When I asked Kathryn Sterner-Sieve of Winsome Goods what possessed her to create Winsome Zero, a product line to eliminate all of her studio’s fashion leftovers, she didn’t tell me the statistics, like how the average cotton T-shirt needs up to 700 gallons of water to be produced or how the apparel and footwear industries make up eight percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. She told me about her dad.
“I grew up in a household where my dad was a scientist, and a climate scientist at that, so sustainability and climate, global warming, and these closed-loop systems were always just part of a conversation,” Sterner-Sieve says. “So it was kind of impossible to enter the industry, especially the manufacturing industry, without thinking about the negative impacts of fashion and manufacturing on our environment and on our social environment too—like the ethical component of sustainable and ethical fashion.”
From Sustainably Minded to Zero Waste
With her Winsome clothes, she was already playing with ways that could make her clothes more versatile and usable for the consumer, like reversible designs or tops that functioned as both blouses and dresses. (And in a world where almost 60 percent of all clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators within a year of its creation, making a garment appeal for a longer time matters.) However, the best designs in the world couldn’t eliminate the fact that for every cut pattern, Sterner-Sieve was also creating fabric waste.
To combat this, about a year and a half ago, Sterner-Sieve issued a challenge to the University of Minnesota’s Studio 1 apparel design class to find ways to use up fabric waste. The students, largely freshmen, came up with ideas like balling up the fabric to make jewelry or other products, but the trouble was that fabric scraps could be any shape or size. The most universally applicable idea was a sort of felted fabric square, made from scraps sewn together in a water-soluble casing.
First, the scraps are cut up into smaller, one-inch long pieces and then sandwiched in between two squares of water soluble paper. After that, you run the square through the sewing machine however you’d like—any curving pattern or straight line needed to make sure all of the fabric is at least connected to one other piece. Then you put the whole square in the wash, and the water soluble paper dissolves, leaving behind the stitched together scraps.
This textile process allows for any type of fiber to be added into the mix, overcoming a barrier to many fabric recycling technologies. It doesn’t need fabric scraps to be a certain size, and you can easily curate the color palettes. It truly is the creation of a new, durable fabric. The question then becomes how to use it in a practical, desirable way.
An Ever-Evolving Solution
While Winsome Goods is working on a few running prototypes (they mentioned shoes from the get-go, and when I visited the studio, a lovely textured all-black handbag was brought out), they’re kicking off their Zero line with 5-by-7 area rugs made from those fabric squares sewn together. Current versions had two color combinations: an earthy clay mixture and a mosaic of blues.
Each rug uses up to 11 pounds of material that would have gone to waste, but the process is a bit of a labor of love. Even with a more streamlined and optimized process, one fabric square takes about 10 to 20 minutes to make, and when you have a rug that likely includes at least 100 of those squares…well, the math speaks for itself.
Chasing a dream of zero waste—being able to reach out and touch it with not only a solution but a marketable product—makes the extra time worth it, though. Sterner-Sieve says, “Whether we love or hate it, we live in this capitalist society. So instead of protesting and trying to end it, how do we become smarter consumers and manufacturers?”
Needless to say, as Sterner-Sieve planned her recent Zero area rug launch in mid-June, she’s already working on a garment return system to become even more sustainable.