Upcycling and silk spinning in Vietnam gain traction

Upcycling has been a buzzword in the fashion industry for several months now. Also known as creative reuse, this trend is greener and more ethical than second-hand clothing. Here is what you should know about a technique that may soon be making its impact on your wardrobe. Just like history, fashion eternally repeats itself, but designers and top brands are continually on the lookout for sustainable solutions to reduce their collections’ impact on the planet.

Many ready-to-wear labels and store chains are developing this solution. Upcycling offers added value to garment waste and unused items and transforms them into high-quality pieces.

This technique goes beyond traditional recycling because it entails a virtuous circle that allows the fashion industry to generate less waste, to produce less and therefore to limit its impact on the environment.

From Marine Serre to Banana Moon

Several brands have already adopted upcycling; however, it generally applies to one part of their collections. In September 2019, Marine Serre’s “Marée Noire” (Oil Slick) collection comprised several upcycled pieces. To create the pieces, the French designer used leftover stocks of fabric and gave them a high-end second life.

Banana Moon also chose to transform its fabric offcuts into a swimwear collection for its Summer 2020 collection, while Gant recently presented a capsule collection of shirts upcycled from fabric leftovers from previous collections. Upcycling also encompasses the use of vintage garments, which are either taken apart and re-stitched together in new ways — such as LA brand Re/Done does with jeans — or that are taken as whole pieces and reworked into more contemporary designs featuring customisation, along the lines of ASOS Reclaimed Vintage or reworked by the wearers themselves.

Upcycling is not only the buzzword to know in the realm of fashion right now, it also represents the future of the industry

Phan spinning silk threads derived from lotus stems at her workshop in Hanoi 

Lotus silk is weaving its way into Vietnam

Vietnamese weaver Phan Thi Thuan hitches up her trousers as she wades into a lotus paddy to gather the stems needed to make a rare and highly sought-after thread. Her great-aunt made and sold traditional silk to the French during colonial rule, passing the technique to Thuan, who started weaving when she was six in her village on the outskirts of Hanoi.

But three years ago, Thuan spotted a new opportunity in the lotus stems left to rot in nearby fields after the seeds had been harvested for food. She began extracting the fibre found in the stems to make “lotus silk”, an exclusive fabric highly sought by fashion designers. “I was the first in Vietnam,” the 65-year-old told AFP proudly. “I started all by myself, then I trained those already in my workshop,” she added.

Farmers often toil for hours to clear lotus paddies of rotting stems, which ruin the soil and bring unwanted insects.

But thanks to her vision, Thuan today leads a team of about 20 mostly female workers who snap off the stems in the paddies, before they tease out the fragile fibres and roll them into thread.

Dressed head-to-toe in brown silk and wearing a pearl necklace — the same outfit she dons as she picks through the lotus paddies — Thuan describes her work. It is a painstaking process — a large scarf requires the thread of around 9,200 stems and would take one worker around two months to complete — but Thuan insists it is worth it.

“I see this as my task now, to generate jobs, and to do my bit for the environment,” she said, adding that during busy periods, she employs hundreds to weave from home.

The profits are another reason to persevere. While a regular silk scarf might go for US$20 ($27.36), even a smaller lotus version — popular with pre-coronavirus tourists — fetches more than 10 times that.

Although lotus silk is made in a handful of countries — including Myanmar and Cambodia — Thuan is seen as an innovator in Vietnam. She has been supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology, which kickstarted a three-year national-level project to further develop the harvesting technique.

Thuan also runs training sessions during the school holidays, hoping to show children there is space for dynamism even in this ancient profession. Nguyen Thi Xoa, 40, was taught by Thuan in 2017 and she now wants her children to follow in her thread. “At the beginning it was very difficult, but now I love doing it,” she said. “It’s a stable job and I’m proud of it.”