicer, A. (2008) Is Actor Network Theory Critique? Organization Studies 29(4): 611– 629. Find out more on the following websites: Becky Earley, Circular Design Speeds (2016 – 2018), Top 100 project (1999 – 2018), Centre for Circular Design, Textile Toolbox (2014), Mistra Future Fashion Programme (2011 – 2019), Trash-2-Cash (2015 – 2018),



Collaborators, Top 100 Project, Recent Top 100 shirt collaborators, Elin Larsson and team at Filippa K, Laetitia Forst, Katherine Wardropper, Dr Marion Real (The Service Shirt) | Karen Spurgin, Isabel Dodd (Shanghai Shirts) Dr Jen Ballie, Dr Otto von Busch (Fast ReFashion Shirt) | Dr Frances Geesin (Jabot Shirt) | Bridget Harvey, Trish Hegarty (Shavasana Shirts) | Trash-2-Cash workshop participants (Silence Shirts) | ReDress Hong Kong workshop participants (ReDressing Activism Shirt) | staff and children at St. Mary’s School Chiswick (School Shirts). MA Project & Performance: MA Textiles Course Director, Chelsea, Jane Murrow | Know Thyself seminar speaker and project feedback, Amelia Graham | Design Thinking Workshop, Dr Jen Ballie | Project feedback, Professor Kay Politowicz | Project feedback and Performance Producer, Claire Angel | Performance photography, Geoff Angel. Brochure: Brochure: Future Perspectives on Polyester contributors, Dr Kate Goldsworthy | Edwin Keh | Cyndi Rhoades | Sandy MacLennan | Christian Tubito | Dr Gustav Sandin | Dr Sandra Roos | Charles Ross | Dr Veronika Kapsali | Tamsin Blanchard | Annie Gullingrud | Professor Sandy Black | Dr Timo Rissanen | Holly McQuillan | Elin Larsson | Ina Budde | Sass Brown | Isaac Nichelsen | Sophie Mather | Francois Suchet Design: Tim Hutchinson Design Printed by KWT Printing Services Ltd, Covent Garden, onto recycled paper. External Funders: Mistra Future Fashion programme part-funded the work between 2011 – 2019. Other Top 100 project funders include Trash-2-Cash | Whitworth Museum and Gallery Manchester | Science Museum London | AHRC (Worn Again project) | Craftspace | Arts Council England | British Council | Crafts Council | Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles Goldsmiths | Eden Project Cornwall | Ethical Fashion Show Paris | Science Gallery Dublin | Spacex Gallery Exeter. Photo & Figure Credits: Covers, pp16, 17, 19, 21, 23-25, Jelly Louise; p2, Mischa Haller; p4, Clare Lowther; pp6, 10, 13, 14, 18, 20, 38, Becky Earley; p8, Miriam Ribul; p9, Polimekanos; p10, Tom Gidley; p11, Rhode Island Museum; p12, Mischa Haller; p15, Cristina Schek; p22, Helen Paine; p28, Becky Earley & Marion Real, Laetitia Forst; p42, Yiannis Katsalis.



Professor Rebecca Earley is working for a sustainable future where our resources are used and reused carefully to provide textiles and clothing for all. She believes that the emerging field of circular design holds many of the answers for our educators, policymakers and industry leaders. Her research is concerned with finding new ways to design materials, goods and services within this context. She has just completed two large projects with Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) – Mistra Future Fashion and Trash-2Cash – developing circular materials and strategies for industry implementation. Rebecca graduated from MA Fashion at CSM in 1994 and set up her B. Earley studio with help from the Princes Trust and Crafts Council. Her award-winning textiles, using her print technique on to recycled PET fleece (the heat photogram), became popular with buyers and collectors, until 2000 when she ceased production and moved full time into sustainable design research at Chelsea. Between 2002 – 2003 she worked with Kate Fletcher on translating theoretical ideas into lifecycle design concepts on the 5Ways project. In 2005 she curated the Craft Council’s Well Fashioned: Eco Style in the UK exhibition; the same year she received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for the Worn Again: Rethinking Recycled Textiles research. In 2007 she was nominated as a Morgan Stanley Great Briton for her contribution to sustainable fashion textiles in the UK. Rebecca co-published The TEN with Professor Kay Politowicz in 2010 after several years of working together in TED, and through testing ideas with industry designers via facilitating workshops and developing commissioned projects. Between 2010-2017 she was Director of the Textile Futures Research Centre (TFRC), based at CSM. In 2017 she co-founded Centre for Circular Design at Chelsea College of Arts with Dr Kate Goldsworthy. In 2019 she became an Editorial Board Member at The Design Journal.

Thanks: Becky would like to thank everyone who helped create this opportunity to make and share this work. UAL Research: Lynne Finn, Communications Coordinator & Secretary to the Professoriate | Professor Malcolm Quinn, Associate Dean of Research, Chelsea | Previous Deans who have supported the research include Professor Oriana Baddeley, Professor Stephen Scrivener and Professor Toshio Watanabe. Thank you Professor Louise Wilson for validating my big mouth and urging me to never be an anonymous and silent fashion textile designer; you are missed. The 14 MA Textile Design students (2018 – 19) who worked on the Know Thyself project and modelled shirts from Becky’s archive. All the contributors to the Perspectives on the Future of Polyester essay, Professors David Crow and Kay Politowicz for their Forewords. Last but never least, huge thanks to the Centre for Circular Design (CCD) team at Chelsea.

ISBN number: 978-1-906908-54-6 42

Millions discover their favorite reads on issuu every month.

Give your content the digital home it deserves. Get it to any device in seconds.