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Collaboration brings new life to old wetsuits

Projects | July 1, 2009 | By:

Rip Curl and textile students collaborate—fashionably.

Have you ever wondered what happens to old wetsuits? Rip Curl, the iconic Australian sportswear company, has, and so have students at the University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) Department of Fashion and Textiles. The two got together earlier this year to work on Fashion Technology: The Rip Curl Project, a six-week program that looked at ways to reuse old neoprene and off-cuts to produce a new material. The end result was sixty jackets, about 200 fabric samplers, and a meaningful lesson in sustainability for the participants.

Grounded in Project Resurrection

Concerned about the planet and wanting to make young people, in particular, aware of the impact humans are having on nature, Rip Curl had previously joined forces with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to form the Rip Curl Planet Foundation in 2006. That year the company also began to research the recycling of neoprene to find a use for old wetsuits and production off-cuts, which produce an estimated 150 tons of waste a year.

A year later Rip Curl launched Project Resurrection, collecting unwanted wetsuits and gathering off-cuts in their own factories. Any wetsuits that they deemed still usable were given to young surfers in Morocco through Rip Curl Moroc, and the remainder were shredded and used as beanbag filler. The outer layers of the beanbags were made from old Rip Curl event banners. Each design was unique, effectively creating a series of one-off beanbags that have quickly become collectors’ items.

Footwear has become a second area of development for Project Resurrection, in large part because of its potential to use huge quantities of recycled neoprene. A new material has been developed that combines shredded neoprene (about 30 percent) and another rubber. Resurrection rubber is produced in France and used to manufacture espadrilles, traditional footwear widely used in France and Spain, where they are as ubiquitous to the region as flip-flops are to Australia. Espadrilles are normally made with a canvas upper, with coiled and stitched jute rope for the soles. They work well in the sun but become sodden and literally disintegrate in the rain. The resurrection rubber used in the soles offers an environmentally friendly alternative that adds considerably to the lifespan of the espadrille.

A new project forms

The Rip Curl Project started in a conversation with Michael Ray, global chairman of wetsuits at Rip Curl, about how the recycled neoprene might be used to create a new material of the same, or greater, value than the original. The goal was to put together a program to introduce students to advanced textiles from a sustainability point of view. Ray agreed to work with students at the UTS Fashion and Textile Department, and a short time later I was on a small plane with Alison Gwilt, head of the Fashion and Textile Department at UTS, en route to their office in Torquay on the south coast of Australia. We returned the same day, inspired by the company’s commitment to sustainability, and carrying a large bag of neoprene off-cuts, with the promise of further deliveries for the project. Ultimately, 60 third-year students took part in the project that ran over a six-week period from February to April 2009.

How it worked

Used to working with rolls or sheets of fabric, the students were presented with off-cuts in varying sizes, shapes, colors and densities, and old wetsuits, complete with plastic and rubberized logos, pre-printed and waxed areas, stitching, bonding, zippers, and wear and tear. Their first challenge was to take these materials and make textile samplers, and then create new materials that they would use to make jackets. As an added incentive, 17 of the jackets would be exhibited as part of the Fashion Craft, Fashion Technology Exhibition, which coincided with the Sydney Rosemount Fashion Week in April 2009.

The textile samplers were intended to be conceptual pieces, pushing the boundaries of what might be possible using the recycled neoprene. Processes of knit, weave, print, beading and stitch were used alongside heat treatments, stapling, bonding and layering. Where conventional processes were used, it was in an unorthodox way: woven fabrics included chicken wire, while embroidery was likely to see textile or trim items incorporated from the Sydney-based recycling company, Reverse Garbage, along with intriguing widgets found on the floor of a garage or pantry cupboard. Thermo-pleating and shibori dying techniques were applied to neoprenes of varying thickness and densities to dramatically different results.

While they were working on samplers, students were also working up designs and making patterns for jackets, designed around the theme of the exoskeleton. Highly sculptural forms found inspiration in crustaceans and insects, or armor and scaffolding. Gossamer light jackets were derived from more ephemeral forms in nature or science fiction. How to join smaller pieces of fabric became an integral part of the design process, and the students resorted to new levels of ingenuity as they incorporated fastening systems from the wetsuits themselves, stitching, bonding and, in one case, actual nuts and bolts.

A fitting commemoration

The success of the garments relied on the students employing a very high level of precision and rigor in their drape and pattern cutting. Whether highly sculpted or with a softer drape, the form, cut, detail and finish were immaculate. With the challenges of unique materials and forms, textile rules were pushed and broken, and new ones made.

It is not surprising that Rip Curl’s 40 years in business is marked by innovations that benefit the environment and support the creative efforts of students. When two surfers, Brian “Sing Ding” Singer and Doug “Claw” Warbick, started the company in 1969, they shared a passion and respect for surfing and nature that remains a core company value today. It seems wholly appropriate that they should choose to celebrate a company milestone by giving something back to the planet that has so inspired them, and encourage young people to do the same.

Marie O’Mahony is professor of Advanced Textiles for Fashion Design at UTS. A textile and technology consultant and exhibition curator, she is also the author of numerous books on the subject, including TechnoTextiles 2. Exhibitions include design-led shows for IFAI in San Antonio and, most recently, in Charlotte. She is currently working on a new book, Advanced Textiles: Design for Wellness and Health, to be published in 2010.

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