Zero Waste Fashion

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on May 10, 2017.

Tonle has become a hit with ethical consumers worldwide.

In fashion, even the slightest imperfection on a roll of fabric can mean it is rejected, discarded and sent to an overflowing landfill. Ends of rolls are also tossed if they hold limited yardage. One fashion designer had an idea of using fabric that didn’t make the cut and creating a zero-waste line out of it.
Rachel Faller’s Tonle ( line is an ethical and sustainable collection made in Cambodia, a country she visited in college and where her business idea came to fruition.
Faller always wanted to work in fashion but realized she didn’t want to contribute to “an unsustainable and exploitative industry.” A trip to Cambodia with a friend during her studies got her thinking about both. This was a decade before the term fair trade was used that much. She wanted to merge her passion for design with something that was positive for the planet.
Winning a Fulbright grant allowed her to research sustainability through fair trade handicraft production there. For a year, she worked with craft groups and and NGOs. “The groups had best intentions, but many products they made were simply souvenirs. People would buy those products because of the story behind the piece but maybe not because they loved the product on its own. She knew she wanted to develop a fashion line she would want to wear.
Not long after, she started her first fashion line that was later rebranded as tonlé, a sustainable line ethically made. As the company evolved, she made it her mission to make it an entirely zero-waste company, using all factory leftover fabrics and not wasting a single scrap in the process. She started small, with five women working out of their homes. “My initial goal was to provide employment to support the community, but I also wanted it to be eco-friendly.” The biggest challenge was finding sustainable materials. “Few raw materials made in Cambodia were eco- friendly,” Faller explains.
The mainstream garment industry in Cambodia mostly produces t-shirts, so she started working with remnant dealers who look for and sell cut waste and overstock (extra fabric that a brand has because they have simply ordered too much) or defective fabric. Defects could be small. “Here, they cut by machine and if there is a tiny hole in their yardage, they may throw a whole roll away.” They bought all of these unwanted fabrics, mostly jersey, and aimed to make a design that was nice enough to sell at a higher price point.
At tonlé, big pieces of fabrics are fashioned into sportswear–easy t-shirt dresses, bateau tops — many color blocked or with simple graphic designs- and easy pants and rompers. Smaller fabric pieces are used to make woven vests, cardigans, and scarves or knit into new fabrics. Some seasons they don’t know what their remnant finds will be and styles are dependent on the catch.
“I created tonlé to be for every-woman: our clothes can be practical, functional, and comfortable, but at the same time playful and chic,” says the designer. “You can ball them up and throw them in your suitcase and then wear them to a night out. Our materials are soft and natural, our shapes are loose and fit a range of body types, and most of our pieces can be washed in the machine.
“Our handwoven vests, cardigans, and kaftans carry the most intrigue,” says Faller. “They are made from tiny scraps of remnants so they are incredibly time consuming to make and very eco-friendly. The textures are really special. Our buyers consistently comment that they have never seen anything like these before.”
Almost half of her business comes from 60 wholesale accounts in the U.S., Australia, Europe and Asia, from their ecommerce site and stores in Cambodia, and from producing for other designers.
“Most of the buyers are attracted to the product first,” says Faller, but increasingly, more of the buyers want a product with a story.” Faller says more companies are under pressure to buy products that are ethically and sustainably made, and their customers are asking for it.
In the future, she hopes to partner with larger brands and factories to recycle their waste and do collections with them. They would also like to produce in other countries.
Faller has a team of 50 in Cambodia and more in marketing and sales in San Francisco, her home base.
Through her time creating tonlé she has been increasingly vigilant about staying true to her mission. “I think social justice and eco justice go hand in hand. The earth will continue on long after we are here.”
For more information, visit

How Fast Fashion Is Killing Rivers Worldwide

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted on EcoWatch on March 22, 2017.

In the opening scene of the new documentary RiverBlue, deep magenta wastewater spills into a river in China as the voice of fashion designer and activist Orsola de Castro can be heard saying “there is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers.”

In China, the factory of the world, it is estimated that 70 percent of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry. This sobering film is being screened worldwide this year, which premiered March 21 to a sold out crowd at the U.S. at the 25th Annual Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC. The film will be featured at the Cleveland International Film Fest April 3-5 and at many other festivals throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The film examines the destruction of rivers in Asia caused by the largely unregulated textile industry. It also connects today’s consumer appetite for fast fashion as a cause of this environmental degradation and explores how manufacturing innovation could help solve this global problem.

Co-directed by award-winning documentarians David McIlvride and Roger Williams and produced by Lisa Mazzotta, RiverBlue: Can Fashion Save the Planet was almost three years in the making and follows internationally celebrated river conservationist, Mark Angelo, as he paddles the rivers devastated by a toxic brew of chemical waste from the denim and leather industries. Angelo explained that these waterways in China, India and Bangladesh are devoid of life even as local communities rely on these rivers for drinking and bathing. The water in these rivers has become a public health crisis with a high incidence of cancer and gastric and skin issues afflicting those who work in the industry or live nearby.

In Kanpur, India alone there are more than 400 tanneries dumping toxic chromium into the water supply which subsequently turns up in cow’s milk and agriculture products.

“We are committing hydrocide,” said Sunita Narain, director general of Center for Science and the Environment in India. “We are deliberately murdering our rivers.”

The question the film poses to viewers: Are brand-name clothing corporations disregarding the environment in their zeal to make their clothes cheaper and cheaper and what role does the consumer play?

Low cost clothing has a high cost attached to it, one to the environment and public health,” explained Angelo.

The impetus for the film came from a photo McIlvride found online. He and Williams, producer and director of photography, wanted to do a film on rivers. McIlvride found, on Google Images, a photo taken by NASA of China’s Pearl River with a dark blue streak of pollution running through it.

“It was the area of China where most of the blue jeans are manufactured,” he explained. “I thought everyone wears jeans. We could bring this problem to the world stage.”

The team thought if these rivers are being destroyed, what is the human impact? The film drills down to look at how jeans are made, specifically distressed jeans that are so popular now and how the chemicals used in the distressing process have been especially detrimental to workers, rivers and surrounding communities.

This decline has not happened overnight but rather over decades. For the denim industry, it started after the signing of the much talked about North American Free Trade Agreement. From the 1960s to the 1990s, El Paso Texas was the blue jeans capital of the world producing 2 million pair of jeans a week. The North American Free Trade Agreement allowed brands to find cheaper labor outside of the U.S., initially denim manufacturers left for Mexico and subsequently to China, Indonesia and Bangladesh where wages were low and environmental regulations weak.

As prices for denim jeans plummeted and consumers bought more of them, it was the waterways that paid the price. Today, the average American buys four pairs of jeans a year. In Europe they buy 1.5 jeans a year. Now in China’s Xintang province (where the movie’s polluted river photo came from) 300 million pair of jeans are made a year. Consider that one pair of jeans uses 920 gallons of water and many mills produce without water treatment plants.

The solution the film’s producers unveil is two-fold: through brand and mill innovation and consumer education and change.

McIlvride was determined to find brands making jeans without environmental damage. He located the father of distressed jeans: Francoise Girbaud who introduced the eponymous stone washed jean decades ago.

“It took 40 years before we realized what we made and what we did was wrong,” said Girbaud in the film.

In LA now, the designer was trying to re-establish himself as manufacturer of good jeans when McIlvride found him.

“He led us to the Spanish company Jeanologia,” Mcllvride said, “where they distress jeans by engraving images on the fabrics with lasers (light and air) eliminating water without increasing the cost.”

While filming the movie, denim manufacturers barred the filmmakers from shooting inside their facilities. It was not until they edited the film, that an innovative, Milan-based brand allowed them access. Italdenim has put money into water treatment at their mill and created a dye fixant made with chitosan (derived from the exoskeleton of crabs), a substance that is not dangerous for laborers to touch and saves money by allowing reuse of the wastewater.

“Going forward, the leaders of the fashion industry and other industries will have to be much more aggressive in cleaning up and make sure they are not making money off environmental destruction,” said former Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo, one of the experts interviewed in the film.

Angelo agreed: “I think all corporations have to be accountable for their environmental practices. No one has the right to damage or destroy a river. More within the textile sector have to commit to a fashion industry without pollution. And, the consumer has the power but has to seek out clothing made in an environmentally friendly manner. That would go a long way to improve things.”

McIlvride hopes the movie will be an agent of change and thinks teens and college students, who buy the most fast fashion, are the ones who can make the most change.

“They are the ones who should know about this and try to cut back on their consumption. If they see the impact of these retailers, I think they would be receptive to change because they are socially conscious,” he said. “We want this to have an impact on the consumer level. We want consumers to ask themselves, ‘do you really need to buy more clothes.’ Consumerism is the problem.”

We are hoping we are taking the same route that the organic food movement took. When consumers learn more they will make different choices.

A Vow

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on February 22, 2017.

Hip Mata Traders lift women out of poverty

In December 2003 three best friends from Northwestern University set off on a year-long, around-the-world trip, falling in love with the people, markets and textiles of India. They vowed to make the country part of their futures. One of the friends, Maureen Dunn Fetscher, returned the following year and bought lots of textiles and jewelry to bring back to Chicago to sell. Shoppers asked if the things were fair trade. They wondered how they could use their buying dollars to help alleviate the poverty they saw in India?
The following year, Fetscher sought out fair trade producers in India to replicate a few dresses she brought them. She tested the market selling them at street fairs in Chicago, then retail pop ups, then holiday shops. Finally, they approached stores to sell their line and started marketing at trade shows.
In 2007, they registered the name Mata Traders. Today there are over 1,000 artisans in India and Nepal who create Mata Traders clothing and jewelry, wares that are sold in 600 stores in the U.S., Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom and provide a stable source of income to their families in the poorest of communities. Based in Chicago, Illinois, they design the colorful, hand-blocked print dresses and separates sold in 50 states and 12 countries. The friends work with 6 organizations in India and Nepal that educate, employ with fair wages and working conditions, and empower women in marginalized communities.
The printing helps to preserve a high-end cultural craft that is a dying art. “In India many times printing is a small family business,” says Fetscher. “Many prints are hand blocked or stamped.” The art of block printing has been practiced in India since the 12th century. “The printers have hundreds, maybe thousands, of blocks in their workshops from decades of printing. This kind of printing is passed down generationally in families. It had been the main technique for applying prints to textiles in India for centuries, a healthy and robust cottage industry, until the more efficient and economical machine-printing took over, putting many craftspeoples’ livelihoods, and the craft itself, in jeopardy,” Fetscher explains. Stamp designs are traced onto and then carved from wooden blocks, called “bunta.” Large pieces of fabric are fixed to a tabletop and the carved blocks are then dipped into colorful dyes, stamped on the fabric, and the process continues for the entire sheet of fabric, forming an intricate pattern. Block prints can be simple or can involve many layers of printing for each color. A special part of block printed fabrics is their occasional small imperfections – very much a part of the handmade process.
In India they also screen print fabric, a craft that has been in the country for centuries. A screen is burned with a design, fabric is pinned down to a tabletop, ink is pushed through the screen with a squeegee to transfer the design onto the fabric, and the fabric is left outside to dry. Often the process takes two people, one who handles the printing and one who assists in moving the screen and placing it in the appropriate place. Screen printed fabric, just like block printed, can sometimes contain small mistakes or stray spots, making each garment truly one of a kind. 
Hand embroidery is also a craft in India that is seen in the Mata dresses.  “Any pieces with embroidery come from our most traditional artisan group – the women can embroider from their homes and even get together in sewing circles within their communities.” At the co-ops where so many of their dresses are sewn, there are many benefits. They have social workers, health care, literacy training. workshops on financial literacy, domestic violence, hygiene and sanitation, and parenting. “This work helps them support their kids, buy their school supplies and afford educational fees. Many women can go to college or their kids can. That is where the change really happens for their kids. Some women can buy homes,” explains Fetscher. “In India the culture is such that women don’t work outside of the home. 
Workplaces are not inviting. Co-ops are opposite. The women are quiet at first; the co-op then becomes a family with the friendships becoming as important as the work. They become leaders in their communities.” 
In the fair trade model, a company like Mata Traders pays for half of their order advance and other half when we receive the goods. This way we know the artisans are being paid, not just when it sells. Fetscher says the dresses are popular not only for their style but because they are ethically made. “When we first started the line we felt there was a deficit of cute, young clothes that we would wear that are fair trade,” she says. “I do think the story is important to our customers. There are a lot of people who have been searching for ethical.” 
But Fetscher believes more consumers have to embrace the alternatives. “Most consumers don’t even know where their products are made. There has to be public outcry.” While the three friends are entering their 10th year, they keep pushing towards producing more ethically and sustainably while preserving cultural traditions. One goal is to make sure that the fabrics they buy in India are organic. Another is to continue to help the women in their co-ops. “Our motivation is off the charts. We are doing it because they are counting on us but we wouldn’t have this business without them.

Manos Zapotecas

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on February 9, 2017.

Creating handbags to educate

Five years ago, at an age when most are making retirement plans, Shelley Tennyson, who had run an outdoor adventure business, decided to start Mano Zapotecas, working with artisans in Oaxaca, Mexico to make loom woven accessories and home goods. Before her business idea came about, Tennyson had been a volunteer for a microfinance company working in a traditional Mexican village. On average, households in the village had four looms, where extended family—grandparents, sons and their wives would partake in the craft. Grandparents would teach their children to weave and most started at age eight or nine. 
Tennyson got to know the village families through her volunteer work. “We taught them things like money management skills.” What she had found was many families had up to 200 rugs stacked up in their homes that they couldn’t sell. “Tourism was down and big items like rugs were tough to sell so we looked at making woven bags. We felt like high-end bags that catered to the American market would sell. “
So Manos Zapotecas, a fair trade company, was born to help families support themselves while preserving the craft and cultural heritage. The company produces two to three collections a year, giving work to 50 families. One recent collection was inspired by artist Frida Kahlo and featured deep scarlet reds, teals and navy in the palette. 
When they first started creating the collection, the first thing the creative team did was change colorations in the bags. Instead of making them in the traditional bright colors native to Oaxaca, she advised them on on-trend colors to use each season. While their rugs are in intricate designs – they may have six patterns and 12-15 colors (in their culture the more intricate, the more valuable a piece is), the bags are less so. In a bag they will have four colors maximum. Once colors are chosen, they dye the yarn, made of churro wool, and make all the patterns. The women create their own designs based on traditional symbols. “You see a lot of the same symbols from the Navajos, Incas and Aztecs,’ Tennyson explains. “Every indigenous group will say they have certain patterns. If a style is chosen for the line, the villagers will then hire people to produce it. 
A part-time style coordinator lives in Mexico and communicates with the weavers and California where Tennyson is.  “The weavers will suggest a style and size for their pattern and Samantha (the style coordinator) encourages them to mix it up where needed.”
While they sell many bags in the U.S., they are also selling in Australia, Japan and Europe. One recent German account found the company on Instagram. This fall, she started a new line of rugs and pillows in similar color palettes as the bags.  
In the future Tennyson, who employs four people who work from home in Portland, Chico and Oceanside, California in and a production team in Mexico, would like to get into larger U.S. stores and get an Asian distributor (they just found a European one) and have a strong ecommerce site. “We want to get into museums and specialty stores and diversify into other products as well.” 
The impact these bags have had on the community who makes them has been tremendous. Last year the company sent $250,000 to the village and much of it goes to education. Many can now send their children to university, make improvements to their housing and pay for healthcare.  
“For me this business is a natural result of all of my life endeavors, including a love of different languages and cultures, social services and responsibility, business entrepreneurship, and adventure, “says Tennyson. “In some ways it was inevitable that I would start Manos Zapotecas. To the artisans I think it is a way to continue their rich cultural heritage and weaving tradition, and still make a decent living. It also allows them to work at home and stay close to their extended families.”
For more information, visit

Made Institute fashioning entrepreneurs (and more Makers) in Philly

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted on PhillyVoice on January 23, 2017.

Class is in session at Rachel Ford’s Made Institute in Old City.

The first cohort of aspiring designers in the 15-course Designer Development Program is sketching, draping and sewing, and this summer they will have new, bigger digs in the Spring Arts District as one of the centerpiece businesses in a new maker community masterminded by developer Craig Grossman.

Grossman, who worked for the late visionary developer Tony Goldman (SoHo, South Beach), is best known for revamping South 13th Street into the current Midtown Village and sees this section of town as a center for the creative class where art, culture and technology will co-exist. His father worked in the New York garment industry and when he met Ford last summer, they clicked.


Ford, a designer and educator, has a vision, too: a new fashion ecosystem in a city that was once a hub for clothing and textile design and manufacturing.

In August, she will move Made Institute into a 3,400-square-foot space at 448 N. 10th St. The 7-story, 50,000-square-foot building formerly housed the Haverford Cycle Company, one of the last industrial buildings in the area. The Spring Arts District spans from 8th to 12th streets, from Noble to Spring Garden streets.

Grossman’s Arts and Crafts Holdings has also signed leases with two tech firms, Azavea and Boco Digital, and the Roy-Pitz brew pub.

“This pocket seemed like an overlooked area with a great history where some of the original makers of Philadelphia worked,” he said.



Before launching Made Institute, founder and owner Rachel Ford designed for Urban Outfitters and was a cutter/draper for the Philadelphia Opera. “This is a new approach to fashion and design schooling,“ she says. ”We want to help designers launch small fashion companies of their own.“


Made’s space will not only hold classes for aspiring fashion designers but also feature a membership-based “Fashion Co-Working Space,” fully equipped with industrial machinery, cutting tables, dress forms and resources for the growing fashion community in the city. This past August, Ford received a license from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for the program. She has already received more than 50 application requests for the spring session.

She and her staff will train students to become professional sewers, tailors, fashion designers and design entrepreneurs. 

“This is a new approach to fashion and design schooling. We want to help designers launch small fashion companies of their own,” Ford explained. “We focus our curriculum on the entrepreneurial experience, while still presenting the fashion landscape as a whole. A focus on sustainability, resourcefulness, and embracing the latest technical methods are what really set us apart from other school experiences.”

Before launching Made, Ford designed for Urban Outfitters and was a cutter/draper for the Philadelphia Opera. Her instructors have master’s degrees or work as fashion designers, she said. Her students come to her with other degree backgrounds, looking to switch careers or save money getting training. The Designer Development Diploma in Fashion Design, which focuses on teaching start-up designers what they need to know to enter the marketplace, can be completed in one year. The full cost of the diploma is $7,845.

The second prong to the Institute is the launch of their Fashion CoWorking Space, which allows members to use their state-of-the-art machinery, tables and start-up know-how to produce small collections. It will be open late night and offer three levels of membership (4 visits monthly, $75; 12 visits monthly, $150; 25 visits monthly, $300) as well as locker storage, access to machinery and 10 percent off classes. Ford received a $10,000 grant from The Merchants Fund to purchase 12 new industrial sewing machines for the making of both knit and woven garments. 

“Designers that need a home base can avoid the costs of equipment capital and space, and use our studio whenever they need to,” Ford said. “In order to bring some manufacturing back to Philadelphia, there needs to be an investment made by private businesses like us into the design community at large. Our fashion co-working space is created to be a hub, open to the public at a low cost to promote and facilitate Philadelphia design businesses.

“I hope that the space serves to inspire other aspects of the industry, like textile factories, fashion tech resources, and manufacturers will start to pop up and grow to inspire Philly’s designers to stay in Philadelphia and imagine their design goals,” she continued. “Textiles, fashion tech and manufacturing have so much room to grow here in Philadelphia.”



In August, Made Institute is scheduled to move into the former location of the Haverford Cycle Company, in a section of the 50,000-square-foot building at 448 N. 10th Street near the elevated Reading Viaduct.


It was just four years ago Ford opened her doors in Old City teaching skills to the start-up designer, dressmaker, or home sewer with hands on instruction. She expanded to courses in patternmaking, textiles, tailoring and design studio. She will now add product development to the list of services they offer.

“I am now in a position to create a full circle ecosystem, where designers and makers are treated as equals, working together toward the common goal of making beautiful garments for their customers,” she said.

Ford said the program will have two starts a year. While the curriculum she wrote is heavy on technical sewing, a designer who doesn’t care for sewing can come to the fashion gym and pull from their batch of sewers to complete a small collection.

“Small-batch manufacturing and direct-to-consumer selling is a trend in the industry for smaller designers,” she noted.

Her long-term vision addresses the challenges of domestic clothing manufacturing. For many emerging designers, getting into a factory means reaching certain piece minimums that are just too risky for start-up businesses. The challenge for factories is finding sewers to man machines.

The trade of sewing and patternmaking has been harder and harder to sustain in this country, according to Ford.

“With fast fashion driving price points and constant deliveries, American consumers have a false sense of what a garment should cost,” she explained. “This creates a false bottom line for what designers can spend on manufacturing and in turn, what manufacturers can pay their workers. By educating designers and their customers about how a slower, more sustainable fashion landscape can keep sewing jobs domestic, more and more people will seek out sewing as a viable living. Independent designers could hire their own small team of sewers, and manage production themselves.”

Grossman has high hopes for Ford’s enterprise.

“When I was introduced to Rachel and visited Made Studio, I saw the Wolf forms and the machines and it brought me back to visiting my dad in Midtown Manhattan,” said Grossman of his father, who worked in the childrenswear business his whole life.

“I have been intrigued by makers my whole life,” he said. “What Rachel is doing speaks to me. She is a true maker and feel she can attract other makers to this area.”