“To produce anything new, you’re using so many resources–using recycled materials is the most sustainable option.”
-Lily Forbes Shafroth of LILY FORBES Co.
The pursuit of the world’s most eco-friendly material feels like an eternal journey. Over the years bamboo, organic cotton,and recycled polyester have all informally claimed to be the world’s most eco-friendly material. However, the collective consciousness has learned that while these materials are better than many alternatives, they aren’t zero impact.
Enter upcycled saris.
As you may know, the sari is a common garment worn in India, comprised of a really long piece of fabric that is folded elegantly to cover the legs and most of the torso.
For years I would see products made out of recycled saris and shake my head. Why were these items being cut up and made into jewelry, housewares, and other garments when surely there was need in India among those who couldn’t afford new clothes?
It was only when we started collaborating with our beloved friend and designer Lily Forbes Shafroth of LILY FORBES Co that we learned more about why using upcycled saris is truly a sustainable solution. We caught up with Lily about her affection for using these wonderful traditional garments as the basis for her production, and this is what she had to share on the subject.
W+S: WHY UPCYCLED SARIS?
Lily Forbes Shafroth: There are a ton of products made from recycled saris and I just believe they are the most beautiful pieces of silk. My aunt traveled to India in the 70s and has gone back a few times since; upon arriving back home she gifted me with a skirt that was made out of recycled saris.
I’ve always been interested in recycled textiles, thinking about sustainability and the way to be the most environmentally responsible and socially responsible in production. I would say the fact that recycled sari blankets and pillowcases have become very popular in the last 10 years was definitely something that was intriguing to me. Being able to work with something that is as pristine as silk that is recycled and also very affordable is an amazing thing for me, starting out small and self-funded.
W+S: WHERE DO THE SARIS COME FROM?
Lily Forbes Shafroth: I met Mini, my recycled sari seller, through connections from the ladies at the shelter. Mini is this tiny woman that is such a powerhouse. During my travels to India, I was able to spend a full 8 hours with Mini going through all of the saris. I was in her home and the whole first floor is covered in saris–hundreds and hundreds of bundles of saris everywhere!
The recycled sari industry* is truly a whole fascinating industry in itself. I think most of them are from the South, so Mini will buy bundles and bundles from her guy that sources them from lower-income populations during Diwali. Selling these saris to people like me is Mini’s main source of income, which allows her to be the main breadwinner for her family; in India this is a rare position for a woman to hold. It was very sweet – she wanted to try the saris on and made me this big lunch that we shared. It is really important to me to have relationships with the people I work with.
“The line of goods and where something comes from is always fascinating. That’s something that I love about what I do, that there is a lot of story involved with the textiles and all of the people I work with, and I think that adds to the richness and the value of the piece.”
W+S: HOW DID YOU WORK WITH THIS FABRIC?
Lily Forbes Shafroth: When working with recycled materials it is important to make sure they are clean and suitable, not torn. I worked directly with Suman–she’s the main master cutter of the women at WORK+SHELTER. I got to spend a lot of time with her going through each individual sari, plotting out where we were going to cut things and design the items through the sari essentially.
If some of the saris are discolored in any way, I work with a local dyer to have the whole piece redyed. He has a color sheet and you basically have to dye what is compatible with the consistent color. Because it’s silk, you don’t want to overtreat it. Silk is so delicate. You cannot bleach silk; there are definitely limitations. That goes into how I source saris in general. I don’t want to buy a ton that I have to do extra work on.
“There is a whole industry where these saris in general are being sold by people as their main source of income. There’s a whole chain of people and industry–that is what’s so captivating about India. The economy is so layered and there are so many hands that go into the production and creation of goods.”
W+S: HOW ARE THE SARIS TURNED INTO ROBES?
Lily Forbes Shafroth: I created a capsule collection of unique robes made from the recycled saris. It was amazing because there is so much intricacy in each sari with the embroidery and the patterns. They were all so vibrant, so it wasn’t so much of me creating a color theme, but more about me looking through all of these saris and choosing ones that I loved. It was a really cool experience for me to be able to take the designs of each individual sari and translate them onto each individual robe. I was able to play with the idea of having a different pattern on the collar or the tie, than the pattern of the actual robe. It was very playful.
A big THANK YOU goes out to Lily Forbes Shafroth for allowing us to speak with her and share her story. We are pleased to say that LILY FORBES Co. just placed an order with us for its second round of upcycled sari silk robes! Stay tuned for those new patterns and see what is currently in stock HERE.
Working with designers like Lily Forbes is a joy. You can tell by Lily’s tone when she talks about the process that she deeply cares about how each piece is created, and the entire supply chain that enables her designs to come to life. The decisions she has made as a designer, in this project and others, have real outcomes. For example, by purchasing recycled sari silk from Mini, Lily is supporting Mini to provide for herself and her family. And of course by collaborating with WORK+SHELTER on this project Lily is supporting a woman-owned, woman-led, woman-made organization that was built, as its core, to help women in need.
Aside from the social impacts, I can’t think of a more eco-friendly material than recycled sari silk. Creating any type of fabric from scratch requires a great deal of water and chemicals. By recycling already existing fabric, Lily is cutting down on water usage, chemical usage, and overall energy consumption.
If you’re thinking about designing with recycled saris, I’d like to leave you with some ideas:
- Garments including blouses and other tops that would look nice either sheer or lined
- Scrunchies (made from scraps!)
- Lining for bags including dopp kits, zip pouches, or totes (see slide #21)
- Packaging such as drawstring bags that can be a free giveaway for your clients
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