When we look at the numbers on clothing and waste, it makes for pretty grim reading. Every week in the UK 11 million items of clothing go to landfill. According to WRAP, that’s £140m worth of clothing going to landfill every year, losing the UK economy £82m. Globally, The New York Times estimates that nearly 60% of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of production.
Many of the pieces that quickly become trash are initially sold for impossibly low prices, made possible by the exploitation of almost every person and portion of the supply chain (remember that £1 bikini from Missguided? Dis – and I cannot stress this enough – gusting). They’re also often made with petroleum-derived virgin materials. Of the 1.2 million tons of clothing fibre sold in the UK every year, about one half is cotton, one third is synthetic, and the rest is viscose (also synthetic) or animal products such as leather. Often natural fibres like cotton are blended with synthetics, making them extremely difficult to recycle as no commercial-scale facilities currently exist to separate and reprocess these blends. Strong dyes are also hard to remove, making recolouring recycled threads difficult too. All in all, less than 1% of these fabrics will be recycled into new clothing, while 12% will be recycled into other products such as insulation or mattress stuffing, representing a loss of more than $100 billion worth of materials each year.
On top of this, greenhouse gas emissions from global textiles production in 2015 totalled 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2, more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
So, yeah, it’s not great.
There are, however, at least three clear solutions to this issue (and likely to be many more). The first is to do with the general public, and that is to buy less. Of all of it. Consume less, reduce demand, reduce production. The other two concern production itself. These are, if you are able to, to support ethical and sustainable brands who utilise natural fibres and upcycling.
Natural fibres, unlike their synthetic counterpoints, don’t shed plastic microfibres into waterways or increase demand for fossil fuels. When farmed regeneratively/organically, and coloured with non toxic dyes, they won’t exacerbate existing problems and will be able to organically break down at the end of their life. When created slowly and ethically, they should also be high enough quality to last a very long time, keeping them out of landfill or an incinerator for decades to come.
On the other hand upcycling, unlike textile recycling which has clear limits as it requires fabrics to be reprocessed, works with garments and materials as they already exist. Whether it be by-products from the production of something else, useless or unwanted items, or waste materials, upcycling takes these items and uses them as foundations to create new materials or products.
Upcycling also provides a wonderful amount of diversity. It can look like the friends who took my dining room table, cut the top into a new shape that would fit in their home, and found use for the excess wood. Or it can look like brands such as Mahla Clothing, whose DNA is inherently built upon the artistic approach and experimental process of upcycling as core to its creativity.
beyond wanting to buy stuff that doesn’t make a person feel guilty, more consumers are showing a desire for alternative, creative fashion that is made in limited numbers. The rise of these upcycled garments not only contribute to sustainable shopping as a whole, but also serve as art pieces, cultural commentary and a sense of connection.
Who are Mahla Clothing?
Founded in 2016 by Tytti Sofia Hongisto, Mahla Clothing is a conscious, slow and sustainable brand based in Copenhagen. With over a decade of experience working with clothing as both a tailor and pattern maker, Hongisto specialises in a mix of relaxed street style and an urban, Nordic approach. Mahla’s pieces are also designed to be free from the exploitation of people, animals or the planet, instead created sustainably, ethically and innovatively. Beyond initial aesthetics, they specifically focus on timelessness, high quality and multi-functional design, and production based on demand.
Mahla’s ethical and ecological values form the foundation for each facet of the creative process including design, material sourcing, and every aspect of production. Including, but not limited to, a strong upcycling ethos.
No wasted materials
Each Mahla product is made from a variety of carefully considered sustainable materials, including organic and natural fabrics, and upcycled materials. During design, Mahla considers the entire life cycle of each item when choosing materials, trims and how to combine them, often letting the process be led by the materials available. The natural materials they work with include GOTS-certified organic cotton, hemp, organic linen, and Lenzing AG Tencel™.
Their upcycled pieces, however, utilise both pre- and post-consumer waste.
Pre-consumer waste is also known as post-industrial waste. It’s the material left over from garment production, for examples leftovers from cutting patterns or deadstock fabrics. Deadstock textiles are materials that have been deemed as no longer useful for other factories and companies, usually because the colour or textile is no longer in season, is slightly damaged but isn’t worth cutting around in large scale garment manufacturing, has been dyed incorrectly, or is overstocked. Using deadstock fabrics provides a large variety of available fabric options, all of which Mahla handpicks from several sources across Northern Europe. They are usually made for limited edition, small series, or unique pieces.
Post-consumer waste is comprised of material or clothing which has been purchased, usually worn, and then discarded by a consumer. These materials are washed, cut apart, and cut into a new shape to be sewn into new products. Clothes and accessories made from post-consumer waste materials are often unique, one-of-a-kind pieces.
Mahla Clothing produces limited runs and bespoke garments based on demand. All of their products are manufactured in Northern Europe, either in the Mahla studio in or a small sewing atelier that they now work with.
In Copenhagen, designs start taking form, and ideas become reality. Design development, pattern design, and manufacture of samples, limited editions, small amounts and unique pieces all take place, alongside bespoke and made-to-measure services.
Mahla also began collaboration with a small garment manufacturer located in Tallinn in late 2017. The atelier, Rosiine OÜ has 15 employees and 25 years of experience. They manage the cutting and sewing of medium size orders.
The power of upcycling
In nature nothing is destroyed; just transformed into something new. This is my main inspiration when designing pieces with recycled and upcycled materials. Many of my designs are strongly influenced by the materials available… you never know what kind of treasures there is to find.
Making unique and limited edition pieces from textile waste has been an important part of Mahla Clothing from the very beginning. Moving away from the traditional setup of cheap mass manufacturing leaves room for exploration and creativity, including expressive shapes and silhouettes and unconventional prints and colours. My favourite example of this in recent times is Mahla’s upcycled red velvet bumbag. And it’s my favourite by a long shot.
I’ve liked the idea of a bumbag for a long time. As someone who has travelled a lot for work and is also anxious by nature, I was drawn to the security of having my essentials so close, where I can both continually check on them and know they’re safe and protected. Despite this, I’d never actually invested in one before now, when I started working with Mahla Clothing. I met Tytti in January when she was displaying at NEONYT, where she showed me these bags for the first time. Aside from being well made, eye catching and part of a small production run, one thing really stood out to me. They were made from old theatre curtains!
As a performer and a lover of colour, I was sold. In July this bag entered my life and I haven’t looked back since. It has been with me through Port Eliot festival, proving to be invaluable for carrying round essentials and not having to return to your tent, as well as a house move and train rides through three separate countries and countless cities. In it I have managed to fit my passport, phone, purse, sunglasses, keys, portable phone charger, snacks, cosmetics, bug spray, anxiety drops and more. Sometimes I have even squeezed in a swimming costume or a weather dependent alternative clothing layer, usually a long sleeved top or vest top rolled really right and squeezed in. It has proven itself to be invaluable, and truly well-loved in my household.
And honestly, it’s madness to think that this perfectly good quality, durable velvet would’ve gone to waste, just because someone decided it was time for new curtains. We’re in a time as a society where we need to redesign our approach to absolutely everything we’re used to, in order to build a world that maintains life and cares for all who inhabit it. What we deem to be waste is an invaluable part of that. Mahla Clothing are just one brand, but I’m glad to see creators like Tytti paving the way for an alternative option to the constant processing and discarding of textiles without a thought. Upcycling, repair and reuse are on the rise, and with it, rethinking and reframing the way we engage with and create fashion.
I, for one, am ready for the slow circular world of fashion that is still yet to come. And I’m excited to see brands like Mahla taking such a proactive approach to rethinking waste. I hope it inspires other creators to do the same.