About UG, The Extended Edition
I try not to knock you over the head with it, I promise. I try to keep the "no textile waste" message balanced with the products themselves, to present the whole Unmarked Gear deal as a relatively normal, yet passionate and groundbreaking, brand that you can buy cool shit from.
That's going out the window with this essay as I delve deeper into the details of my vision for the future of design in the sewn goods industry, my passion for solving the climate change crisis, and why I choose to combine all those things into a business.
Look at this sling bag by Proper Fit Clothing. This is their Cycling Fanny Pack. Pretty slick, huh? These guys make all sorts of cool gear and apparel patterns for super cheap that you can download, print, cut out, and sew for yourselves. These guys provide a pretty unique service to those of us who don't sew professionally and/or are tired of picking up run-of-the-mill patterns at Jo-Ann's.
As far as function goes, it's got everything you need -- a wide enough shoulder strap to maintain comfortable distribution of weight, a main zipper pocket and an auxiliary pocket to organize your belongings, an ergonomic shape that supports the weight of the bag's contents, and a simple, aesthetically pleasing exterior that attracts the consumer.
Now let's talk about its design. I know what you're thinking. Didn't I just go over its design? No, I talked about its function. So what do I mean by design? Design, at its core, is a plan aimed at solving a designated problem. It is artistic thought that leads to proactive engineering. So while this product's function has been identified (to provide cyclists and other on-the-go folks a convenient way to carry their stuff), what is its design? In other words, what problem is this product solving?
You might say that it fills a small, yet expanding, niche in the current carry goods market. You might say that there aren't enough DIY bag patterns out there that don't look like they came from the same era as mutton-chop sleeves. Or, you might even say that it simply looks more personally appealing than any other sling/fanny pack alternative currently on the market.
...And you could be right. All the reasons given above could easily be true, meaning that this Cycling Fanny Pack was designed to fill in the fanny pack market niche, to give home sewers more interesting projects to work on, or to give the discerning consumer another option to consider.
But let's be honest with ourselves -- these aren't really problems, are they? The lack of resolution of these issues don't endanger anyone, don't reduce anyone's standard of living to a significantly low level, don't literally bore anyone to death. These are, at most, minor inconveniences. Don't get me wrong. I love Proper Fit's entire business model, as it encourages DIY and introduces technical bag-making into a world otherwise clogged up by shirts and skirts. Despite my own personal feelings on the matter, however, the conclusion follows that if the Cycling Fanny Pack was not designed around a true problem, then there was no design behind its creation at all. It is glorified arts and crafts.
Okay then so what is a problem? A real one. One that endangers people. One that reduces people's standard of living to significantly low levels. One that if it were talked about as much as it is crucial it might actually bore someone to death? You guessed it. Climate change.
This is a graphic rendering I whipped up depicting, to scale, Proper Fit's Cycling Fanny Pack pattern. For someone used to looking at pattern pieces, you can tell that this is about as well arranged as these pieces are going to get on 45" wide yardage. The rest of you are just going to have to take my word on it. Of course, if you were to actually cut these shapes out, you would butt these pieces up against each other instead of leaving a small gap between them as portrayed above. However, for the sake of visualizing this thought experiment we'll ignore that fact.
Notice how much fabric is left over after you've cut out all the white shapes. These, unfortunately, usually get thrown out; and for good reason. What could you possibly do with those amorphous left-over shapes? There's nothing useful you could create with them. Even if those scraps were somehow large enough to fit other products' pattern pieces within them, wasted fabric is inevitable with the way patterning is currently designed.
You might be thinking -- what's so wrong with a little wasted fabric? Is it it not a necessary evil committed on the road to creating useful product? After all, you did use most of it. To answer that question, I invite you to think bigger. This is just one bag that a home sewer would make in an afternoon. Now think of all the bags you own, all the bags you've seen other people carry, all the bags you've seen for sale in retail locations. They were likely made by manufacturing facilities contracted by design firms, which means they aren't making to order as a home sewer might, but as part of a larger run. These facilities are also likely concurrently contracted by several other designers, which means they're producing hundreds, possibly thousands, of bags to fulfill orders at any one time. Too soon that little necessary evil becomes quite a fearsome one.
Now zoom out even further than that. This type of fabric waste isn't limited to just the carry goods industry. Apparel, upholstery, outdoor gear, medical equipment, literally anything that is sewn produces some amount of fabric waste with the way things are currently designed. The compounded toll on the Earth is deadly.
The only immediate solution to this is to not produce the scraps in the first place. Simple, no? Despite this, this is not implemented in any significant way by the sewn goods industry. (If you know of a company that does do this, please throw a link my way.) Instead, it has opted to rely on donating a percentage to green non-profits, to release biodegradable products "just in time for Earth Day," to plant a tree for every "x" amount of product sold to achieve "carbon neutrality," or to slap a B-Corp decal on their front windows and call it a day.
The ugly truth is that these measures simply aren't enough. In fact they do relatively little to help solve the climate change crisis. While instilling the notion of conservation into as many consumers as possible is certainly important, none of what the industry does today actually stops any of the damage from being done. It only takes measures to attempt to make up for it. But what good does that actually do? The damage has already been done. That's like saying sorry after you spill your friend's milk. Even if you sop up the milk, wipe off the counter top, use some disinfectant for good measure, and offer to pay for another carton, you will never un-spill that milk. And after enough times spilling milk, saying sorry for it, and continually buying more, your friend will insist that you change your behavior so you're no longer causing loss and damage, and you will adamantly refuse because it just isn't worth the effort, or, more significantly, isn't cost-efficient enough. Maybe there is something to cry about after all.
Regrettably, cost-efficiency is a fair and legitimate reason why businesses don't manage their textiles to minimize waste. As of right now, creating flashy product is more lucrative than making environmentally-friendly ones. To re-pattern all current product, overhaul marketing, and redo other operations simply doesn't make any financial sense. The whole point of business, after all, is to make money in a more cost-efficient way. This is the challenge I, through Unmarked Gear, have decided to take on -- to make it not only cheap but lucrative to change the way we think about and use our textiles, to set designing for sustainability as the standard across the industry, and to achieve an ideal strategy to transform an otherwise niche interest in the environment into the pinnacle of sexy design.
This is a simplified, to-scale rendering of the pattern pieces involved in making Unmarked Gear's X-Pac Saddlebag. Ignore the black lines, as they are, in this case, not indicative of wasted fabric, but only used to set an otherwise white image off of a white background.
You will notice a difference from Proper Fit's pattern immediately -- no unused fabric. Not only this, but these measurements are almost laughably easy to adjust according to which fabric you order in. This is significant because different textiles are milled in different widths. For example, Cordura typically comes in at 60" wide, while X-Pac comes in at 54" wide. On top of this, neither Cordura nor X-Pac always ends up delivered on a silver platter at their listed 60" or 54" widths, respectively. You can imagine how tricky this can normally be while lining up pattern pieces side-by-side for the same product and trying to conserve fabric.
Despite these logistical headaches, all the measurements of every single Unmarked Gear product is designed to fit the total actual width and length of the fabric I receive from my suppliers, which means that my bag patterns are not so much measurements, but formulae designed to accommodate the fabric that I end up actually receiving. This has proven extremely convenient in terms of fabric conservation -- just measure the actual width and length of the fabric I get, plug that into the formula, and, poof, I have my pattern with practically unnoticeable changes to volume, function, or look of the final product.
Much like the dam or the tourniquet, designing in such a way -- that is, around minimizing textile waste -- helps stem an otherwise unchecked flow. Regrettably, it is inevitable that all the fabric that makes up the products of our daily lives eventually works its way to a trash bin. These products, after many years of use, re-use, repair, and sitting around in closets as their owners stubbornly refuse to admit to their hoarding habits, eventually are thrown out after said owners are introduced to the concept of "sparking joy." So logically, the best solution to eliminating textile waste would be to convince it to stop operations altogether, to shut itself down for the benefit of all Earth-kind. However, this is, at best, unrealistic. To be a serious contender as a solution, it must run alongside the path of human progress, not against it. Again like the dam or the tourniquet, the point isn't to choke off flow altogether -- a dam releasing a reduced flow of water allows for life-sustaining conditions in the valley below, much as reduced bleeding from a wound bound by a tourniquet helps clean the area and keep infection at bay while also preventing the victim from bleeding out.
In other words, by controlling the flow of fabric into our landfills and waterways already groaning under the weight of existing waste, by being discerning consumers and buying products for the long-term, by choosing to pay to repair and not to replace, by incorporating smart eco-design into our products at the very beginning, we can not only dramatically reduce our footprint, but also cultivate results to our great benefit. Without waiting on researchers or engineers at the back end, we, as designers, producers, and consumers, can resolve not to produce textile waste at the front end. Indeed, to eradicate the deliberate production of waste is the only immediate solution we currently have in the sewn goods industry. I'll type that out again so that it has the intended impact.
To design our products based on the life cycle of the textiles themselves is the only immediate solution the sewn goods industry has to the climate crisis.
Designing to minimize textile waste is something we can do today, right now. We don't have to wait on bureaucracy to create the perfect textile recycling program. We don't have to wait on engineers to create the perfect infinitely recyclable textile. We don't have to wait to give ourselves permission to take initiative on being the change we want to see. In other words, if I can somehow achieve this as a side hustle to my full-time retail day job with my minimal resources, it's hard to make excuses for bigger, more established businesses.
It is for the exact purpose of walking the walk that I decided to breathe life into the Unmarked Gear message as a business. In doing so, I can voice my message to other businesses as one of their peers, and prove to the rest of the industry that designing around optimizing fabric consumption is an opportunity that has been staring us in the face for too long with big benefits and virtually no barriers. My passion for saving the planet can thus also be conveniently quantified in hard figures, a language quite helpful for translating my message to other business-minded people.
But let's not get too ahead of ourselves. As of right now, Unmarked Gear is still too small time to be taken seriously. So rather than prattle on about all my future goals and green initiatives, I pose a question to those who emphatically nod and say that yes they, too, want to save this planet: how badly? How badly do you want to save this planet? Do you want it more than you want to keep your business's status quo? Are you a hobbyist or a designer?
Interesting further reading: