Redesigning communities

An exploration of mending and reuse of textile waste through creative and collaborative community activities.

My role

Project Consultant

Collaborated with three
other teammates.

Project skills

Zero-waste design, user research, interview, workshop facilitation, and graphic design.

Client / Duration

Tish Environment and Design Center / 4 months

Challenge

How can we design creative and collaborative community activities to raise awareness of the environmental costs of textile waste?

Textile waste is a major source of pollution around the world. The U.S. alone generates around 15 million tons of textile waste annually, 85% of which end up in our landfills. Lack of awareness about the impact of textile waste and lack of skills and sustainable practices in textile use cause textile pollution.

Outcome

I guided the participants to repurposed 200+ pieces of used garments and waste textiles.

Redesigning Community was an eight-session workshop over a four months period. While facilitation the workshop, I’ve collected quantitative and qualitative data that informed on the emotional connection people have towards materials and guided us on striking a clearer message on tackling textile waste.

To capture the mindset of our participants and then, to extrapolate broadly onto consumers’ attitude towards textile were my foray into the field of UX research.

Demographic of the participants

We looked for the extreme.

We purposefully reached out to low-income communities because sustainability is often considered a middle-class topic. 

The majority of the participants were people of color. Together, these participants brought a wide spectrum of design and sewing skills.

Among our 15 volunteers, the majority are people of color with a medium age of 36 years and a medium-income of $38,124.

Why Bailey’s cafe

Convenience to the participants.

Engaging with the local community is at the core of this project. Therefore, we want the participants to be in their most comfortable environment. Bailey’s cafe is the ideal place as it is in the vicinity of many participants. Its modular interior layout allowed us to rearrange the furniture and set up space to meet our needs.

Why workshops

Establishing trust.

The public often perceives sustainability advocates as moral police.  While surveys or interviews are more time-efficient, the collected responses are often implicitly biased towards the “moral” answer. Therefore, we conducted our research through interactive workshops to observe the participants’ behavior in context,  immerse ourselves into their community, and establish trust.

Steps of the workshop

roadmap of the workshop

Research process

Talk to the people.

We asked participants to bring in and share stories on their favorite pieces of garment or textile. We also asked questions such as how much they know about the making of these garments. 

Participant holding a piece of garment
A Participant showing off her favorite garment while sharing the story about this garment.

Ask the expert.

We interviewed Rachel Cohen from the Common Threads Project, Carolina Bedoya from RENEW, and Camilla Tagle from Fab Scrape.

Synthesize

Everyone has a mindset of a creator.

Participants were hesitant to start at first due to the lack of equipment and knowledge in sewing. So, they needed more invitations and guidance to take action. But once they have warmed up, they often let the gate open and have a flood of ideas on how they would like to repurpose the textiles.

Participant K. using a sewing machine for the very first time.
Participant using a sewing machine for the very first time.

Every participant has a need.

Some participants prefer to focus on one project at a time. Others enjoy the freedom to set their engagement level, from casual mending to dedicated making.

Zero waste takes planning

“I come into the day with a plan of what I am going to make, how I am going to do it, and a sense of how long it would take me.”

– Participant R.

Participants of all skill levels carefully planned out their designs, deciding on the materials they need and how many yards. For example, participant R. wished to sew a pillowcase and came prepared with fabrics from FabScrap.

A participant inspecting the designpattern on the fabric.
A participant inspecting the design pattern on the fabric.

A multi-generation practice

“I have threads; they are from my grandfather.” 

– Participant S.

We were delighted to observe how sewing threads the connections between generations. In the workshop, we had a mother and son duet, a grandmother and granddaughter duet, and two participants who shared family stories about sewing. 

Participant S. mends a sweater that was knitted by her mother. As she holds and repairs this material, she remembers and tells us of her family's lineage of makers; her grandfather was a tailor, her mother made everything for their family, and how she, herself, spent a significant portion of her life making her clothing. With such handwork, there is time to reminisce and tell stories of connections from our past. As we care for our clothing, we realize the fabric which protects us connects us to our history and can shape our future.

Effort vs impact.

It is important to be mindful that zero-waste activity while sending a meaningful message, does consume much time and resources. Even with fashion brands like Eileen Fisher that are fully committed to sustainability, they still evaluate the cost of repairing a piece of garment. Simple fix-ups like a missing button, are repaired in house.  For a broken zipper, however, it is more cost-efficient to send the garments to a recycling center.

The practice of making is a healing process

“Sewing can release stress. I can think while sewing.”

– Participant A.

One of the experts we interviewed, Rachel from The Common Thread Projects, told us about how she uses sewing to guide victims of sexual violence into a psychological healing process. 

While we are unaware of whether our workshop participants had experienced or are experiencing any type of violence, many have expressed that being in the workshop alleviated some of their stress. They especially appreciate the mindfulness exercise, which was a five-minute meditation at the beginning of every workshop.

A five minute meditation before each session.

Impact

Through collaboration and creativity, we repurposed 200+ pieces of used garments and waste textiles. Some received a new life after light repairing, some transformed into other products such as pillows, and some were used for quilting.

Left: where we started. 200+ pieces received through donation. Right: Leftover fabric scraps at the end of this project.
Left: where we started. 200+ pieces received through donation.
Right: By the end of the project, almost all have been repurposed except the fabric scraps in the jar.
kids chatting while resting on the big floor pillows that we have made.
kids chatting while resting on the big floor pillows that we have made.

My ah-ha moment

The low-income population in this project leads a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle than we had previously assumed.

In other educational workshops I facilitated in the past, the hardest part was to convince the participants to take action to mitigate the issues of textile waste. However, in this project, the participants easily adopted this mindset after only two workshops and had reported behavior changes in real life. 

This was surprising for me as most participants weren’t even sure what textile waste was before the workshop. For example, participant A. expressed that “I didn’t really have the mindset. I know the concept of food waste. But I don’t know about other waste…Now, I am very aware of it.” I wondered what makes this population so receptive to a zero-waste mindset. 

Through observation and contextual interviews, I learned that although low-income families cannot afford most of the sustainable and ethical products in the market, their existing mindset on making ends meet and being resourceful by repurposing existing products or materials in the house is very much aligned with the definition of a sustainable lifestyle. For example, when we asked “what do you do with the garment you no longer wear?”, the common answers were “I kept it in my closet” or “I used it as a cleaning rug.” They might not call it “sustainable” because living frugally is their lifestyle. 

This contradiction alerted us. As researchers, we tend to evaluate changes or impact based on the sales of sustainable or ethically made products.  Indeed, these numerical data can be easily traced. When presenting our findings, we often disaggregate our data into geographical units, say a country or city. The essential granularities, such as cross-community differences or social-economical factors, are often overlooked but are most insightful towards more unique findings. 

Press