The future of embellishment–The Sustainable Sequin Company
by Purva Chawla
Sequin–ˈsiːkwɪn’: a small shiny disc sewn on to clothing for decoration*
Centuries ago these shiny discs were made from metal; Today, more often than not, they are made from plastic.
Several ailments accompany this smallest of embellishments. The first is an overwhelming wastage of material during the making process–on average 33% of sequin film is wasted during the conventional punching process. The second is the undesirable longevity and toxicity of its parent material– non-biodegradable plastic–which remains in our soils, rivers and oceans centuries beyond the end of life of sequins. Finally, there is an inherent flaw in how and where sequins are applied themselves, and how little they come into use.
These three ailments–rooted in the unsustainable design, manufacture, and use of sequins in the fashion and accessories industry–are at the heart of The Sustainable Sequin Company, an innovative business, and initiative founded by Rachel Clowes.
It's easy to miss the negative impact, and conversely the possibilities associated with these minute embellishments, but The Sustainable Sequin company exhibits how through new materiality, new ways of manufacture, and indeed new formats of applying and using sequins, there can be a significant collective impact.
The Sustainable Sequin Company has prototyped and implemented sequins made from bioplastic, is producing custom, more efficient shapes and cutting methods for its recycled PET plastic sequins, and is suggesting new formats of special event wear, where biodegradable sequins will play an active and value-adding role in the transformation and subsequent prolonged use of garments.
Given our continued interest in the Anthropocene and the role of designers as changemakers in it, at MaterialDriven we were eager to speak with Rachel and learn more about the materiality, design, and future of products and projects at The Sustainable Sequin Company.
MD: Rachel, what was your background before your current work? And what led you to sequins?
Rachel: My interest in sequins blossomed while studying for an MA in Fashion and the Environment (now MA Fashion Futures) at London College of Fashion. My MA work, Everyday was Special, grew from the belief that clothes (particularly sequined, special event clothes) should be active in the role for which they were designed: being worn. I proposed that keeping something for a long time, but not wearing it, is not sustainable behavior, it is simply storing waste in the wardrobe.
I found that special occasion wear has a short, fast active life; it is typically worn only 2-3 times before being abandoned at the back of the closet. These clothes represent wasted resources, energy, and labor, as well as the wasted potential to bring joy through wear. Also, special occasion clothing is often made from polluting and non-biodegradable materials that last much longer than the fleeting active life of the garment. Plastic sequins shimmer for a few hours on the dance floor, then languish at the back of the wardrobe for a few years, before lying intact in a landfill for a few centuries or more. Both the raw materials from which sequins are derived (including PVC additives), and the waste created by short-term use of long-lasting plastic, are an environmental problem.
Concerned by this waste within the wardrobe, I developed naturally colored organic bio-plastic sequins with lifespans appropriate to the average use of special occasion wear. These sequins were designed to dissolve after a few wears, releasing natural dye to color the fabric and reveal a new pattern.
I developed a prototype dress with three distinct lives, looking noticeably different in each. Phase one shows a party dress embellished with bio-plastic sequins, then half of the sequins are liquefied to reveal an alternate special occasion dress in phase two. By phase three all the sequins have been dissolved, and the dress has evolved into an everyday item of clothing that could regularly be worn. The stitches used to attach the sequins remain, providing a link to the garment’s previous life and helping to promote emotional attachment.
MD: Was that how The Sustainable Sequin Company began…
Rachel: Yes. Through this project, I imagined a new sustainable future where bright sequins melt to produce new colors, utilizing existing materials while retaining joyful memories. Garments that celebrate the ephemeral as they become enduring: everyday clothes that were once special clothes.
This led me to set up The Sustainable Sequin Company as an alternative to the current linear model of sequin production, which is polluting and unsustainable. I believe it is entirely unjustifiable to use virgin fossil resources, which take millennia to form, to make plastic sequins. The Sustainable Sequin Company offers recycled PET sequin shapes in a range of sizes, colors, and finishes. I also provide a design and cut service to allow designers to create bespoke sequins.
I am working on bringing biodegradable sequins to market later this year. I hope to use a circular system that borrows abundantly available, fast-growing, renewable materials to create bright, shiny sequins engineered to biodegrade at the end of life and release nutrients back into the biological cycle. I’m really excited about this commercial extension of my MA project!
MD: How do you draw attention in the fashion/garment industry to this smallest, yet highly unsustainable of elements?
Rachel: Happily, sequins like to draw attention to themselves–they are the extroverts of the embellishment world!
I think it’s a combination of education and showing alternative choices, so people see there is a problem and also that it is possible to do something about it. Beautiful design will always attract attention, and I think that aesthetics are a good way to interest people in sustainable design, rather than just scolding for unsustainable behavior.
Currently, there is a huge focus on the pollution and litter caused by single-use plastics, such as plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables. Once we start recognizing that often our clothes (particularly sequined party wear) can also be judged as single-use plastics, we can expect clothing brands to think about alternative and more appropriate materials. Designers need to look at how people actually use their clothes, and design accordingly. So, if clothes are only used once, surely they should be recycled and recyclable, or biodegradable.
MD: You’re currently working with recycled, recyclable, and biodegradable materials for your sequins. What is next, with regards to the materials, qualities, and formats you are aiming for?
Rachel: At the moment I’m working with a recycled PET. I’m cutting shapes to order (both stock designs and custom shapes) to avoid waste from overproduction. It’s small scale, but that means I can easily respond to customer needs - if they need a fixing hole moving a few millimeters (or more) I can do it! I think it’s a nice way of working as I can provide exactly what clients want, so there’s no compromise on design, which hopefully leads to better-designed clothes that are kept in use longer. By working with designers to create the bespoke embellishments they require, I believe we can increase the use of environmentally positive materials in fashion, decrease the use of harmful materials, and improve design integrity, creativity, and aesthetics.
The biodegradable sequins are at prototype phase, so the next step is to make them commercially viable. I’m looking at producing two ranges of biodegradable sequins - one that dissolves really quickly in hot water and another that can be washed like a conventional sequin but will biodegrade at the end of life.
In the future, I’d like to also provide recycled glass, recycled plastic and biodegradable polymer beads and other embellishments.
MD: In an “everything is possible” future, what would your sequins be made of?
Rachel: If anything were possible, I would love to use 100% natural, renewable, organically grown and abundantly available materials. Plants that enhance the soil as they grow would be ideal, creating a positive impact via production rather than depleting the environment. It would be amazing to use something that could be harvested from the wild without harm to the local ecosystem. The way in which Veja use wild rubber -–increasing the value of the Amazon and therefore the desire to preserve it –is inspiring. I’d also love to use natural dyes to color the sequins. Locally grown dye plants like madder, wild, weld, marigold, etc. would be fantastic.
MD: What projects and products are you currently working on?
Rachel: I’m only just starting out, so I’m working on lots of products at the moment! I’m working on developing zero waste designs as I’ve found that, on average, 33% of sequin film is wasted during the conventional punching process of round sequins (this is likely to be higher for some other shapes). Although my (already recycled) PET waste film can be recycled again, it makes more sense to try and reduce this high percentage of waste film. I’m experimenting to try and lower the amount of waste produced; using the shapes in between the sequins and in the margins, then looking for uses for any waste produced, with recycling as a last resort.
I’m also working on some 3D sequins and florals for a bridal wear project. The sequin market has traditionally been focussed on churning out cheap, mass-produced discs, so I think there is a real opportunity for more interesting shapes and designs that use folding or multiple layers to create three-dimensional ‘sculptures.’
MD: What are your thoughts on the Anthropocene? As a designer/maker/manufacturer, what is the role you feel you can play?
Rachel: Plastic–at the center of the challenges of the Anthropocene–is obviously really useful; it can be molded into any shape, in any color, and has thousands of uses. Single-use plastic suits our convenience focussed lives –ordering a takeaway that comes in a plastic tub accompanied by disposable plastic cutlery, buying a cheap polyester top for a night out (that’s only good for one wear), grabbing a take away coffee, etc. But it’s derived from non-renewable fossil resources that have taken millennia to form, and it doesn’t biodegrade. Plastic, and especially PVC, is harmful to human health and the environment at every point in its lifecycle. Plastic is choking waterways and poisoning wildlife. I think as a society we are finally waking up to the problems that plastic poses, but we don’t want to lose the convenience it provides us with. The challenge is to develop alternative materials, but also to work out what truly enhances our lives and design for that.
The introduction of new materials has influenced sequin production, performance, and availability throughout history, consequently impacting the fashion industry. For example, the introduction of gelatine sequins in the 1920’s meant these lightweight (but unstable) sequins could be used to decorate entire garments.
I believe that by offering alternative materials, such as recycled PET and bioplastic, and a design and cut service, not only can I reduce waste and reliance on virgin plastic waste, but I can also inspire more creative use of sequins. Sequins can be designed to be 3-dimensional and in any shape, simply relying on flat, round sequins shuts off thousands of other possibilities for exciting embellishments. I believe the future can be sustainable and sparkling!