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Designing for Sustainability

Fashion and apparel is undoubtedly a wasteful and unsustainable industry. To most people, the industry is better known for it's glamorous runway shows than the ugly stream of pollutant color dyes and massive amounts of waste that follow the production of garments. But, there are many ways we can improve production sustainability, from using 3D tools and AI to reduce waste, to using recycled fabrics and trims which require less water in production. In this post I'll explain how the industry can design for sustainability from my perspective as a technical designer and pattern maker.


Sourcing sustainable materials has become a popular approach for many fashion companies, but if the overall efficiency in usage of these materials is poor, then the true waste isn't being considered in it's entirety. I'll take a closer look at this.

Marker Efficiency, explained.


You have a design, in this case a garment design, and then you have the pattern, drafted by the patternmaker for this design. This pattern is what the factory or sample maker will use as the guide when cutting from the fabric that's been chosen for the design. One analogy to illustrate this would be when you're cutting out cookies from the dough you've rolled out, and you want to place those cookie cutters as closely "nested" together as possible, for maximum cookie yield, right? This is true when cutting from your fabric as well, you'll want to nest the pattern pieces as closely as possible together to use as little yardage as possible. If you were to lay out the pattern pieces randomly with big spaces between, you would be using up more of your roll of fabric which means more waste (think: all those spaces of dough between your cutters too small for cutting, only with dough you can roll all the small bits up and roll out again to cut more cookies, with fabric you can't. Yet.) but also a more expensive garment, a cost which will have to be passed on to the customer. We refer to this pattern layout on the fabric as the "mini marker" and the less open gaps of unused fabric and tightly "nested" the pattern is, the more "marker efficient" it is.


The Design


Below are two versions of the popular twist-front top that I created in a 3D software program. Many designers will know how to draw this design as a sketch, but few might know how to construct it properly, and optimize the patterns for marker efficiency. While the red version has fewer pattern pieces, the shape and size of the patterns limits your layout options. The green version has more pattern pieces, but they are smaller, the angles are straighter and allow for a tighter nest on the marker. Visually they are indistinguishable, but the difference in cost and footprint is significant!



If we take a look at the marker layout of each, laid on a common yardage width (139.7cm) we'll find that the green one nests tighter (more marker efficient) than the red one (less marker efficient).

The green top is 69% marker efficient, which actually isn't a very good efficiency percentage, given that there's 31% waste, but for the sake of this exercise, it's a good way of illustrating how the marker changes based on where your cut lines are. It's common in the sportswear industry to target at least 70% efficiency, and the closer to 80%, the better.


The red shirt's marker layout yields a 65% marker efficiency since the shape and lack of style lines limits your layout possibilities.

There are even more ways to draft the pattern for this design and optimize it for better marker efficiency, and should be a critical step in moving towards more sustainable practices and considering all the waste created and how to minimize it.


Another very important part of this equation which I'd be remiss if I didn't mention, is considering the actual fabric choices for the design. I'm not talking about recycled versus non-recycled, but whether the fabric has a placed print, and all-over print, or an engineered placed knit structure. Any of these factors will greatly limit the available possibilities for marker layout because the fabric then dictates how the pattern pieces can be laid out. If the print is a 1-way print, then your patterns can only be oriented in one direction on your fabric to avoid having your final garment having a mismatched print. The examples I showed above were 2-way markers, meaning the pattern pieces could be place up or down perpendicularly to the selvage of he fabric. The same goes for placed prints (f:e a print where the flowers should line the hem of the shirt, and the blue sky needs to be positioned at the shoulder yoke of the shirt), or placed knit structures, which will even further limit your options and thereby increase your wastage (and cost).

In high volume production, it's also very common that the method for applying a print to the fabric, such as sublimation printing for example, requires a roller to be rolled on to the fabric to transfer the print. These rollers come in fixed widths that don't always match the width of your base fabric, in fact they are always some percent narrower than the fabric width, so this effectively limits your cuttable width area, creating waste even before you've laid out your pattern pieces. Considering your print method is a whole separate topic we'll have to save for another day, but equally as important!

In the below version of the same twist-front top, but with a 1-way directional print, you'll see how the marker efficiency drops significantly.

The marker efficiency drops to just 59%!


Considering the pattern of the garment, the ways it can be laid out on the fabric and the many ways to optimize this for marker efficiency, should be one of the critical steps in the design process in order to move towards a more thoughtful and sustainable fashion industry.



I have tried to describe and illustrate this concept as clearly as possible, because I am very passionate about this subject and I want to encourage others to design for sustainability. If there is anything that's unclear, or you disagree with, I encourage you to reach out, and I would be happy to discuss!

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