The cloth works of the Waste No More project are textile’s version of a modernist painting. Luminous, layered, gestural. The abstract shapes seem to hover, suspended in the barest suggestion of a warp and weft structure. Light filters through. Every once in a while the recognizable silhouette of a garment makes itself known, reminding us that these fabric paintings represent a collection of lives already lived, memories captured in cloth.
Waste No More is a large scale exploration into the potential to extend the life of garments beyond their wearable state. This effort was launched in 2018 by the women’s clothing brand Eileen Fisher, a company long focused on the imperative of sustainability. EF is the industry leader in this arena, creating new models for other textile producers. Since Fisher opened her doors in 1984, she has run a mission-driven business. She explains ‘We are not a fashion company. We’re a sustainable clothing brand that’s committed to producing ethical designs from organic and recycled fabrics with minimal impact on the environment.’
As part of what the company now refers to as “circular design’, EF has been committed to keeping its production out of the landfill for over a decade: prior to Waste No More the company initiated the heroic effort to call back garments that their customers no longer wear. Since 2009, EF has taken back over 1.3 million garments. Articles which can still be worn enter the Renew program for resale. Those that cannot, make their way to the design studio Waste No More.
LIGHT FILTERS THROUGH. EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE THE RECOGNIZABLE SILHOUETTE OF A GARMENT MAKES ITSELF KNOWN, REMINDING US THAT THESE FABRIC PAINTINGS REPRESENT A COLLECTION OF LIVES ALREADY LIVED, MEMORIES CAPTURED IN CLOTH.
JUST AS WE EACH OCCUPY SEPARATE AND DISTINGUISHABLE BODIES FOR A TIME, BEFORE BEING CALLED BACK TO SAMENESS, THESE RECYCLING EFFORTS CALL GARMENTS HOME, BACK FROM THEIR THOUSANDS OF LIVES LIVED. CLOTHES RETURN TO THEIR ORIGIN, POSSIBLY TO MERGE AND BE TRANSFORMED.
Artist Sigi Ahl has been a collaborator with the Eileen Fisher brand for the last 30 years. Originally trained in painting, she helped Fisher to found the clothing recycle program in 2009. Eight years later, Waste No More was born, a pioneering investigation of what could actually be built with already worn garments. Experimenting with industrial felting machinery has yielded material products whose dense texture belies their ability to lift the spirit. Diverse garments recombine into new forms and yardage which can, in turn, be constructed for new use and wear.
What cannot be discounted in this very technical process is the artistry, the collaboration between material, machine, and one woman’s unique artistic vision. The process requires a fluency and careful looking. The cloth works that emerge are nuanced with her signature. Ahl states that she has a deep connection to her materials. Handling the garments conjures imaginings of the former wearer. Sometimes Ahl notices a coffee stain, or evidence of dye fading in the underarm of a blouse. She says, ‘I can see the person having the coffee that leads to that stain.’ Or more intimately, ‘it was exertion, or perhaps emotion which set off that series of chemical reactions that produced sweat beneath that arm, causing the color to fade.’
Companies design and develop garments to clothe an individual wearer. Though produced in mass, most garments clothe only one person. Just as we each occupy separate and distinguishable bodies for a time, before being called back to sameness, these recycling efforts call garments home, back from their thousands of lives lived. Clothes return to their origin, possibly to merge and be transformed. Ahl attends to this process by listening to these garments, and acknowledging their journey, before laying them on an expanse and composing them into new material.