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Sustainable Fabric Design: Surprising ways brands are using patterns to lower their impact.

Updated: Aug 19, 2021


Words by Lyndsay, Creative Lead and Senior Designer.


Yup, we used the buzzword: sustainable. Talking about sustainability when you work in the world of commercial fashion is nerve-wracking. Cancel culture is real, and even with the best of intentions, it’s easy to say the wrong thing. But it’s an important conversation to have, and taking part doesn’t mean that we’re pretending to be perfect in our own journey. It does mean that we are engaged and listening though, and are working towards doing what we can to impact change.


It’s no secret that the fashion industry needs to do better in the intersectional fight against climate change and towards ethical employment. But let’s face it: this industry exists. It visually uplifts our daily lives and employs over 75 million people worldwide - including all of us in the studio!



So how do we move forward? We think educating ourselves and being part of the conversation is an important step, and the emerging generation of designers do too.


Our lovely intern and Print School student Bec Oakes says, “Sustainability is a value that runs through my personal life and my design work. It's about considering the impact of each of the materials you use, only buying and using what you need, and being responsible about disposal. As one individual designer, my impact is small so I work with brands that align with my values, who care about their environmental impact and operate sustainably.”


With all of this in mind, we’re exploring how brands and designers are using pattern within their products to consider sustainability (and hopefully inspire you to think about this too.)



1. Print Matching


We’re sure you’ve already seen this one all over Instagram but print-matching is more than just a trend. It’s a clever and sustainable way of reducing fabric and production waste with a fun aesthetic. KidSuper’s #twinning sets take it one step further and use offcuts for appliqué artworks.


This technique can be used across the board for many different gender-inclusive prints and product types. Want to wear matching prints with your partner, kids, and dog? This is the trend for you! Go bold and joyful like at Stine Goya or pair it back with a classic check.


WGSN says "#printmatching and #matchingsets are picking up pace across the streets and catwalks. After seasons of plain basics, consumers want to inject energy and vibrancy back into their wardrobe, perfect for head-to-toe print.”



2. Wear Your Values


Another print-based trend that incites curiosity around sustainable, ethical fashion is literally wearing your values on your sleeve. Renown for her honest values and use of sustainable fabrics, Stella McCartney mixes printed graphics with other of-the-moment trends like tie-dye to get her message across.


London-based brand Gung-Ho showcases their sustainable values by picking an issue that needs attention (such as climate change or plastic in our oceans) and designing prints around it with the aim of their garments being wearable conversation starters. Plus a portion of all of their sales goes to charitable causes to further offset their environmental impact.


3. Assess Printing Techniques


As explained by the Silk Bureau, digital printing is paving the way when it comes to sustainability by using fewer chemicals, energy, and water. Brands such as Paloma Wool use digital printing to save water and carbon emissions as well as shortening their production times, energy consumption, and costs. Sustainable techniques = win-win!


And even better, digitally printed fabric design means no boundaries when it comes to creativity! Techniques such as using the airbrush tool to colour up your hand-drawn elements look beautiful when digitally printed onto fabric but don’t translate so well with more traditional methods of printing. Learn how to digitally colour up your elements in our Photoshop for Fabric Design: Illustration course to breathe some life into your hand-drawn elements.


Alongside this, brands such as Lululemon and MAAD are exploring natural, lower-impact dyes and even those from food wastage to apply colour. "Lululemon uses oranges, beets and palmetto trees as a byproduct of the agricultural and herbal industries, while cycling brand MAAD sources leftover over ingredients from restaurants to add pattern to its range." - WGSN



4. Reversible Prints


Versatile, fun swim prints that scream ‘summer holidays’ and give customers more bang for their buck. Brands such as Sunday London, Solid & Striped, and LA Double J all offer on-trend reversible products. These help customers make a more considered choice, giving two looks for the same price point as buying one swimsuit.

TIP: Go for a bright bold print on one side and keep the other more paired back. A great option for swim is a watercolour ditsy floral paired with a harmoniously coloured stripe. Interested in learning more about designing watercolour prints? Our Photoshop for Fabric Design: Watercolour course will take you through all the steps from finished artwork to fabric design.



5. Choose Fabrics Wisely


When it comes to sustainable fabric choices, there are lots of pros and cons to the choices available. We all know that cotton has a bad rep with its water usage, and solely using virgin plastics to create garments is not the answer.

Transparency is becoming more and more key for brands when explaining fabric and manufacturing choices. Stine Goya’s garment care guide has a fantastic run-down of the properties of the fabrics they use and their environmental impact alongside some fab tips for prolonging the life of your garments. Did you know that Tencel (a sustainable fabric that feels like a silk-cotton mix) is fully biodegradable? Us neither!


In a step further, Reformation are working towards weaving regenerative fibres into their manufacturing chain in a bid to offset their carbon emissions and be climate positive by 2025, stating, “Regenerative fibers, like cotton and wool, are sourced from farms that use climate positive agricultural and land management practices that restore the soil instead of disturbing it. These farms act as giant carbon sinks, basically absorbing more carbon than they release.”



6. Embrace Craftcore


The Craftcore trend is still in full flow, with a return to crafting techniques and repairing or re-purposing existing garments. However, it goes beyond the visual aesthetic, with a make-do-and-mend attitude encouraging people to really love and look after whichever clothes they choose to buy.


Of course, you can totally do it yourself with a few handy skills, and Instagram is full of inspiration, (we love Tessa Perlow’s upcycled, embroidered pieces) but even better if the brand you buy from offers free repairs. Toast will renew, repair and alter garments free of charge and Patagonia have free localised repair hubs across the globe.


Learn more about designing to the Craftcore trend with this next post: "Designing vintage patchworks: dos and don'ts."