A conversation about clothes, capitalism, and creative responses opened with a welcome from live art duo Hunt and Darton, our hosts at their POP-UP café, 36 Bridge Street, Cambridge, CB2 1UW.
Hunt and Darton fed us a (quick) three-course ‘meal’ of live art. We could choose the dishes, but when it came to the Mains we were told that Thoughts were off and were given Laughs instead.
However, as the evening ensued our Guest Speakers: Mark Sumner – Sustainability; Retail & Fashion, University of Leeds (biography below); Katelyn Toth-Fejel – Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion (biography below); and Lucy Walker – Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge (biography below), brought thoughts back centre stage.
METIS’ co-directors Zoë Svendsen and Simon Daw kicked off the conversation by contextualising the World Factory project and communicating the METIS team’s desire to do and share its research in public.
Bianca Winter, METIS’ digital producer, and David Russell, Director of Cambridge design and technology company The Fusion Works, followed this with the launch of the World Factory Digital Quilt.
The Digital Quilt makes the project’s research available in bite-sized chunks. Bianca explained that information is not indexed, so can’t be searched, but instead a journey is taken through it, panel by panel and explicit links encountered. In a world full of choice, the digital quilt presents just four options to help the user to move between panels – up, down, left or right – manifesting the research as spatial patchwork.
David noted that typically people might employ a Wiki technology to present research information, but METIS wanted to avoid a text heavy format and opted for a more visually led framework.
Lucy Walker responded to the presentation of the Digital Quilt by drawing parallels between the METIS research and the work of archaeology – the shared ‘drilling down’ and excavation-like exploration. Following Simon’s presentation of the World Factory Shirt at the beginning of the evening, Lucy suggested that technology such as that of the Digital Quilt and the Scan facility of The Shirt could be employed to great effect in many museums, enhancing visitor experiences.
Do you know where your clothes come from?
Mark Sumner who recently joined the School of Design at the University of Leeds as a Lecturer in Sustainability, Retail and Textiles, following a period as Sustainable Raw Materials Specialist for Marks & Spencer, began by asking us all whether we knew where our clothes came from and whether we took a real interest in their origination? He spoke about the textile industry as a fragmented industry where many businesses are linked together in soft ways and where if the consumer neglected to take an interest the process of manufacture would remain abstract.
However, he acknowledged that pressure was increasing on businesses around the world and though a large number were still not looking beyond the next season, many were looking at ways of doing things in a more sustainable way. He also noted that some of the best factories he’d seen were in China and some of the worst in Europe, suggesting that problems in the industry were not necessarily as geographically far removed as we might like to think.
Katelyn Toth-Fejel, artist, designer, natural dye specialist and research assistant for the Local Wisdom Network at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, University of the Arts London spoke about what happens to clothes after they’ve been bought, how we care or fail to care for them, and where they end up. She noted that the things that stay in people’s wardrobes are not always those that are best made or the most durable, but rather the garments that people feel most emotionally attached to.
Mark spoke about how he spent the first 10 years of his career at M&S looking at how to make products that would last longer, but how he realised that there was no point to the potential longevity of an item if people were to wear it for a bit and then throw it away – the full life cycle of a piece of clothing, however long or short, needed to become more sustainable.
Opening the conversation up, the group discussed the fact that one million tonnes of textile waste is produced each year in the UK. Some of this ‘waste’ is given over to re-use and sent, for example, to countries in Africa. But, it was asked, what impact does this action have on local industry in those African countries? Local production is undermined, while some in the UK are made wealthy. Mark raised the point that we tend to think of Cotton as a ‘good’ material and yet it takes 10,000 litres of water to grow a kilo of cotton. For those living a life of subsistence, just 10 litres of water will sustain them in all of their activities for a day.
The rising cost of cotton and wool was discussed and the question that businesses in supply chains face of whether to raise prices or look for savings elsewhere. It was acknowledged that it was difficult for retailers to raise prices knowing that if they did, consumers would go elsewhere.
Katelyn noted that whichever direction we looked in, the industry appeared complex and that single most helpful thing we could do was to simply use less, emphasising that global consumption is currently far outstripping any eco-efficiencies we are achieving.
While someone in the audience said they felt they couldn’t compete with the industry of mass manufacture when it came to making a jumper, another ended the night by suggesting on a rather more positive note that instructional videos and information on the internet were in fact making it easier for people to pick up and employ making skills.
Mark has recently joined the School of Design at the University of Leeds as a Lecturer in Sustainability, Retail and Textiles. He is currently developing research themes for reducing waste and the circular economy for clothing; mapping the environmental impacts within textile supply chains; consumer interaction with sustainable apparel; the role of design in delivering sustainability for clothing and textiles.
Prior to joining the university Mark was the Sustainable Raw Materials Specialist at Marks & Spencer for over 6 years. Mark led the development of strategies & policies to identify how M&S could reduce the impact of its products and supply chains across the full M&S product portfolio including clothing and homeware. Supply chain projects included improving transparency and traceability, dyehouse efficiencies and improved chemical compliance, and the creation of innovative and sustainable products.
During his time at M&S he delivered M&S’s first closed loop cashmere & wool coat, their most sustainable suit, chinos and overcoat as well as the ground breaking ‘shwopped’ coat. His first 10 years at M&S was as a Technologist in various buying teams and was responsible for product development, supply chain management, innovation and quality management.
Before joining M&S Mark completed a BSc Hons in Applied Physics from the University of Leeds, which was followed by an Engineering Doctorate from UMIST for Textile Engineering where he developed a new process for colour application to wool and cotton yarns.
Katelyn Toth-Fejel is an artist, designer, natural dye specialist and research assistant for the Local Wisdom Network at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, University of the Arts London. This international research project, originated by Kate Fletcher, explores the ‘craft of use’: the skilful, cultivated and ingenious practices employed in our use of garments as a potent tool for the redefinition of our experience of fashion beyond the thrill of purchase.
Katelyn is also a director of the brand Here Today Here Tomorrow with a studio and shop in East London. HTHT showcases a complexity of approaches to sustainability of fashion and accessories, encompassing handmade craftsmanship, skills sharing, durability, use of waste and organic materials, natural dye, fair trade production, localism, and user behaviour.
Katelyn is from Portland, Oregon in the Cascade Range of North America.
Lucy Walker is an archaeologist and landscape historian, with a background in fieldwork research in Britain and Italy, adult education, and historic landscape tourism. She is currently a visiting scholar at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, and part of the Troina Project – the study of changing cultural landscapes through time in a mountain zone in the north-east part of Sicily.
Lucy is also developing a practice using archaeology and museum collections as prisms to explore contemporary issues. As Associate with the Pacitti Company Think Tank, she is working with community groups, artists, writers and scientists on the Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service ‘Unlocked’ programme. She is a member of ArchaeoLink, an organisation set up to enable communities to benefit from their archaeology and historic landscapes, and a founder member and chair of the Steering Group of the HLF funded Mill Road History Project in Cambridge.