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A necklace fashioned from nettle, one-sheep sweaters and yarns based on seaweed and potatoes: the Audax Textielmuseum Tilburg invited designers to experiment with sustainable textiles, in particular visualising the normally invisible processes behind textile design and production.

By Jeanne Tan / 30-09-2010

It’s no secret that the textile industry works with some of the most polluting and energy/water intensive practices that are incredibly damaging to the environment. Wanting to address some of the issues related to sustainability and the textile industry, the Audax Textielmuseum Tilburg initiated the part exhibition/part laboratory event reTHINK! Bridging design and industry, the exhibition unusually presents experimental projects from younger designers alongside developments from commercial industry.  

“As a museum (with the possibility to experiment and produce on a small scale) we are anticipating and reacting on issues discussed in society,” says Suzan Russeler, curator European textile design at Audax Textielmuseum Tilburg, who compiled the exhibition.  The exhibition takes a process-based approach, examining all stages from design to end product and the potential waste or pollution its production and disposal could generate. In this way, the exhibition is divided into four themes which reflect the process of textile design production: 1. basic materials and yarns, 2. design & production, 3. wet processes (dyeing and printing), 4. recycling/ upcycling.

For each of these themes, conceptual projects are exhibited alongside products that could potentially influence the processes of mass production. In this way, more experimental ideas could perhaps feed into commercial processes, and besides, “reTHINK! demonstrates the urge for collaboration between designers, textile companies, technicians and scientists,” adds Russeler.

Each addressing one theme, designers were commissioned to experiment with that particular aspect of the textile design process, which was facilitated by the on-site TextielLab textile laboratory. “An exhibition on textiles and sustainability implicates the challenge to make visible what in fact is invisible. A t-shirt of conventional cotton, organic cotton or seaweed yarns? There is little optical difference,” remarks Russeler. “Therefore we chose designers who are interested in the process of textile production, research, who know how to tell a story and make processes visible.”

First up for basic materials and yarns, Atelier NL - Nadine Sterk and Lonny van Rijswijk – investigated new raw materials to use for creating yarns. More a ‘think piece,’ the ‘Yarn Machine' of Atelier NL is an installation that visualises the production of biodegradeable yarns. During the process the designers were pleasantly surprised to discover exactly how many natural and plant-based could be made into yarns, including potato peelings, peanuts, milk, maize and seaweed among other things. Jewellery designer Willemijn de Greef delved into the world of nettles to create a stunning oversized necklace entitled Groen 01. “The museum introduced me to Brennels, a Dutch brand specialized in developing clothing from nettle. I could work with the yarns they used for the production of their clothing but I decided instead to reuse the nettle fibres they had left from their research. Since my big necklace would be shown next to the clothes of Brennels I wanted to show a contrast between their fine technical textile and my rough bold materials.” The nettle fibres were spun by hand into rough yarn with which, De Greef wove remnants of rope and yarn which were lying unused in the attic of the museum. Wanting to add a contrast with the textile, De Greef threaded the yarns through oversized recycled glass beads – some inspired by the stalks of nettle plants - which were made in the glass works studio of the National Glass Museum in Leerdam. And if the average visitor can’t own one of this incredible necklace, perhaps a series of limited edition brooches made using the same materials – which are available for sale during the exhibition -could be a good compromise.

Known for her holistic approach and emphasis on local materials, Christien Meindertsma explored two materials already familiar from her earlier projects: wool and flax. Addressing design and production, Meindertsma created before/after which uses the wool of one (Dutch) merino sheep to knit one sweater. Meindertsma documented the entire process whereby the wool is shorn from a single flock of sheep in Aarle-Rixtel – the only place where merino wool can be sourced in The Netherlands – spun into yarn and knitted automatically from the Knit and Wear machine in the TextielLab. “The machine literally 'spits' out a whole finished sweater of one sheep!” comments Meindertsma. The natural ‘colours’ of the sweaters reflect the actual colour of the wool which remains undyed. A second project follows the cycle of the production of flax – which was grown in Flevoland - via a video and a series of tea towels. Patterns on the tea towels illustrate aerial views of the land during the different stages of flax cultivation. Also for design and production, Jan Taminiau exhibited his intricately embroidered Evolution series which ‘evolved’ the variations of colour ranging from pinks to deep reds and intense browns that could be derived from dyeing fabrics with the roots of the madder plant.  

With Watercourse, Maarten Kolk & Guus Kusters explored the possibilities of dyeing and printing using minimal water and ink. Various uncoated natural fabrics – including bamboo, organic cotton and linen - are printed digitally to conserve dye, after which water is used to dilute the concentrated ink so that patterns are formed when the ink runs.  In this way, the use of water plays a role in the production and aesthetics of the textile. The damask tablecloth of architect and design Ina Meijer celebrates the various plants which are used for natural dyes. Drawings of the plants which provided the dye for the pattern are woven into the tablecloth, the names of the plants are embroidered. Colours include dark yellow to light olive green (Buckthorns), light yellow to light green/brown (Goldenrod) and rose to red/brown (Madder).  

For upcycling, Janine Karelse and D’Andrea&Evers used fabrics made from recycled KLM airline uniforms to create a collection of new products. Needing to find a sustainable manner to dispose of 90,000kg of old uniforms, KLM worked incollaboration with the Texperium Foundation, an innovation centre that focuses on industrial processing of textile waste. Comprising suitcase straps, aeroplane slippers, a laptop bag and hangbag/shopping bag, the products are made from shredded uniforms - of ground staff and cabin crew - which are broken down into fine fibres and reconstituted into a felt-like non-woven textile.

Other highlights include the solar-powered Recorder One machine by Austrian duo mischer’traxler which produces textile objects by pulling yarn through a dye emulsion and glue bath and then winding it around a mould of a chair or lamp for example. The thickness and colour of the objects depends on the amount of sunlight available.

Ten textile businesses from Brabant and Limburg are also participating in the exhibition presenting prototypes of new commercial products made from sustainable or renewable materials or innovations in mass production processes to reduce water and energy consumption or to minimize waste. Alongside the exhibition will be workshops about Eco-Dyeing & printing with eucalyptus and  the use of laser techniques. Additionally, the exhibition can be viewed during Textielweekend which is happening from 1-3 October (Friday 1 October only for invited guests).

Visitors will no doubt leave the exhibition with a changed view of the textiles around them. “Our visitors are diverse: design students, designers and the general public. I would be pleased if our public get inspired to reflect on the way they use, design or produce things.” Russeler concludes: “I hope our public realize that sustainability is about processes and communication between disciplines. Every step counts, it's more than a drop on a hot stone. In short, reTHINK!”

Exhibition participants: Atelier NL, Fioen van Balgooi/Amber Isabel, Melanie Bowles/Sarah Dennis, Rebecca Earley, Kate Goldsworthy, Willemijn de Greef, House of INTOXICA, Janine Karelse / D’Andrea&Evers, Maarten Kolk & Guus Kusters, Suzanne Lee, Christien Meindertsma, Ina Meijer, mischer’traxler, Gary Page, JANTAMINIAU, Clara Vuletich

Participating companies: Johan van den Acker, Mefil, Best Wool Carpets, Brennels, Carpet Sign, DESSO, DyeCoo Textile Systems, Ecological Textiles, Van Engelen & Evers, Innofa, Longbarn Company, MADE-BY, NPSP, Pastoe, Print Unlimited, J.A.Raymakers & Co., Rubia Natural Colours, Stichting Texperium, Van Wees and Van de Bilt (seeds and flax)

25 September 2010 to 30 January 2011
Audax Textielmuseum Tilburg

Main image and image 1: Christien Meindertsma, photography: Roel van Tour
Image 2: Atelier NL
Image 3&4: Willemijn de Greef
Images 5: Upcycling
Image 6: Dyeing and printing
Image 7: Maarten Kolk & Guus Kusters

Click on the images to enlarge

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