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Minette Bellingan: Two very different approaches to recycling natural fabrics

25 February 2015 – The potential for recycling won’t on its own make fashion sustainable. Putting months-old purchases in a charity or recycling bin won’t undo the waste of resources or make up for any human or environmental cost involved in their manufacture.

Minette

"Buying recycled is a great way to avoid adding to a growing problem. UN Food and Agriculture Organisation data shows annual global clothing consumption leaping by 20m tonnes between 2000 and 2010 to almost 70 tonnes, around a third of that cotton, much of which will already be in landfill."

Minette Bellingan, Master's Cohort 5

Cotton growing takes up more and more land which could otherwise be used to produce food for a burgeoning world population, so developments in Sweden feel timely. Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology has developed a method of completely recycling any material containing cellulose, and a group of collaborating Swedish companies last year produced the world’s first entirely recycled all-cotton garment, a yellow dress.

Many companies, including Levi’s and H&M, are already using up recycled cotton fibres in their clothing manufacture, but this is effectively downcycling. The recycled fibres currently available are shorter than virgin cotton, so can only be used up as part of a blend to maintain quality.

Deeper LuxuryWith the new technology, shredded cotton or cotton-blend rags are made into a sort of porridge which is then broken down to the molecular level and turned into a substance which can be spun into rayon thread for weaving. Swedish company Re:newcell now plans to build a fabric-recycling factory with the capacity to process 2,000 tonnes a year, followed by more in Britain and Germany.

The pulp will be sold on for manufacture to partners like SKS Textile, the company that actually made the yellow dress, which already has plans to supply the public sector with recycled fabric uniforms for healthcare workers.

Unlike some fabric recycling methods, the new, clean technique involves no dangerous, polluting materials like heavy metals. Unfortunately the resulting rayon is more difficult to recycle than cotton, but it’s still resource-efficient quality cotton rayon made only from waste.

While we wait for this amazing tech to filter through to our fashion clothing, a more traditional solution to the unloved garment can be found in the UK’s luxury knitwear industry. Designers have for decades been quietly reusing cashmere yarn, which is traditionally rare, remarkably resilient and becomes even softer with wear.

Cashmere is now known as much for ecologically disastrous overproduction as for its beauty and exceptional warmth, so it’s no surprise that many companies are now making a virtue of this conservation approach. Kate Holbrook, founder of Shrewsbury’s Turtle Doves started in late 2009 making her own ‘Turtle Doves’ – a cross between wrist warmers and fingerless gloves – from worn-out charity shop garments.

The word quickly spread, and the current range, which now also includes gorgeous hats, scarves, snoods, shawls and baby bootees, is all British-made from used textiles, still including some knitwear from charity shops and the odd donated item. The company takes pride in offering both surprisingly competitive prices and fair wages through clever product designs and a minimal supply chain. To avoid waste, products are specifically designed to use as much as possible of the material available, scraps are saved for smaller projects and anything unusable goes to textile recyclers.

You can now find Turtle Doves recycled cashmere accessories and clothing in 150 UK shops and some overseas outlets, or buy them online. They include gorgeous baby booties in all colours. They also supply Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International, and Kate is now consulting with prestige label Belinda Robertson Cashmere on a closed-loop recycling project.

Read more on Minette's own blog, Deeper Luxury.

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