Award-winning garments from the rag pile

Award-winning garments from the rag pile

Before you throw out your tired bits of clothing, consider giving them new life through upcycling. Senior history curator Claire Regnault highlights a collection of garments acquired by Te Papa in 2015 that are made from material originally destined for landfill.

Recently I attended an illustrated talk by Beth Brown-Reinsel, an American practitioner and writer who specialises in traditional knitting. As she took us on a tour of knitting traditions from Guernsey to Scandinavia, I was taken with her story of Annemor Sundbø, a textile designer who in the early 1990s became the owner of the last remaining ‘shoddy’ factory in Norway – that is, a factory specialising in recycling woollen garments.

Amongst the 16 tons of discarded clothing she inherited with the factory, she discovered ‘a treasure trove of knitting patterns and cultural history’ which became the basis of her book, Everyday Knitting: Treasures from a ragpile.

Sundbø’s story struck me as the world’s growing pile of unwanted clothing has become a major environmental problem. Clothing is filling up landfills worldwide. According to Greenpeace (2016), of the over 80 billion pieces of clothing produced each year, three-quarters end up in a landfill or are incinerated. Only a quarter is recycled.

From landfill to award-winning

In 2015, Te Papa acquired a collection of upcycled garments made from merino jerseys that otherwise would have been destined for landfill. The garments are from the Fundamentals Range, and are the result of a collaboration known as Space Between, which is based at the College of Creative Arts at Massey University, Wellington.

The range has been fashioned from used New Zealand Post uniforms, which otherwise would have gone into a landfill.

Space Between’s pieced red legging is made out of up-cycled corporate uniform waste. The ‘previous life’ garments used were the NZ Post’s Kakabeak 3/4-sleeve scoop neck top ‘and the ‘Kakabeak long sleeve top’. The additional yellow knit fabric on the cuff is made with end of roll fabric made in New Zealand. Photograph courtesy of Space Between.

In May this year Jennifer Whitty, the creative director of the Space Between team, received a Golden A’ Design Award in the Sustainable Products, Projects and Green Design category for the ‘Fundamentals Range Reuse System’. This coveted international award ‘aims to highlight the excellent qualifications of best sustainable product designs and greatest sustainable product design concepts worldwide’ and to create a global awareness for good design.

A social enterprise

Space Between is a green business model for fashion design which acts as a platform for social innovation and enterprise. Initially developed by fashion lecturers Jennifer Whitty and Holly McQuillan, the collective aims to address sustainability issues such as resource depletion, consumption, and production by connecting university research with external partners.

The Fundamentals Range is the result of a collaboration between Space Between, uniform manufacturers Booker Spalding, NZ Post, and Earthlink Inc, a non-profit recycling organisation that also offers an employment programme for people facing barriers to work.

The range has been designed by Jennifer and Holly, both of whom have expertise in zero waste design, and is manufactured by Earthlink Inc.

In the AV below, each of the collaborators talk about their role.

Pieced, spliced, or cojoined

In order to deal with the embroidered corporate logos on the garments, and worn areas, such as under the arms, the designers developed three waste-reducing manufacturing techniques – piecing, splicing, and cojoining.

The leggings pictured at the top of this post have been pieced together from damaged garments and offcuts, while the dress below has been ‘spliced’ together from several jerseys. The ‘splicing’ technique fuses two or more garments together to create a hybrid garment.

Space Between’s spliced sweater dress is made out of up-cycled grey merino corporate uniform waste. The ‘previous life’ garments used were the NZ Post ‘dark sand v-neck jumper’ the ‘dark sand mid sleeve polo neck top’. The additional fabric on the front panel is made with end of stock jersey, which is made in New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Space Between

At Te Papa, we have been seeking to represent the different approaches that companies have chosen to tackle the problems inherent in the clothing industry. Space Between’s exploration of ‘upcycling’ garments is just one approach.

We have also collected examples of zero waste design, in which the pattern-making process ensures that no part of the fabric is left on the cutting room floor, and garments made from fabrics manufactured, dyed, and printed to Ecotech standards.

For more on Space Between and their mission, visit their website.

Other objects from the ‘ragpile’ in Te Papa’s collection

While Space Between’s design solution is a response to today’s environmental concerns, recycling and upcycling has a long history, much of which has been driven by economic rather than environmental concerns. Until relatively recently, textiles were an expensive commodity.

As such people aimed to get as much wear out of their clothes as possible. Once garments were no longer mendable, they were made into other things such as patch work quilts or rag rugs.

The slideshow below features a range of collection items made from recycled textiles from a 1780s-style silk dress that has been carefully pieced together from an unpicked dress from the 1730s – on close inspection, the original stitch lines can be detected – to a bag made by Vita Cochran.

A contemporary textile practitioner, Vita channels the thrifty mind-set of the 1930s and ’40s with joy and wit, finding all sorts of inventive uses for discarded buttons, zips, and gloves in her practice.

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If you want to see more examples of contemporary upcycling, and live in Wellington, pop along to Project Fashion’s catwalk show this Sunday at Te Papa from 2pm-3pm.

If you are interested in trying to create a more environmentally friendly wardrobe, I would recommend Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Our the World? (2011). While Siegle does not provide clear-cut solutions, she offers questions and guidelines to help set you on your own pathway to becoming a thoughtful fashion consumer.



  1. I am really interested in the upcycling of fabrics etc., to garments. I live in Tauranga and we have the Sustainable Art Show which you can Google to read all about.
    I understand it has been going for Four Years. I have only entered the Adult section for the passed two. Last year was great, quite a few entered in the adult section and there were a lot of Polytech. students. This year however, I arrived on the day to find I was the only adult in that section and there were no Polytech students. the show had three secondary school entries and the others were all Intermediate Students. Last year my entry “50shades of Coffee” made from different coloured coffee capsules sewn onto coffee sacks, flowing cape with two panels flick painting representing flat whit patterns; one panel a long black and fluffy ruffle round the neck like froth on coffee. etc etc. including a goat as that was how coffee was discovered. I would like to send you a photo as was quite special and won a prize.
    This year I had painted old curtain linings the colour of the rainbow and had a large filter curtain flick painted with leaves as a flowing cape(more old filter curtains) with dried hydrandeas round the edge. The model came out with cape folded over the dress and as she walked she turned to the audience and opened to reveal the bright coloured dress. Called “Promise of a Rainbow” . I was going to present it in reverse and call it “Fading Out”. When I found there were no other entries in our section and we were lumped among the Intermediate children I wish I had! Anyway there were some super costumes and an amazing lot of time and planning had gone into a lot of them.

    1. Author

      It’s great to see the number of these events popping up around the country.

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