Circularity Study: Sweaters Made from Recycled Denim

December 12, 2022 - New York City, NY

We designed a sweater with a simple question in mind: how can we make a functional mid-weight sweater without sacrificing beauty or sustainability? Purpose was our number one goal, but we couldn’t ignore the cultural importance of style- nor did we want to. Likewise, you cannot set up a supply chain without creating ecological goals or boundaries. These three forces are the epitome of our design journey; one goal simply can’t be mentioned without the others.

The sweater is no-nonsense with clean finishing at the sleeves and waist, a vertical rib for increased horizontal elasticity, and a raglan sleeve for mobility, universal fit, and a softened silhouette. The original reference is a vintage military sweater (which can be a great option if you are trying to shop consciously on a budget!). We then emphasized the raglan armhole via a reverse linking technique, which keeps the seam off the wearer’s body and highlights the low-waste construction that our factory specializes in. That manufacturer is a short drive from our founder Avery’s childhood home in St. Louis, so we were eager to work with them! Their production process knits pattern pieces to shape, vastly decreasing waste compared to traditional cutting and sewing. It is estimated to be 2-3% of the sweater’s final mass.

To balance the visual intensity of the seams, we added a jersey curl to the neckline with a similar weight. The body as a whole is elongating and can easily be styled with both a muscle or oversized fit. The tension of the knit, which took much trial and error, gives the sweater a lovely drape. The foundation to all of these decisions is the yarn. We first had to select the correct one to round out function, beauty, and circularity.

When scouring for the perfect yarn, we only considered yarns that were free of plastic, contained post-consumer material, had a rich hand feel, and were produced with ethical labor. After much research, we fell in love with two yarns, one of which we’ll save for a later surprise. For this application, a blend of recycled cotton and organic cotton was perfect. 48% of the fiber is sourced from discarded denim. Our supplier sources the old jeans, sorts them by wash/shade, shreds the denim, sorts out the fibers, and spins the shredded denim into longer fibers of organic cotton. You can get this yarn in many different gauges, and the vast spectrum of indigos is sublime.

Lastly, we had to ensure we could recycle our sweaters at the end of their life. Unlike other self-proclaimed eco fashion labels, we do not want to speed up the circular life cycle of a garment. The shorter the garment’s life, the more energy it consumes- the less it is worn. In the case that one of our sweaters is unrepairable, we can mechanically shred and recycle or downcycle the fibers. This is far more efficient than chemical recycling. A rule of thumb is if a garment is composed of more than 60% natural fibers, it can be shredded and put to further use.

We hope it never comes to that and you can hand your sweater down one day.

Thanks for your shared curiosity,
Ground Cover