Today, fast fashion dominates the way we produce, sell and buy garments. In 2018, the fashion industry was responsible for almost 100 million tons of waste, making it the second most heavily polluting industry in the world.
The industry keeps consumers in the dark and breeds an unhealthy and unsustainable customer mindset. There is a real need for an alternative to this industry. STEM’s goal and mission are to be the industry alternative.
STEM is a garment creation and retail system for the 21st century. It pairs a novel zero-waste digital weaving technique with sustainable garment production and retail approach aiming to radically change the fashion industry. It is a disruptive innovation affecting all key steps of the current garment manufacturing system that produces a huge amount of garment waste. The revolutionary weaving technique impacts and changes every step of the current garment production and retail system. It guarantees zero production wastes directly involving the consumer. The technique ensures that fabrics will only be produced after design and purchase creating conscious decisions throughout the process. New crosssector communication makes the process more efficient, showcasing designers to work with the same production technique.
In 2015 during my second year at Design Academy Eindhoven, I watched the documentary ‘The True Cost’, which completely changed my outlook on the fashion industry and brought real meaning to my work! From that moment onwards, all my projects became about how I could try to change the way we produce, wear and interact with our clothes. The idea for my zero-waste weaving technique came to me after a whole semester spent hand-weaving and exploring ‘floats’ (unwoven areas). I had begun to weave basic shapes directly on the loom while leaving surrounding areas unwoven. Once off the loom, these shapes fell into three-dimensional forms. One particular sample resembled a vest. This got me thinking about weaving garment pattern pieces directly on the loom and I started to question why we don’t just weave exactly what we are going to use. Fast forward to my final year and graduation project, for which I wove pattern piece shapes on the loom by hand and hand-knotted them together using the floats to draw attention to the seams and, through that, to the process behind producing a garment. After graduating, I continued to experiment with the zero-waste weaving technique using a TC2 loom (a manually operated jacquard loom) and adapting the technique to suit current industrial looms. With the weaving technique at its heart, I extended the concept to a holistic production and retail approach, covering sustainable materials, zero-waste production, pre-order retail methods, and a customer experience that tells the garment’s production story.
THE BIRTH OF THE PROJECT
The first weaving mill I worked with in 2018 found that the irregularly loosely-woven areas led to extreme unbalanced tension on the loom. Other weaving experts also told me that my approach would be impossible to implement on current industrial looms. But to keep weaving everything by hand would not only have limited future production volumes but also made it impossible to produce reliably precise garment patterns. I was not ready to give up on the technique and was encouraged by feedback from a few visionaries including Lottozero (a centre for textile design, art and culture in Prato/Italy, one of Europe’s main textile districts), who saw its potential. It became clear that in order to revolutionise an industry so stuck in its ways, I needed to approach it from the ground up, starting with production. So, I needed more industrial partners (weaving mills) willing to experiment. My ambitious aim is to develop a holistic approach to fashion production and retail through the Stem concept, a collaborative garment production brand aiming to eradicate waste from the fashion industry and foster more conscious customers.
Stem addresses three key problems of the current fashion industry:
1. Production waste (up to 25% of material lost during standard cut & sew production): Stem garments are produced using the zero-waste woven garment production technique and high-quality recycled natural fibres. The Stem weaving technique only weaves the pattern pieces (arranged using a nesting software), whereas areas in between are woven as loosely as possible and kept as part of the design of the garment.
2. Over-production (in 2018, 30% of the 15bn garments were never sold and 50% disposed of in under 1 year): Stem’s technique means that the fabrics can only be produced once the design is finalised and only exactly what is used will be woven. We are also extending this thinking into our retail approach, implementing an on-demand (pre-order) system. Conscious consumption goes hand in hand with conscious production!
3. Disconnect between garment production and customer: Most people don’t appreciate the work that goes into making garments, such as how many pattern pieces might be needed or what they look like. A Stem fabric visualises this beautifully and clearly. Pattern pieces are woven directly on the loom; visualising the garment construction process as well as the simple act of weaving (a repeated over and under motion). Once sewn together, the loosely woven areas become fringes lining the seams of the garment. Drawing attention to seams creates a simple visual connection with and understanding for the production process and is an eternal reminder of the production story, bridging a gap between craft and industry. Better communication results in a greater love and value for the garment, which helps customers move away from the culture of disposable fashion.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Together with my Worth partner Lottozero (a centre for textile design, art and culture in Prato/Italy), we set out to industrialise Stem’s zero-waste weaving technique for a larger impact on the fashion industry.
But then the pandemic struck and our residency with Lottozero had to be moved from April to September -not knowing what state the manufacturing industry would be in after the lockdown ended. In the meantime, I used this unexpected time-out to develop the patterns and digital files for the first prototype shirt, hand-weaving a wool sample and learning all about business models with my WORTH mentor Silvia. Finally, September arrived and I was off to Prato/Italy, where Lottozero had organised a two-week schedule packed with 13 industry meetings and visits, pitching Stem’s zero-waste garment production technique to weaving mills and industry experts, getting very encouraging feedback. There is a clear sense of community within Prato’s textile district. People were incredibly generous with their time, sharing their contacts and giving us factory tours. We learnt a lot from the constructive and critical feedback about weaving fabrics the Stem way, while feeling encouraged by the amount of interest in the idea. Our meetings culminated in two jacquard weaving mills agreeing to develop the technique using their looms! We also learnt about the process of recycling wool, which has been taking place in Prato for almost 200 years! It starts with sorting, still done by hand by experts dividing old garments according to their composition and colour. Next comes the wet or dry shredding of fibres, which are then spun into new yarn. This inspired me to incorporate recycled yarn into Stem’s production process where possible. During the residency we were also given the advice to protect the technique, so with the help of the WORTH lawyer we developed an NDA for the mills to sign during the development period. Although this slowed down the sampling process a bit, once the NDA was signed, we received the samples within a few weeks.
So, thanks to Worth, we now have the first set of industrially-woven Stem fabrics, which we are now using to develop the cutting and sewing technique with our seamstress in Copenhagen.
The collaboration between Stem and Lottozero has been absolutely key for the project’s success. Lottozero have opened up so many doors for us and used their extensive network of industry partners to prepare a residency for me. During the two weeks, we met with 13 different industry suppliers and manufacturers. It was inspiring to discover this fascinating city that is promoting circular thinking embedded in its textile production culture, and has been recycling wool for almost 200 years to maximise the (re)use of materials! By the end of the residency, we had managed to secure two industrial mills as development partners, and Arianna from Lottozero has now become our point of contact with the mills. She has been incredibly generous with sharing her expertise about production, material and processes, answering all our questions, and providing crucial feedback. She has also been invaluable for bridging the language barrier and embraced the challenge of communicating the system-changing Stem approach to the industry partners. Arianna has really become a key part of Stem, so much more than just a research partner!
Stem is at the start of a really exciting journey. Worth has helped create the first industrial samples, which we will now use to create interest among future collaborators. We aim to embed the Stem approach within the fashion industry, working with both established and young brands, helping to kick-start their careers. We plan to work with retailers to normalise the pre-order model as well as selling Stem garments directly to customers. In the long term, I would like to see Stem become a hub for both small and large-scale experimental production techniques. To realise these ambitious plans, we are planning to further grow the Stem team, establish a secure supply chain and develop a strong visual identity for Stem.
Collaborating with others is essential for any project’s success. A team provides support and encouragement, but can also input fresh perspectives and critical insights for better problem-solving. Sometimes someone’s throw-away comment or silly idea will trigger a break-through! So make sure you are not alone when you embark on fundamentally changing a whole industry’s mindset!